If you've ever read a Regency romance novel or watched a Jane Austen adaptation, you probably have a passing acquaintance with the trope of the ruined woman: that tragic victim of some caddish man who loved her, left her, and wrecked her societal resale value on his way out the door. In a world governed by a patriarchal system of marriage and inheritance, dependent on female purity to ensure any male offspring were legitimate, the ruined woman was literally damaged goods. Even the slightest whiff of a premarital dalliance could spell her undoing.
These old school ideas about women's worth have never entirely left us, resurfacing over the years in everything from the work of Andrea Dworkin to the abstinence wars of the late 1990s (when sex ed teachers would memorably compare girls who had sex before marriage to used pieces of Scotch tape). With dowries out of the picture, the idea that sex devalued women attached itself instead to America's sudden obsession with self-esteem. A young woman who had sex, particularly casual sex, clearly didn't respect herself. She was trying to fill an emotional void with cheap physical connection, and—yes—was making herself unmarriageable. He won’t buy the cow, we were told, if he can get the milk for free.
Today, the notion that sexual contact is degrading to women has become wrapped up in the contemporary progressive language of trauma and consent. The damage in question is emotional, not material, but the paternalistic message is the same: innocent women must be protected.
Consent is sexy, we are told, as sex-education pamphlets primly instruct us in the essentials of mid-coital conversation. Do you like it when I touch you there? What do you want me to do to you? Never mind that said literature studiously ignores the fact that for the young, inexperienced people at whom such instructions are directed, dirty talk by administrative mandate just adds a whole new layer of pressure to an already awkward situation: For all its protestations about how hot consent can be, the progressive discourse surrounding sex is markedly unsexy. Amid the obsession with power, oppression and the ever present threat of harm, the notion of desire (or, heaven forbid, fun) all but disappears. Even the most pornographic consent-is-sexy script is about risk mitigation, not titillation, an insurance waiver with a side of heavy breathing.
This laser-focus on consent effectively recasts sex itself as a dangerous act, to be undertaken with extreme caution and only if absolutely necessary. And if relationships are mainly about power and the threat of abuse, those who pursue them too enthusiastically must be viewed with suspicion. More old-school gender stereotypes crop up here: men are increasingly seen as predators almost by default, while women are cast as helpless, even infantile. (Witness the rise of the word "grooming," previously reserved for sexual predation of children, as something done to women in their twenties.) As a breathtaking range of disappointing male behavior gets swept under the umbrella of MeToo, the line between pursuing a woman and preying on her has become blurred. When it was revealed that comic book writer Warren Ellis had relationships with multiple women at once, the litany of harms included no sexual misconduct at all; instead, the women were "[shocked] at the sheer magnitude of his pursuits … heartbroken when he stopped talking to them, or angry after discovering he was sending many of them identical messages."
Shock, heartbreak, anger: these are normal things to feel when a romantic relationship goes sour. But today, they're lumped into the nefarious category of abuse by virtue of the purported power someone like Ellis—older, wealthier, more professionally successful, or otherwise more privileged—holds over his partners. By contrast, the notion that these were known and unavoidable risks of intimacy is dismissed as victim-blaming. As one of Ellis' accusers tweeted, "None of us consented to being manipulated."
This notion of consent as a safeguard against upsetting emotions is both new and counterintuitive: in most contexts (for instance, medical trials or media interviews), consent is sought precisely because what follows cannot be predicted, and may well be uncomfortable. But in certain progressive spaces, discomfort of any kind is taken to indicate the absence of consent, rendering countless normal human interactions suspicious. Turning someone down isn't comfortable, but neither is asking someone out. Even happy relationships involve moments of discomfort, disappointment, conflict—and even amicable breakups are rarely pain-free. Yet young people are now being taught to expect absolute emotional safety in sex, love and courtship at all times—and that if they feel hurt, disappointed or betrayed, it means they've been violated.
So how did we get here? Social conservatives say that hookup culture is to blame, and they're not wrong: traditional courtship, monogamy and marriage have their downsides, but they do give relationships a certain amount of structure and security. In the age of Tinder, those safeguards are comparatively hard to come by—and the elaborate (and sometimes ridiculous) bureaucracy of consent regulations may be best understood as a desperate attempt to impose some order on this wild west of sex and intimacy, spearheaded by people who are terrified of being vulnerable or getting hurt. There's a sense that relationships could be made unfailingly safe and comfortable, that disappointment and awkwardness wouldn't exist, if we only had enough rules.
Relationships have always been risky endeavors, but, ironically, this hypervigilance has made them seem outright terrifying. Every new romance is treated like a scavenger hunt for "red flags" that forewarn abuse, and every breakup is subject to adjudication via the #MeToo framework. Unhappy exes hash out their grievances on social media in a way that used to be reserved for divorced celebrities wrangling for the sympathy of the press. Private affairs are dragged into the spotlight for public reckoning and reparations. Men, already saddled with the pressure of making the first move, have to calculate the additional risk that an awkward overture or misread signal will result not just in rejection, but public humiliation and ruination. For all its valuable contributions to combating sexual harassment in the workplace, #MeToo has also made dating itself at once more fraught and less appealing—for everyone. If every relationship is a power struggle, in which the less privileged party is perpetually at risk of being victimized, why even bother? Who could possibly enjoy this?
This is not to demand a return to the rigid courtship norms of the Regency era—nor to the blinkered sex-positivity of the early aughts. Instead, we need to reintroduce basic notions of female empowerment and individual agency, and push back against the facile understanding of complex interpersonal relationships as power struggles between oppressed and oppressor. We should teach both young men and young women to recognize each other's vulnerability and humanity—even when a partner may hold more power than they do by certain measures—and to engage with their lovers as individuals, rather than as representatives of an identity group. And we should also teach young people to tolerate and work through discomfort, rather than seeing themselves as helplessly in thrall to power dynamics that leave them forever teetering on the precipice of victimhood.
When I wrote a teen advice column between 2009 and 2019, there was one question I received more often than any other: "How can I fall in love without getting hurt?" My answer was always the same: You can't! Intimacy requires vulnerability; the joy of human connection always comes with the risk of being hurt. But that risk is the same for everyone, no matter how privileged or blessed with institutional clout. Even the wealthiest, whitest, most cisheterosexual dudebro in the world can be absolutely wrecked by heartbreak—and even a person who sits at the intersectional nexus of multiple oppressed identity categories has the power to break someone's heart.
As much as trauma and abuse have replaced purity and marriageability on the landscape of moral panics, the same old fear is at work: that women's desires, left unchecked, will leave them in ruins. And while the impulse to protect young people from emotional pain may be well intentioned, the results are toxic. The obsessive focus on power as the driving mechanism in all relationships fuels a cycle of catastrophic thinking: women are ever more fearful of being mistreated, ever more convinced of their powerlessness to avoid it, and ever more sure that when it happens, they will be unable to handle it. And all the while, men, dehumanized by a framework that casts their desires as inherently predatory, are being taught to mistrust and infantilize women in the guise of respecting them.
We need to permanently banish the specter of the ruined woman from our understanding of heterosexual relationships. A healthy, sex-positive society acknowledges that unpredictability is a feature of dating, not a bug, and cannot be consent-scripted out of existence—particularly for inexperienced people, and especially when it comes to casual sex. Young people must be taught to be kind with and conscientious to each other, to respect boundaries, and to err on the side of caution in ambiguous situations—but they should also be taught that love and sex are rife with painful misunderstandings, and that even well-meaning people can hurt each other because they're insecure, confused or genuinely unsure about what they want. Instead of trying to keep them from ever feeling heartbreak, regret or shame, let's teach them that these things are always survivable, and sometimes even useful. Teach them to be gracious about rejection and charitable about missteps, knowing that they'll make mistakes themselves; teach them that being hurt is not always the same thing as being wronged. Teach them that love is messy, and that it defies easy narratives about power and victimhood, but that it's also worth being brave for—because the same uncertainty that makes love scary also makes it enriching, exciting, and an extraordinary source of joy.
Kat Rosenfield, a culture writer and author of several novels, is Persuasion’s advice columnist.
"We should teach both young men and young women to recognize each other's vulnerability and humanity—even when a partner may hold more power than they do by certain measures—and to engage with their lovers as individuals, rather than as representatives of an identity group."
Thank you for this.
Bravo to Kat Rosenfield! Every semester in my into to lit class we discuss poems, stories, and films about love, romance, and sex, which explores the uncertainties of it all. I have sometimes asked the class during discussions how many people have been in love--it's voluntary and no one has to raise their hands. Twenty years ago about 50% of the class eagerly raised their hands, and now it's down to about 10% who look around the room first very tentatively. Recent research on Gen Y, Z, and some Millennials tells us they are delaying getting involved in romantic relationships and marriage, fearful of making mistakes. Rosenfield is correct in that the trope of the "ruined woman" is playing out where women are stamped with a "V" (victim) rather than an "A" (adultery). So very, very American in its Puritan roots but neglects to note that even the Puritans embraced the pleasure in sex, and had a very high pregnancy rate at the time of marriage.