The Value of Virtue: Sexual Double Standards

Much has been written about the sexual morality of genre romance, and particularly the sexual double standard. In historicals, the hero is a rakish Duke of Slut, the heroine a virgin, even if she’s a widow. Contemporaries follow the same pattern. Even if she’s not actually a virgin, the heroine is typically less experienced than the hero, and her experiences with sex haven’t been positive. I’m exaggerating, but not as much as I wish I were.

I don’t mind any of these scenarios–well, the virgin widow needs to die. What I object to is their ubiquity. As Dear Author’s Janet wrote, in a post which gives a great overview of “Morality and Romance,” in the genre “a woman’s romantic worth has . . . often been associated with her sexual purity.” A man’s sexual experience, on the other hand, makes him an even more valuable conquest. Recently I’ve enjoyed several historicals that challenge the conventional sexual morality of romance in refreshing ways. That they aren’t all new books suggests that romance, like the culture in general, isn’t on some straight path towards liberation but is constantly grappling with questions of sexual morality (this won’t be news to long-time readers of the genre, I’m sure). [Note: what I want to say about Joanna Chambers’ The Lady’s Secret requires some big spoilers, so I’m going to put that part at the end with a warning.]

Barbara Metzger, Snowdrops and Scandalbroth (1997)

In the first chapter of this traditional Regency, Courtney Choate, Viscount Chase, and his fiancée take shelter from a snowstorm in a barn. One thing leads to another . . . but not in the way a romance reader might expect. Courtney, sickened by the way his father’s philandering distressed his mother, has remained a virgin and plans to make it to his wedding “intact.” But when he tells the lovely Adelina that “We better stop while we can” (oh, romance heroes, it really is possible to stop any time), we get this delightfully role-reversed dialogue:

“You want me, don’t you?” [Adelina asked].

“Of course I do, but I can wait.”

“Till June?” was the tortured reply. “If you loved me, you’d prove it to me tonight.”

“Please, my dear, we have to be strong.”

“But why? It’s not such a big thing. I mean, it’s not as if it’s the first time or anything.”

If the enthusiastic Adelina were the hero (Adelbert?), he would soon win the virginal heroine over, give her a great orgasm, and all would be well. But she isn’t. And as you might have guessed, her lack of virginity means she isn’t the heroine, either. Metzger pokes fun at conventional gendered scripts for the “first time” here, but she also upholds the ideal of the virgin heroine. That ideal is imposed by the hero, but he holds himself to it too, with some difficulty, so I didn’t mind. (I was less impressed by the fact that when we meet Adelina again, she’s been punished for her enjoyment of sex with an unattractive older husband. And she’s gotten fat, sure mark of villainy.)

Now Courtney has a problem. He’s seen as unmanly and unmarriageable because he dumped a girl and doesn’t have a mistress. A stint in the army doesn’t help, so when, in another snowstorm, he encounters Kathlyn Partland, an orphan who has just lost her position as governess, he offers her the role of his pretend mistress. A few public appearances with her will restore his reputation for virility, and he can go courting. There’s more poking at the classic Regency rake: as every woman wants to marry one, Courtney’s friends and grandfather are relieved to find he’s sowing wild oats at last.

Eventually, Kathlyn and Courtney confront the fact that a reputation is at least as important for a spinster schoolteacher as for a debutante. Fortunately, Courtney’s in love, and even more fortunately, he’s discovered that Kathlyn is the granddaughter of a lord:

“You are a gently bred female of good family whose reputation, once besmirched, can never be restored except by the bonds of holy matrimony.”

Nice proposal, Court! The novel never quite addressed the class double standard here. Would Courtney have dared to marry Kathlyn if she were not of good family? I guess we’re supposed to think so. But this isn’t the only novel where deus ex machina aristocratic birth comes in to save the day. Snowdrops and Scandalbroth was fun, and it questions the glorification of the rake in Regency romance. But it reinscribes a lot of conventional (and conservative) views about class, sex and gender in the end.

Madeleine E. Robins, Point of Honour (2003)

Despite the blurb describing it as “an elegant Regency romance,” this is not one. I discovered it thanks to Victoria Janssen’s seductive post at Criminal Element, which described it as Regency noir detective fiction (in a slightly alternate Regency world). Robins previously wrote romance, though, and the book plays with romance elements. I loved it, but don’t expect a romance-style HEA.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Fallen Woman of good family must, soon or late, descend to whoredom.

From the novel’s first line, it’s clear we’re not in the world of Jane Austen, or of any of the Regency romance authors who claim her as inspiration. Our heroine, Sarah Tolerance, is Fallen, having eloped with her brother’s fencing master and failed to marry him. But she refuses to descend to whoredom, preferring to work as a private Inquiry Agent, protecting her right to make choices about her own body and sexuality even when her society believes she has forfeited that right. Many of the men she meets, though, assume that she is sexually available simply because she is neither a virgin nor a married woman.

One of the ironies of this novel, pointed up by the title, is that though Miss Tolerance has supposedly lost her honour/virtue/reputation (euphemisms for virginity used synonymously in Regency romance), in fact she has more honour, and is more virtuous, than many of the respectable people who employ her. Like any good noir detective, she pays a price for being an honourable person in a corrupt world, and in upholding her honour she has to reject some of the virtues associated with the typical romance heroine.

“I lost my virginity. I lost my innocence. The world seems to regard this as the same thing as honor, but I do not,” Miss Tolerance insists. And the novel, like its heroine, defines a woman’s worth the same way it defines a man’s: by the full array of her choices and actions rather than simply the sexual ones. In doing so, it defies her society, and to some extent, still, our own.

Spoilery bit on A Lady’s Secret (non spoilery comments here)

The “black moment” of this novel turns on the class difference between Nathan and Georgy (while she proves to be the legitimate daughter of an Earl, she and her brother aren’t recognized. She’s been raised by her actress mother and works in a theatre).  Georgy gives herself to Nathan freely, because she loves him. Her friend Lily is appalled, arguing that taking a lover is fine for a woman like her who “wasn’t born with a reputation,” but that Georgy is a lady and has “thrown herself away,” lost her chance for marriage to a man like Nathan. 

Lily accuses Nathan of ruining Georgy, but he scoffs at the idea: “Ruined her? . . . Remind me who we’re talking about, Princess Charlotte?” He suspects that the two women are trying to entrap him into marrying Georgy. In that moment, Georgy sees that Nathan doesn’t truly value her or the gift she’s given him. She isn’t worth as much as a lady. Of course, since this is a romance, Nathan recognizes his mistake and his love for Georgy (a bit quickly and easily, I thought). In true fairy-tale style, Georgy’s brother is recognized as the heir and they are able to take their place in society. As with Metzger’s book, I felt the class issues were raised–and much more forcefully here–but not fully challenged. Georgy is a “princess” so her reputation does have value. It’s neither her birth nor her virginity that Nathan values her for, in the end, but her aristocratic status does eliminate a lot of the obstacles to their marriage and threats to its long-term happiness. I admired Chamber’s book for exposing its hero’s class privilege, but the romance conventions of the ending allow him, and us, to fall comfortably back into them.

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13 Responses to The Value of Virtue: Sexual Double Standards

  1. You focus on the moral and social issues, but my first thought, on learning that the hero is a rake, is always “does he have syphilis/gonorrhea”?

    • lizmc2 says:

      I think that reveals just how much of a fantasy/literary construct the rake is. Why is the appeal so persistent? (I know some of the arguments, but still). One reason I wrote the post was that encountering books that challenge the typical rake/innocent pairing in some way made me realize just how much I unconsciously accept that as “natural” or right, at least when I’m reading. I do think that all those stories reflect and reinforce a lot of social attitudes to sexuality.

  2. willaful says:

    Interesting points. It is hard to find true challenges, isn’t it… how would you rate Silk if for Seduction, if you’ve read it? I can’t decide if the ending is cop-out or not.

  3. Merrian says:

    I have always loved the Sarah Tolerance books because the heroine doesn’t apologise for her choices despite the often unfair consequences. I think Laura’s comment is also about how these character types are presented without the consequences of their choices being allowed (author’s choice after all) to shape identity and destiny. Although I would say that in P&P Wickham is a rake and his life with Lydia is a conseqence.

    I often wonder if a man is presented as a rake because the author wants to present someone who is free to act – he is not bound by traditional responsibilities or mores. It is not just that because he is male he has more power to act/greater access to possibilities it is that he is an outsider. Of course that is an illusion no one is completely outside society and there are consequences to being an outsider.

    So thinking this I wonder if being a virgin in an historical or less/unhappily experienced in a contemporary is the female equivalence of outsiderness giving us the bringing into society role of romance a la Pamela Regis. I also am thinking about agency. That a woman can have agency only in terms of her capacity to manage the conseqences of her choices and that of course is limited in historicals with the risk of pregnancy, or illness and losing supports. I also wonder whether in contemporary stories with the inexperienced often isolated woman the relationship is presented as giving the woman more agency over her sexual satisfaction and future life. The question arises that if she is sexually confident and experienced, happy with her work and life is wanting to share that enough of a journey for the readers? Or does the virgin/inexprienced/isolated woman represent or give us a way of negotiating our own brokenness towards agency?

    • “Although I would say that in P&P Wickham is a rake and his life with Lydia is a conseqence.”

      With Austen there are unequal consequences for men and for women i.e. Lydia would have suffered a lot more than Wickham if they hadn’t married and Willoughby does fairly well financially out of his marriage, even though he

      could not hear of her [Marianne’s] marriage without a pang; and his punishment was soon afterwards complete in the voluntary forgiveness of Mrs Smith, who, by stating his marriage with a woman of character, as the source of her clemency, gave him reason for believing that had he behaved with honour towards Marianne, he might at once have been happy and rich.

      but Austen is aware of this inequality and states quite clearly, in the context of the punishment for Maria Rushworth and Henry Crawford, that

      In this world, the penalty is less equal than could be wished; but without presuming to look forward to a juster appointment hereafter, we may fairly consider a man of sense like Henry Crawford, to be providing for himself no small portion of vexation and regret.

    • I also wonder whether in contemporary stories with the inexperienced often isolated woman the relationship is presented as giving the woman more agency over her sexual satisfaction and future life.

      Jon Cook has suggested that the dynamic between many heroes and heroines is presented as

      a bargain: his love for her sex. […] He finds pleasure in the confession of love because love is something he has learned to deny and fear, often as the result of a terrible experience in earlier life. She finds pleasure in the confession of sex because she can give freely to the hero what he has brought about in her and not fear the ruin of her identity. The formula of the bargain creates a kind of symmetry, a pretence of equality. The father of desire meets the mother of love and they exchange gifts. Each makes the other complete in a fantasy of total union.

      But the bargain is also, on the heroine’s part, about attaching desire to social convention, to propriety, to marriage. It is part of her traditional role that she should represent virtue. […] Her function is to […] reassure us that, in the end, desire and the law are compatible

      Kyra Kramer and I quoted Cook in our essay about Glittery HooHas, Mighty Wangs, Prisms and Phalluses and we noted that another part of the bargain usually involves the heroine’s social status being improved and/or she gains financially from the relationship. However, since romance is supposed to be about love, it’s not surprising that the novels will tend to focus on the bargain being about sex (as you say, she often gains sexual agency) and emotions (he learns how to express himself emotionally in a non-destructive way).

      • lizmc2 says:

        Wow, you guys were thinking while I was off Christmas shopping. Merrian, that is a very generous reading of these kinds of plots. I think sometimes I focus too much on the way books disappoint me and not enough on what they offer, if you see what I mean. If I want to read a book where the move to agency is not negotiated through sex and love, I guess that I should (as Laura’s comments imply) read something besides a romance.

        I think one reason the rake/innocent pairing troubles me is that these women often don’t seem to have much sexual agency. That is, their pleasure in sex depends on the hero, his expertise and his instruction. Since it’s a romance and they’re going to live HEA, we aren’t supposed to think about whether she could use what she learns from him to find pleasure elsewhere. And often I find that heroines are passive in sex scenes–the fantasy is about lying back and being pleasured–which makes it odd to me when the hero finds it’s the best he’s ever had. I like to find a book in which the heroine sometimes takes control and enjoys giving pleasure to the hero, as well, in which sexual agency is shared more equally between the partners. That doesn’t necessarily require an experienced heroine, but it’s more common with one.

  4. If I want to read a book where the move to agency is not negotiated through sex and love, I guess that I should (as Laura’s comments imply) read something besides a romance.

    I didn’t mean to imply that all romances involve the heroine giving her virginity and emotional wisdom and in return receiving sexual knowledge and material wealth. The rake and the innocent, virtuous virgin who tames him have been around since at least Richardson’s Pamela but there are alternatives too.

  5. Merrian says:

    I would highly recommend any book by Shelly Laurenston, Liz. Her heroines give as good as they get and are bosses of their Alpha blokes. They are all about shifters and funny and very snarky and about female friendship. You have to squint a bit when it comes to the logic of the world building though. The Magnus Pack trilogy (linked but stand alone stories ‘Pack Challenge’ (the h&h celebrate getting tubes tied and a vasectomy by getting tattoos), ‘Go Fetch’, ‘Here Kitty, Kitty’) is my long term favourite series and ‘Hunting Season’ currently only one book in hopefully a series another.

    I think your concerns also touch on why I have slid happily into m/m as my key genre read along with UF. I don’t read contemporary or historical m/f much at all these days and sometime I will pick up an m/f only because I want to understand what everyone is talking about. I have just finished KA Mitchell’s ‘Bad Boyfriend’ and Sarah Black’s ‘Marathon Cowboys’ and loved them very much. Loved the passion, sex, love and respect between the m/m partners in these two stories and I don’t think I would be reading the same stories at all if they were m/f leads.

    I think it is telling that the Sarah Tolerance stories are set in an alternate Regency because unless she cross-dressed her solution wouldn’t have been possible in ours I think, i.e we would not be able to suspend or disbelief enough to go on with the stories.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I think Sarah Tolerance’s cross-dressing is really interesting. She doesn’t really try to pass as male but relies on people in a city not looking below the surface or paying much attention (this is actually how Sherlock Holmes does a lot of his tricks–relies on surface appearances and stereotypical dress/behavior). It’s as if her anomolous moral status, Fallen but not a whore, gives her an anomolous gender status as well. And with that comes a certain kind of freedom, although she also has to keep herself within certain limits if she wants to preserve her freedom and tenuous status.

      • Merrian says:

        I agree but I was also thinking in our world of the 17th century woman who serve 15 odd years as a dragoon before being found out due to injuries (as an old woman I think she became a Chelsea pensioner) and James Barry who completed a medical degree at Edinburgh, joining the British Army in 1813 and becoming the Surgeon General. Her gender was discovered after her death in 1865. I don’t think the way Sarah is and how she acts would have passed in our world. It would take the complete immersion that these women undertook.

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