Rules of romance reflect cultural preferences.

Love Affairs Etiquette

by Barrett Barlowe

Assigning any rules of etiquette to illicit love affairs might seem like an odd idea, but playing the rules of "the game" in the past allowed certain members of society leeway in liaisons. Although the sexual revolution of the 1960s did away with many societal restrictions placed on women, the age of social networking websites puts private lives on public display once again.

1. History/18th century

Societies often based morality on practical considerations. The high mortality rate associated with pregnancy and childbirth put a damper of many women's curiosity about sex before marriage. Young women needed to marry or enter a convent to survive, and contemporaries scrutinized her conduct. Breaking the rules could mean being banished from society and from any chance at a comfortable lifestyle. Once married, the aristocracy of Europe gave couples leeway to pursue affairs--as long as the participants were discreet. Middle-class morality was stricter with its members, but peasants accepted premarital sex and pregnancy--perhaps as a way of proving fertility before creating a contract to marry. Life on a farm required many hands to help eke out a living.

2. Victoria Era

Victorians increased the emphasis on middle-class morality. The lower classes became marginalized even as the Industrial Revolution crowded them together with the ruling elite in teeming cities, such as London. Moralists of the day equated poverty with immorality, and lumped sexual immodesty in women along with it. Prostitutes had many male clients, but they were vilified by society and afforded few legal protections. The widely accepted practice of "bundling" in 17th and 18th century New England, in which an engaged couple openly spent premarital nights together--albeit fully clothed--abated when public attitudes about it changed.

3. Function

Function of any social etiquette can be to establish hierarchies and to limit undesired social interactions. Historically, single beautiful women could climb in status via marriage to, or affairs with, wealthy men. Amy Lyon, better known eventually as "Lady Hamilton," was born to a lower-class family in Britain around 1765, and became a companion and mistress to wealthy aristocratic men. After being pawned off by one to another for a temporary loan, she married. Once married, she met and had a long affair with the naval hero, Lord Horatio Nelson. Lady Hamilton temporarily escaped her class, but ultimately died poor, and in obscurity.

4. Modern Etiquette

The new digital age of etiquette among high school and college students might surprise older adults. The acceptance of casual extramarital sex after the 1960s might lead many to conclude that there are no more rules about love affairs, but, according to Ilana Gershon, in "The Breakup 2.0," social-networking sites are reinventing public scrutiny of sexual and social mores. Gershon compares the pressure to "link profiles" with "pinning" from the 1950s--noting that they both publicize a monogamous commitment between couples. Gershon also notes that women seem to be the target of most electronic scrutiny and criticism--following a historical trend.

5. Misconceptions

Not all groups subscribe to popular culture in America. Some families still insist on meeting potential suitors in person. Girls might be protected and chaperoned. Boys might face restrictions in choosing whom they want to date. Some Christian girls pledge their virginity in pacts with their fathers.

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