As I have been busy writing various projects, I began to notice a pattern in my heroes. As first, I was like…nah…he’s…wait…no, he’s…him either…hmm.
All of my heroes are celibate/abstinent for one reason or another when the story begins, and it got me thinking about the sexual lives of romance heroes. It’s possible that I’ve forgotten the status of every hero I’ve read or come across, but in general, romance heroes either have a high body count or are hot, sexy virgins (has anyone come across a fumbling, nerdy virgin hero?), with little variation in experience or sexual choices in between.
Years ago I ticked off a would-be critique partner when I questioned why their hero was a rake when it didn’t even fit with his characterization or his plot arc. Their huffy response was that romance readers expect to read about heroes with tons of experience.
That stuck with me–and stuck in my craw.
Romance heroes are typically granted the license to be more well rounded than romance heroines, by dint of the whole “placeholder” theory, but based on this, they’re just as stunted and boxed into a particular fantasy that “everyone” expects. I cringe at the belief that readers would think less of a hero’s “masculinity” if he does not have a string of ex-girlfriends and mistresses in a little black book. Is it not possible for a hero to be super experienced after a couple of long term relationships –Or would that then shatter the fantasy of the heroine being The One (to rock his world, etc etc)?
Also, in historicals, the rake as the hero can be quite ahistorical after the Restoration Era. For example, I was struck by a segment in Amanda Vickery’s At Home with the Georgians, where she describes how a wife completed a gentleman. The bachelor life placed him outside of true adulthood and prominence (I want to see this in Georgian/Regency!). And though a particular social set of Victorians/Edwardians were notorious bed-hoppers, and the whole “take a lover after giving him heirs” things originated amongst this set, I have found numerous stories of love matches, and their letters, diaries, etc are illuminating.
One bit of historical media that amused and touched me was in an episode of Upstairs Downstairs. Series 4–my favorite, incidentally–is set during WWI. Edward, the footman, and Daisy, the housemaid, fell in love and married before he went off to war. There’s a bit of a role reversal in that the boasting, flirtatious Edward is a virgin, and Daisy, though one too, grew up with six in a bed, so…! And she takes the lead. It was very funny, yet poignant, and made the scene 100% true to their characters (and station)–something that is often missing in the usage of sex in (non erotic?) romance.
I didn’t set out to write all of these celibate heroes, but when I go over their backstories and where they are (personally) the moment they meet the heroine, it makes sense. This isn’t to say I’ll never write a rake, but it must fit his character arc and the story. Otherwise, he will just be a paint-by-numbers hero and it will continue to perpetuate this illogical sexual standard placed on the male characters in the genre (which in turn enforces illogical sexual standards on the female characters).
If, as we in Romland argue, sex in romance exists because it has bearing on the protagonists and the plot, and not as “pr0n,” then it should be just as much a piece of characterization as setting or occupation. It is not a shortcut for “masculinity.”