Sunday, October 09, 2011

So, who have our heroes slept with?

We’re all aware of the sexual double standard. It was still in effect when I was young, although we did escape it for a few years during “the sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s. The double standard was even more rigid in previous centuries in Europe and North America. It held that boys will be boys, even if we don’t want to know all the details of their sexual explorations, but girls had better be virgins. Period. In theory, males were supposed to engage in sex only within the context of marriage, but in practice, they had a great deal of freedom to act as they wished. In contrast, girls were chaperoned until they were married, at which time, their husbands took over managing their behavior.

Punishments for sexual activity were harsh for young women and almost non-existent for young men. Aside from the obvious fact that a young woman might end up unmarried and pregnant, even if she didn’t conceive a child, she’d be scorned as a fallen woman. Her chances of marriage would disappear, robbing her of most opportunities for a decent life.

This historical imbalance between the sexes has to have an impact on our books if we write in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Our unmarried heroines will either be virgins or have had very little sexual experience. However, our heroes are expected to be talented at giving a woman sexual pleasure. Where did he get his knowledge of the female body and sexual response?

In reality, a man could have had experience with young women, but that would likely mean that he’d have taken their virginity without marrying them. Not very heroic. In fact, that would be a really nasty thing for him to do.

He could have enjoyed the services of prostitutes. If he treated them better than their other clients did, that would certainly speak well of him. However, he could easily have contracted a sexually transmitted disease from a prostitute. He might not realize he had until later, after he’d infected his new love, our heroine. In earlier centuries, there would have been fewer medical treatments for those diseases.

The hero and heroine could come to each other with no experience. This would make for a charming book, as the story would unfold with the two of them discovering the joys of giving each other pleasure. Such a plot would require a great many pages to pull off, though. It simply wouldn’t be realistic for the two of them to share a few kisses and then fall into bed. It might work for the man, but a woman experiences a certain amount of pain the first time she makes love. A man with little experience in giving pleasure to a woman would be unlikely to make it good for her. Back to square one.

So, how do we get around this problem?

We could make the woman experienced: for example, she could be a widow. That’s not the standard story line in romance, but it would make for some fun. You could even pair her with an inexperienced man. I did that for my first Spice Brief, the Well-Tutored Lover. It was a fun story.

The other solution I use quite a bit is to give the man experience with widows and adventurous wives. He could get them pregnant, of course, and he could catch a disease from one, but at some point we have to liberate ourselves from reality in order to write fiction. With this scenario, the reader can imagine him how he was as an innocent, young man, eager to please his older and more experienced lover. It gives him another dimension and makes him more lovable.

We can also have fun by inserting the hero’s previous lovers into the current story. What if the hero’s former lover shows up with her daughter at the ball where he’s put himself on the marriage market? She might suggest he marry her daughter and move in with her and her husband. I just did that in a book. Without missing a beat, my hero replied…

“Think of the economy. I could deflower your daughter and cuckold your husband without leaving the house.”

I think it worked.


Claire Robyns said...

“Think of the economy. I could deflower your daughter and cuckold your husband without leaving the house.” ...Love this!!!

This problem is a little easier to address in the medieval Scottish romances - there's a couple of opportunities with the cotters or various people inhabiting the castle without it seeming to vulgar. The restrictions in those times seemed less stringents, especially up in the highlands.

For Regency and Victorian, my preferrence (in what I read) is for the hero to have a long term relationship with a courtesan -- preferrably exclusive, although both parties know this is just a lust affair and will end the moment the hero needs to marry)

Wendy Soliman said...

The double standards, er...suck but I'm of a similar age to you, Alice, and I remember how things were for us back in the day. I have a lot of widows in my historicals, which is one way round the problem.

Alyssa Everett said...

I have to admit, as far as possible I try to gloss over the exact nature of my heroes' sexual experience. Since I write regencies, I assume the hero could afford to keep a mistress (or a string of mistresses), and try not to get more detailed than that.

Susanna Fraser said...

I tend to make my heroes serially monogamous rather than totally promiscuous. That allows me to believe, and therefore write convincingly, that he's A) not diseased, and B) capable of permanent monogamy with the heroine. :-)

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