It is a standard character fixture in every historical romance novel – the hero is a rake, cad, and bounder, and the heroine is a virgin. At her most scandalous, she may have kissed a guy or two. Harking back to the era and the context, this is an entirely natural characteristic of females, as to have sex before marriage would have left them ruined, compromised, possibly even disowned and in a convent. Therefore the stereotype of women being pure while men gallivant around town spreading their seed is entirely justified in historical romance.
However, contemporary romance novels, set in a time with supposed gender equality and women’s liberation, also follow the virgin/man whore plot line to and alarming extent. And what I want to know is, why? It is 2013, and most girls of college student age are sexually active. I’m not saying they’re sluts, I’m not saying they sleep around, but as a society we apparently accept that physical intimacy in a relationship is one of the most important aspects of any healthy relationship. There are obviously the girl-talk discussions over when it’s OK to go to bed with the guy you’re dating, and the best answer is usually when it feels right. I’m not saying women should bulldoze forward and prove their sexual equality by pouncing on every guy who looks interested, what I’m saying is that there is no shame, or character flaw, for not being a virgin in your late teens or early twenties.
And yet, so many books seem keen to push the point. Their amazing, beautiful, funny, passionate heroines, make it to adulthood without ever being remotely interested in anyone, then only have sex with the guy they are completely in love with, who, in the epilogue, they are usually married to.
Fifty Shades of Grey showed a twenty one year old Ana Steele, who is described as beautiful, lovely, and is quite clearly kinky as hell, but had never done more than ‘make out’ with a guy before. The same in Beautiful Disaster – girls swoon over Travis Maddox, who ‘bags’ anything with long legs and boobs on his couch, but he falls for virginal Abby Abernathy. In Fate Interrupted, twenty eight year old Evy had only ever been with her fiance. And then there are the girls who go the other way – the heroines in Bared to You and the Blackstone affair used sex when they were younger to try to deal with what they were going through, and now have very different attitudes.
It seems to me that the gender roles in some of the most celebrated contemporary romance novels are far outdated. A woman can be classy, choosy, and completely in control of her sex life without being a virgin. The same as a man can be sexy, rich and powerful, without living on a diet of one night stands. I had hoped that in this modern day era, while it is a fact that men can get away with more than women, there was in fact some sexual equality, and that women could have healthy sex lives without being looked down upon. It appears I was wrong.
Obviously losing your virginity is a big deal, and shouldn’t be given to just anyone. But it is also true that a girl doesn’t have to be a virgin to be innocent and guileless. Come on guys, we all know that women no longer “lie back and think of England” – it is not scandalous for a girl to enjoy sex, and have more than one sexual partner before she meets Mr Right.