I’ve got a theory about why there are so many virgin heroines in romance novels, and it has to do with the neuroscience of novelty.
It’s easy to dismiss the abundance of virgins, putting it down to simple historical byproduct – when the genre evolved, middle class women (the target audience of romance novels) were simply assumed to be virgins, and so, therefore, were the heroines. Or we could chalk it up to the inherent conflict – and therefore literary appeal – of a woman trying to protect a resource that someone else is after (this is a kind of “Virginity as Macguffin” hypothesis).
But I think the persistence of virgin heroines into the twenty-first century demands more of an explanation. Certainly not all heroines are virgins, but they’re the clear majority in historical romance and even in contemporary romance they’re disproportionately represented, and they’re, like, POPULAR – the heroine of 50 Shades is a virgin. And the question I have is: what the hell?
I don’t think it’s just historical byproduct or narrative tension, though I do think those are factors.
I think it has to do with novelty – and I mean “novelty” in the sense of “a new sensory experience for the brain to process and attempt to understand.”
In the mesolimbic cortex, we have separate but intertwined systems for liking and wanting. The “liking” system – you might think of it as unconscious “enjoying” – responds to pleasant sensations with cascading sparks of opiods.
The “wanting” system – or “eagerness” system – by contrast, is goal-oriented. It assesses your current physiological and psychological state and asks, “What should I be moving toward right now?” Whatever is important has the greatest “incentive salience.” And the most salient incentive in your environment is what you’ll move toward, pushed along by the dopamine circuits of “eagerness.” Sometimes you like the thing you want, and sometimes you don’t. Wanting isn’t about what you like, it’s about what’s important in that moment.
If you’re in a pretty good mental state, it works roughly like this:
“Crap that feels good!” goes your liking system as you rub your genitals against something.
“Do it some more!” replies your wanting system.
And NOVELTY captures the attention of both these systems.
When a sensation is NEW, it holds your attention and you notice every minute dimension of the experience. Novelty alone can increase the “incentive salience” of a stimulus in the environment – not for everyone and not under all circumstances, but often. Novel experiences result in greater activation of dopamine and opiod circuits in the mesolimbic cortex. Novelty is a big deal in the brain; it turns up the volume on liking and it amplifies the perceived “importance” of a stimulus, to the wanting system.
And “loss of virginity” is nothing if not a NOVEL experience. The first time you put someone’s penis inside your vagina (the nearly universal virginity-loss scenario in romance-novel-land), it’s a NEW experience, almost categorically unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced. Plus it’s got all this cultural stuff, all this Meaning with a Capital M, which further enhances the “importance” as far as your “wanting” system is concerned.
All of this is WAY SUBCONSCIOUS. If you ask someone who’s experiencing it, they won’t be able to articulate it or analyse it, because it’s not about that language and critical thinking processes of the brain. It’s just monkey-level “yowza, wow is that new!”
As a culture, we value novelty. Capitalism has taken full advantage of our monkeybrained attentiveness to novelty. We’ve come to misconstrue the INTENSITY of a novel experience as “THE BEST” experience. But actually, all it takes to match the intensity of a novel experience is a MINDFUL EFFORT to pay attention to what’s happening in the here in and now – I guarantee you that this moment has not happened to you before; it is wholly new, though it probably involves some familiar elements. If you allow the WHOLE of the present moment into your awareness, you’ll see how unique it is. But that’s Advanced Monkey stuff.
Most romance novels are not aiming for Advanced Monkey stuff, they’re aiming for a quick burst of mesolimbic cortical activation.
This has been the Virgin Heroines as Mesolimbic Activation Shortcut Hypothesis. Thank you for listening.