Romance readers everywhere are well-versed in the virginal heroine trope. But it's not just romance novels from the 80s and 90s featuring these untouched, pure women whose lack of sexual experience drives their heroes to new peaks of lust as possessiveness takes over their primitive minds. Not even close. Even today the Virgin Heroine is a popular trope, spilling out of the historical romance sub-genre--where you might expect to find more of it--and into all sub-genres from dark to contemporary to paranormal.
I recently (cough last night cough) reread three Gena Showalter books that came out in the early 2000s and was surprised to find that two of the three heroines were untouched virgins with zero sexual experience (one had never even kissed a man before) and the other was a woman whose only sexual experience with a man was lackluster and thus barely counted as a sexual experience at all. I mean, obviously if you have sex and don't orgasm you might as well not even count it, right? (Read: sarcasm).
Virginal heroes have also gained traction in the romance world lately, in part, I suspect, because their lack of appearance previously has romance readers giddy with the excitement of something new to read. Balancing the scales, if you will. Unsurprisingly these virginal heroes almost never drive their heroines to lose control from the amount of lustful possession flooding through their veins at the knowledge of being their partner's first. I wonder why...
Many readers despise the virgin heroine trope, not liking the way that heroes find new levels of pleasures in the heroine's untouched bodies or the way that these books tend to put a woman's innocence on a high pedestal or even the way sexual women are perceived in the same books (ex. the girl who sleeps around is always the villain). Other readers find enjoyment in the trope, perhaps because it gives them a chance to relive (in a more positive way) what might have been their own less than enjoyable experience or even simply because they enjoy corrupted innocence as a theme. (Author note: no judgement about what anyone likes to read. I have enjoyed the virgin trope, done right, many a time myself).
Whether you love them or hate them or find enjoyment in the trope on a rare occasion, you have to admit that there are some major flaws in virgin romances that absolutely need to be addressed.
First, the hymen isn't a thin piece of muscle covering your vagina that you bust through. In one article by Psychology Today, the author writes, "the cherry-popping myth has us believe that the hymen covers the opening of the vagina like a layer of saran wrap over a bowl of last night's leftovers. [Nor is] the penis like a finger that's been poked through the saran wrap." So why are romance authors (even in recently released romance novels) bracing the hero before having him push through her hymen? A little overkill.
How many of you have heard that riding horses or bikes or whatnot can break your hymen? (I'm raising my hand, by the way). It's simply not true that one rough horse-back ride or bumpy bike ride is going to render you an experienced sexual woman. But it is true that the ring of tissue that makes up the hymen can stretch and tear microscopically over time, meaning that the first time you go to have sex you may discover there is little to no discomfort. If I'm reading a romance novel featuring a virginal heroine in her late twenties it stands to reason that we shouldn't be reading about a heroine's painful tearing of her hymen that causes her entire body to seize up in pain when in reality there's a good chance that her hymen has already stretched over the years to accommodate a penis with ease.
In fact, when women bleed during their first time having sex it isn't because their hymen is tearing in two. It's usually because... dun dun dun... the woman hasn't been properly aroused before the hero went and stuck his dick in her so unceremoniously. What a downer, huh? So, rather than spotting our sheets with chicken blood to trick our heroes into believing we're virgins we should be stock piling lube in their nightstands to make sure we don't have a reason to bleed.
And this little diddy is only going to be pointed at a select few romance novels, so please ignore it's specificity: I don't care what magical fingers a hero has... you cannot just reach into a woman's vagina and tell she's a virgin just like that (snaps fingers). I have read a number (a small number, but a number) of romances where the hero notices the heroine is a virgin during a rough fingering session. Hymens are a thin piece of muscle rimming the inside of a vagina, about 1-2 cms in). Since it doesn't disappear immediately following the loss of said virginity, if by some miracle a man had trained his fingers to pick up on such a small thing, he'd be able to feel it in nearly every woman he pleasured manually. So, he certainly wouldn't be able to tell that that little flap of tissue meant she was a virgin or not.
Let's move on to the fact that in a 2004 study, 52% of women who admitted to having had sex still had medically intact hymens. We were so worried about losing our virginity to bicycles we never stopped to consider that we might still be medical virgins even after having intercourse for the first time. It just goes to show that our hymens shouldn't be depended on to determine our virginal status. They're straight up liars.
So why is there always a moment where the hero can tell the heroine is a virgin by whatever his penis feels inside her vagina? Is it because we're conditioned to think that unless the hero feels physical proof of her virginity he wouldn't believe that she was a virgin? Maybe we should look more into why romance authors don't feel comfortable saying a woman is a virgin without having to physically show it during intercourse.
And on that note, vaginas stretch to accommodate penises. Full stop. So can we just do away with the oh my god, you're a virgin and therefore so tight thing that keeps happening in romance novels? It's not like you have sex for the first time and your vagina doubles in size and never goes back. No man's dick is so big that it's irreparably stretching a woman's vagina. Trust me. And if any woman is so tight that a man needs to physically shove his penis inside her he probably isn't the sex god he's being made out to be. Use some lube, man.
In the end: virginity is a social construct. And sure, we can explore that construct in our romance novels, but let's do it right and with respect.