How realistic is the contemporary virgin?

First off, welcome to my new followers! *waves* Just so you know, I’m a romance writer, so sometimes I blog aboout things relevant to all writers and sometimes I focus posts on the romance genre. Please feel free to comment and share even if you’re not a romance reader.

For those old followers (I prefer to think of you as “seasoned”, not old) who don’t know, my last post was Freshly Pressed yesterday, so it was on WordPress.com‘s homepage.  My blog picked up quite a few new followers, and I look forward to getting to know you all better.

Now for today’s post, which is cross-posted at The Season.

When I started reading romance *mumble mumble* years (okay, decades) ago, it was nearly impossible to find a heroine who’d had sex before meeting the hero. While this is completely understandable and realistic in historical romance, it’s always seemed curious to me that contemporary adult women were virgins.

Most of them weren’t just virgins but were about as inexperienced as I was at 14. (That is, not experienced at all).

As a teenager, I enjoyed reading about women who were a decade older but just as inexperienced as me. Considering I went to a religious high school, I knew sex would remain a vicarious experience for many years, and I’d probably end up like those heroines. Watching their long wait pay off with a hot man made me happy not to experiment with fumbling teenage boys.

I was also surrounded by messages from other forms of media telling me it wasn’t normal for teenagers to be virgins. TV, music, films—they all made me feel my friends and I were strange, while romance novels encouraged me that good things come to those who wait.

A couple of decades later, readers tend to complain when an adult heroine is a virgin. It seems unrealistic. Or perhaps it’s offensive to subject heroines to centuries-old double standards that real-life women are finally shattering.

But how realistic are contemporary adult virgins?

According to the U.S. national Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2009, 46% of 9th-12th graders have had sex. That number was down from 54% in 1991 (around the time I started reading romance). A slim majority of teens are reaching adulthood as virgins.

But then, of course, there’s college.

Even though they tend not to be virgins, most contemporary heroines are far from being very experienced. They’ve often had one or two partners who didn’t satisfy them. And many have abstained from sex for over a year.

So how realistic is this? Another national sex study, which looked at the sexual behaviors of Americans aged 14-94, asked women and men whether they’d had vaginal intercourse in the past year. 87% of women aged 25-29 said they had. The number goes down as women get older (see this graph). I’m guessing the percentage of romance heroines in that age group who have had sex in the last year is much lower.

Finding heroines who have extensive sexual experience is rare, but this year at least one of the contemporary novels up for a RITA award features a heroine who has quite a past. I haven’t read Lead Me On by Victoria Dahl yet, but I’ve ordered it (along with all the other contemporary single title finalists) and can’t wait to see how different the heroine is.

What do you think about virgin women in contemporary romance? Do you think they reflect real women’s sexual experience? If not, do you want them to?

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19 Comments

Filed under Thoughtfulness

19 responses to “How realistic is the contemporary virgin?

  1. I’ve written inexperienced heroines (and then there was the book where the heroine actually had more experience than the hero), but when I was discussing a potential virginal heroine with the late Barbara Parker, she said it would be unrealistic, unless there was a very good reason for it, such as religion.

    If an author writes a virgin heroine, there needs to be a good setup. And a good author can do it.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    • Katrina

      I’m not sure it’s *that* unrealistic (though the stats I mention above show most women in their 20s have had sex in the last year). But lots of women have reasons for waiting that aren’t strong enough to make it into a novel – they haven’t met the right man, or want to be in love, or worry about intimacy holding them back from career goals. I don’t think many readers would accept those as “realistic” reasons, though.

  2. When I read romances (which isn’t often) it is rare that the female lead has not had sex unless they are under the age of 18. Though I have chosen to abstain from sex until marriage (which I understand is almost unheard of for someone in their 30s), I have come to expect if I want to read a romance novel then my views of sex will not be reflected. My bigger concern than whether the female has experience or not is how descriptive sex is in a romance. I discussed this briefly on my blog this week in my review of Jennifer Crusie’s Anyone But You.

    • Katrina

      I have loads of friends who waited until their wedding night, Donna. Your experience isn’t all that rare, but I agree that most romance won’t reflect your views – unless it’s inspirational romance (though that tends to be religious, and I don’t know if your decision was based on religious beliefs).

  3. I was also an “older” virgin, so reading virginal heroines is no problem for me. Neither is writing them, but I think it doesn’t go over well, unless you’re writing inspy or historical (which I do as well as contemporary). Having a good reason for their choice is important–but then isn’t all character motivation? As a reader, I need to relate to the character in some way, but that’s not usually about their sex life, or lack thereof. 🙂

    • Katrina

      Yes, motivation is definitely important here, but I wonder if we overemphasize romance heroines’ motivations for every single sexual decision they make, in a way that real women don’t do. Then again, this wouldn’t be the first time romance novels have been accused of being less than realistic. 😉

  4. weezee21

    Great post! Thought provoking topic! I am a closeted historical romance reader, and I think the virginal thing comes off as just another part of that world. It may not be my experience, but I have no experience with corsets or horseback riding either, and that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the story. I think that as long as the character is realistic and the story is good, it doesn’t make a big difference. I’m one of those people who thinks contemporary virgins would not be very realistic in general, but if the particular character is well written, then that point becomes moot because the writer MAKES it seem realistic for that character.

    • Katrina

      (Come out of the closet! We’re here for you!)

      Having realistic motivations is key, but I think readers set a very high bar for what would make a woman “realistically” wait. I know loads of women who waited just because they hadn’t met the right man, or wanted to be in love first, or hadn’t met anyone who made them feel comfortable with themselves. But that wouldn’t be a good enough reason in a contemporary romance novel. It’s a shame, I think.

  5. I don’t have a problem with virgins in contemporary romance, because let’s face it, not everyone HAS had sex. Let’s face it. We don’t know how many people lie when it comes to sex surveys.

    What I do have a problem with are virgins of the Diana Palmer pen. Virgins who come across as wide-eyed idiots in the bedroom. “Touch her breast and she will come!”

    Come on, this is 2011. You don’t have to be promiscuous but there’s nothing wrong with having some knowledge of sex, even when you’re not actively experiencing it.

    • Katrina

      Oh, man, I’m so with you on that. I think there are some contemporary novels that feel like they belong to a completely different time, though I’m not sure which time exactly.

      That said, I did convince some very inexperienced guys at my college (UCLA of all places!) that women’s nipples are twist-off. They didn’t believe me until I said, “How else do you think we get the milk in there?”

      Their poor wives.

  6. It would be refreshing, in light of the many emotional and health issues associated with unrestrained sex, to have a few more heroines (and heroes) who for whatever reasons decided to keep a lid on the sex drive. The more we interact with media, paper or otherwise, the more we see that portrayed world as normal – perhaps we could close the floodgates a bit for our young people, using the same ‘de/sensitizing’ process that worked to throw them open?

    • Katrina

      I think that’s a really good point. Do you know of any novels that address some of the emotional and health risks by having characters who’ve been harmed by them?

  7. Echo Rebecca J. She basically said it all. ^^

  8. I strongly suspect that there are more teenage virgins than the survey would have you believe (people tend to lie about sex and sometimes surveys are poorly designed). That said, I have no interest in reading about virgins. With rare exceptions, I find them boring. I also tend to be embarrassed because most authors don’t seem to have a clue where they hymen is actually located.

    • Katrina

      The hymen thing bugs me, too, Suzie. I can’t stand it, especially since it makes me realize how ignorant we women tend to be about our own bodies. (Though, I don’t think we’re alone on that since most men I know have no clue where their prostate is or what it does.)

  9. HoneyB

    I can tell you all from personal experience there isn’t much of anything entertainment wise (books, movies, music, tv, etc), that portray GROWN women as virgins in today’s world. I am a female adult virgin aged 32 and I can only think of 2 instance where I saw adult virgin reflected in contemporary characters. One was Steve Karell in 40 year old virgin and the other was Tori Spelling’s character on 90210 ages ago. Both of them are mostly negative portrayals of adult virgins and I don’t see myself like those two. Non virgins think they know but actually they don’t have the slightest clue what it’s like to live and work in a work where EVERYTHING and I do mean everything from commercials to billboards revolves around sex. It’s a very lonely feeling sometimes. I think many people say ‘good for you!’ and claim to not have issues with virgins — but frankly I don’t beleive this. I’ve found most people consider it freakish, think I’m a lesbian or extremely religious. IMHO, I don’t fit those categories just very afraid and gave up at this point from years of no experience anyway. I guess at this point it’s some kind of phobia, that I don’t have the will nor no how to correct. I’ve resigned myself to the idea of dying a virgin, although this is hard to wrap my brain around. Oh well. It would be neat to read a book about a grown woman who is a virgin and made into a heroine but no, I don’t find it to be realistic for majority of people in the U.S. Likely it would turn into something scoffed at by women and men overall. thank you for reading.

    • Katrina

      HoneyB, thank you so much for sharing your experience. I do have friends who were virgins well into their 30s. Some of them are religious, some scared, some have given up. Some are women and some are men. You’re right – I’m sure it can be a very lonely experience, and I imagine it’s very difficult to tell someone for the first time. I also imagine you get a lot of advice from people who think they know how you should live your life better than you do.

      The first novel manuscript I wrote had a heroine who sounds similar to you. In some ways she was based on me. The older I got without having had a boyfriend, the more pressure I felt and the worse I was convinced I would be at anything physical. Maybe one day it will be published and you will not be made to feel as if your choices are freakish because they aren’t. I’m sorry you’re afraid and have given up. I can tell you that I had to learn to be comfortable with myself and who I was (including the ways my lack of experience had shaped my personality) before I could become a good partner to someone else. I wish the same for you – confidence, happiness, and fulfillment.

      Thank you again for your very thoughtul post.

  10. this30yearoldvirgin

    Hi! I just pressed your article and put in on my blog as a great counterpoint to my own posts. I think, as you’ll see, the contemporary virgin is alive and well. We’re probably a minority. But we’re here, look hard enough and you’ll find us….like unicorns 🙂

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