1.1 Male Virginity
Jonathan A. Allan
My dissertation, The Sexual Scripture: A Study of Male Virginity in Romance, revolves around one small quotation from the notebooks of Northrop Frye: “this prudery [about virginity] is structural, not moral” (348). In his notebooks, Frye theorizes the romance novel, mostly in terms of ‘high’ literature (although he was aware of popular literature). I was quite interested in how these ideas would translate to popular literature. I wrote many pages on this prudery, as Frye would have it, and I could not come to a point where his argument made sense to me. After having written the bulk of an earlier draft of the dissertation, I started to work seriously on this concern.
My interest in virginity started in a course on monstrous women that I took at Brock University while completing an M.A. in Studies in Comparative Literatures and Arts. At the time, Professor Cristina Santos was working on the role of vampirism and witchery in the construction of female identity, and I was taken by the representation of the female virgin as monstrous. I proceeded to work through some of the questions associated with this fascinating topic, ultimately publishing an article on the theorization of monstrosity and narrative. While finishing the final revision of this article, I spoke with Prof. Santos again. This conversation got me thinking about virginity in romance novels and led me to consider an investigation of male virginity.
My dissertation looks at how literary scholars might begin to theorize and polemicize the representation of male virginity. In many ways, this is an uncomfortable topic of study because it seems to run counter to the standard conceptualization of virginity as feminine. How does one define male virginity, let alone identify the male virgin? I argue against the persistence of hymeneutics – a hermeneutic gesture that is dependent upon the hymen as the sign of the female virgin – and for a reading of virginity that draws on theories of subjectivity, performativity and the hermeneutic construction and understanding of self. I have recently begun to focus more specifically on popular literature; although my project opens with a historical treatment of male virginity, it includes popular romance novels from the Harlequin to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, thus involving male virgins from Galahad to Edward Cullen.
Once I began to present my research at conferences, I quickly realized that there was an interest in this topic; I have been invited to submit two articles on male virginity to two projects. Additionally, I am currently organizing a collected edition on virginity. In this volume, Prof. Santos and I reconsider virginity in the twenty-first century by bringing together historical and contemporary manifestations. A difficulty that arises working in the budding field of virginity studies is that, while there is a wealth of material on medieval virginity, vestal virgins and some renaissance virgins, there is very little treatment of modern virgins from cultural and literary perspectives. Our book will present an interdisciplinary approach to the representation of virginity in contemporary culture. My particular contribution, “How Pure Are Your Balls? True Love Revolution, Purity Balls, and the American Virgin,” considers abstinence and virginity as quest narratives in the contemporary cultural context, drawing on literature, film and news media.
My research is engaged in an interdisciplinary discussion of virginity that moves beyond the standard definition(s) of virginity. What happens when we think about the time spent as a virgin? The time lost in virginity? This involves questions of temporality, subjectivity, performance and identity which cross gender and sexual divisions.
Frye, Northrop. Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks, 1982-1990: Architecture of the Spiritual World. Vol. 5. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Print.
Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight. New York; Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2005. Print.
Jonathan A. Allan is a fourth-year PhD student at the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. Jonathan specializes in the study of male virginity and is currently co-authoring a book on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.