Your virginity in a box. (Photo by djking via CC)

I’ve always maintained that diamond engagements rings were wholly unromantic and that I never wanted one. (Oh, and I’m a two-drinks-on-a-date sort of girl. Guys should be lining up to propose to me because I clearly come cheap.) I never liked the idea of a guy tagging as his own with an expensive rock that has problematic humanitarian origins. Wedding bands, however, when they’re simple and matching, I find to be sweet. Both parties have the same ring, which symbolizes their commitment to one another. That’s something I can get behind.

Obviously, I’m in a minority when it comes to my sentiments about engagement rings. However before I read “The Strange (and Formerly Sexist) Economics of Engagement Rings” in the The Atlantic, I had little more than a general sense of ickiness and dislike of being demarcated as someone’s property on layaway as reason for my opposition to the diamond engagement ring. Now, I think they’re even ickier.

Matthew O’Brien explains that the rise of diamond engagement rings coincided with the repeal of “Breach of Promise to Marry” laws. Back in those days, feminine virtue was prized in engagements and it would be difficult for a woman who had participated in premarital sex to find a good (i.e. wealthy) husband. However after the engagement but before the nuptials, many couples would sleep together. This was all well and good if the betrothed couple ended up going through with the wedding. However if the man decided to break the engagement, the bride-to-be was, well, screwed.

He writes:

Surveys from the 1940s show that roughly half of engaged couples reported being intimate before the big day. If the groom-to-be walked out after he and the bride-to-be had sex, that left her in a precarious position. From a social angle, she had been permanently “damaged.” From an economic angle, she had lost her market value. So Breach of Promise to Marry was born.

(Random thought: What would happen if the financial markets were governed by the sexual activity of women? A funny, odd thing to consider.)

Once these laws started being overturned, women no longer had any legal recourse if their fiancés flaked on them at the altar. Cue the diamond engagement ring, according to legal scholar Margaret Brinig. She has crunched the numbers that show that beginning in the 1930s, when these laws were being repealed, there were mini surges of diamond imports.

But why would the repeal of these laws result in bigger sales of diamond engagement rings? O’Brien writes:

Let’s think like an economist. An engaged couple aren’t all that different from a borrower and a lender. The woman is lending her hand in marriage to the man, who promises to tie the knot at a later date. In the days of Breach of Promise, the woman would do this on an unsecured basis — that is, the man didn’t have to pledge any collateral — because the law provided her something akin to bankruptcy protection. Put simply, if the man didn’t fulfill his obligation to marry, the woman had legal recourse. This calculus changed once the law changed. Suddenly, women wanted an upfront financial assurance from their men. Basically, collateral. That way, if the couple never made it down the aisle, she’d at least be left with something. And that something was almost always small and shiny. The diamond ring was insurance.

Virginity insurance, that is.

Of course, nowadays the stigma against premarital sex (unless you want contraception and STI protection for it) has greatly decreased and women earn incomes often equal if not greater than their male counterparts so a broken engagements only entails a broken heart (which is bad enough), not broken financial prospects.  Yet the ring remains in fashion and men are still forced to spend a huge chunk of money to woo a woman, to stake his claim so he can put a more tasteful, less ostentatious ring on her finger several months down the line as a relic of a time when it symbolized something more precious than everlasting love and devotion but a woman’s sexual purity.

Is that what Beyonce was referring to when she said to “put a ring on it”?

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