Romance Pet Peeves: Hymens and Virginity
I could probably write a 10-page paper on this topic, but I’ll try to keep it brief. Let’s start by getting the elephants out of the way.
- The hymen that most people believe in doesn’t exist.
- Virginity is a social construct, not a medical state.
I can’t really say it better than this Adam Ruins Everything video, so I won’t try (but I’ll discuss how it relates to romance after you’ve watched it).
There are a few things she didn’t mention (it is a very brief video), like how it is possible to have a hymen that looks like the “myth” example–but in those cases it causes exactly the problems she mentioned with menstruation (among other issues). Also, hymens come in all different shapes and sizes, so yes, there are some women who are going to have difficulties no matter what. But for most women, when they are aroused, the entire vaginal canal including the hymen relaxes and widens and things get nice and wet, meaning it is totally possible for sex never to hurt even the first time, and for a woman’s hymen to remain intact for her whole life.
Let me also caveat that I’m totally fine with awkward, uncomfortable first sex scenes in romance. Or even painful sex scenes when everyone is inexperienced or the woman is too nervous and that keeps her from being aroused. All of those things happen in real life, and I’m fine with handling that in fiction, even romance. Also, there are an increasing number of authors who treat virginity and sex much more realistically, and so my hope and dream is that this pet peeve will no longer be a thing in another decade or so.
But getting back to the pet peeve: what I don’t like are the scenes where everything is going swimmingly and the woman is extremely aroused and yet she still feels horrific pain. If we assume she has a larger-than-normal hymen, she’s going to continue to feel pain during intercourse for a while–possibly forever. If that’s true, it should be part of the story. But it never is. It’s always better the second time, despite some “soreness.”
Romance writers, please stop perpetuating hymen myths. I will suspend my disbelief for a couple to have lots of sex on their wedding night because this is a woman’s empowerment fantasy and sex all night is a fun ideal, but I will not do so for a myth that harms women and is used to subjugate, punish, and control them.
Now let’s tackle the idea of virginity.
There’s so much to unpack here, and I’m not going to be able to cover everything, so this is by no means an exhaustive look at the concept. But that’s exactly what it is–a concept. And as long as we’re all able to agree on that, then we can also agree that concepts change over time, and between individuals. One person’s idea of virginity might be that people are still virgins until either their parts are inserted into something else or something is inserted into their parts (a very hetero-normative idea of virginity). Others might consider any activity involving their genitals to be enough to “lose their virginity.” And there are thousands of variations in between and beyond.
But let’s get back to that phrase. “Lose their virginity.”
If virginity is a concept, how can it be lost?
I still struggle with this myself, because I think first-time sexual experiences are special and should be marked in some way. But I don’t like treating virginity as something that can be given–or taken. The problem stems from the idea of loss–as though virginity is a tangible marker of goodness that must be shielded and held close (note that virtue and innocence are all tied in here culturally, too).
Virginity is not inherently good or evil in and of itself, and neither is having sex (however you define sex). But I do think both are important, and that bodily autonomy and choice are also important, which is why when you choose to have sex for the first time that should be celebrated–even if it’s only in your own head. Calling it a “loss” of something is a slippery spiral into shame.
Instead, I prefer to think of it as crossing a threshold. What’s on the other side may hold no appeal for someone (I have several asexual friends who have no interest in crossing said threshold, for example), or it may be something desperately desired–or anywhere in between. Going to new places means change–but nothing is lost or gained except a different perspective.
That’s the way I approach virginity in my books. In Memories of Magic, Savit considered the active pursuit of his own pleasure to be the “line” inside of him that he had difficulty crossing. He could give Olivia pleasure, and even incidentally receive it as long as what was happening made her happy, but to seek pleasure went against what he’d been taught about using his magic. But he really wanted to cross the line. Fear held him back, not a lack of interest.
The only other virgin so far was Sorcha in A Theft of Magic, and that was only in the penetration/intercourse sense. She’d already experimented and was comfortable with her sexuality. And when the time came, she chose to cross her threshold with Ronan.
Most of my romance pet peeves are caused by lazy writing, but this one is based in a deeply-entrenched patriarchal world view. Lazy writing can be overcome with effort and knowledge, but this one is, understandably, a little harder because it means re-examining a lifetime’s-worth of beliefs and misconceptions. And then choosing a different path.
Romance writers (and everyone considering sex scenes with virgins)–please consider breaking with the trend. Look at virginity differently. Treat it more realistically in bed–which only means good things for your heroines, since in most cases any discomfort she feels will be from positioning/getting used to a new sensation. And you can easily write that into the scene as a source of humor or a way to have the characters become more intimate emotionally and mentally as well as physically. (Or not, if that’s the point of the scene).
If you made it this far in the blog post, congratulations! I know that was a lot. But it’s a complicated topic. In the future, I’ll be talking about things like this in audio form on my new podcast–so that should be slightly more entertaining.