Vivacious literary and cultural historian Jodi McAlister defines virginity as “the only word in the English language that describes having never done something” much to the amusement of an attentive Melbourne Writers Festival audience.
In an engaging discussion, Jodi asked romance writer Melanie Milburne and Young Adult author Fiona Wood to share the ways in which virginity is represented in their respective fields of fiction.
|L to R: Fiona Wood, Melanie Milburne, Jody McAlister.|
Pic by Sarah Hearn.
Raw Blue is a story by Kirsty Eagar about a young girl who loses her virginity through rape. Fiona Wood mentioned the novel as an example of the broad variety of ways that YA fiction represents virginity loss. She discussed Losing It – a humorous tale from Julia Lawrinson that explores the unromantic realities of the first teenage sexual experience. In Fiona’s own YA novel Wildlife, the teenage protagonist reconstructs her relationship with her boyfriend after losing her virginity. This prompted a clever remark from Jodi that this character goes against the ‘Pringles’principle: once you start, you can’t stop.
|Fiona Wood's Wildlife, signed by the author.|
Pic by Sarah Hearn.
Giving young adults information about sex through fiction is, according to Fiona, an important “alternative voice” that deglamourizes the experience and acts as an antidote to the dominant raunch culture. Media hyper-sexualisation of girls sees them attending emergency departments with sex-related injuries and seeking labiaplasty operations.
In romance writing, Melanie explained that virginity loss is embedded in the narrative of the fictional relationship; novels depict ‘adamant virgins’ choosing a celibate lifestyle and ‘non-virgin virgins’ who have not yet found their ‘hero’. She described heroines being swept off their feet, having fabulous sex and a strong mutual attraction. Much of the discussion centred on overtones of rape in the description of these sexual encounters. The audience cheered at the panel’s call for an end to this patriarchal literary culture.
Novels about gay and lesbian relationships are gaining wider popularity in YA fiction and romance. The panellists discussed the complex nature of ‘technical virginity’ with the audience in relation to gay and lesbian relationships.
Important to both genres is the exploration of issues of sexual abuse. An audience member stated that one in four girls are sexually abused in their lifetime. Melanie described the journey of a heroine in one of her novels who works through the aftermath of her sexual abuse. Fiona praised Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak for its candid depiction of rape and recovery. Jodi noted that this narrative is often cathartic for both author and reader.
Together, the panel concluded that characters losing their virginity in romance novels and YA fiction espouse different meanings and purposes. For romance readers, virginity loss becomes part of the development of a relationship between two protagonists, and often signals their new start to life as a couple.
Young Adult stories instead use the loss of virginity as the inciting event in the coming of age narrative.