I watched a documentary the other night about a couple who had a child out of wedlock in the 60's. The woman, a teenager at the time, was sent far from her home to an institution for young women in that situation. It was terrible to hear how these girls (and they were girls) were treated, especially while in labor - as if they were sluts of the worse sort. Despite that, the woman and her then-boyfriend wanted to keep the baby. Unfortunately, their families were not supportive of that at all and the baby was given up for adoption. Then the couple was basically forced asunder and parted ways. Years later, at a high school reunion, they met, reconnected and married a short time afterward. They then went searching for their daughter and eventually found her.
One thing was made very clear throughout the documentary: how shame and disgrace, and the fear of shame and disgrace and social ostracism, motivated the families and the girls (although in the girls' cases, it was often the fear of what their children would face than concern for themselves).
I'm old enough to remember that yes, that's how it often was then. For a girl to bear a child out of wedlock was terrible. Absolutely disgraceful. She would be a sort of social leper. And this was before we had any notion about "date rape," so even if the girl had been forced, it was still her fault. Yes, hers. The guy was often excused because, well, boys will be boys.
I'm not saying this is right or as it should be in any way. I'm simply saying, that's how it often was.
And that's why I have a real problem when it comes to many historical romances being written today. Even though the heroines are supposedly living in a time before easy access to birth control, and when a woman bearing a child out of wedlock was treated with scorn, derision, and outright cruelty - and her child would face a similar social stigma - they seem to have no worries at all about the possible consequences if their pre-marital sexual activity is discovered and even if they don't get pregnant.
Now, I know that pre-marital sex has been happening forever. That's why they had homes for unwed mothers, as they were called, although it doesn't sound as if there was anything very home-y about them. So I'm not saying historical romance heroines shouldn't have pre-marital sex. After all, I've written heroines who have. However, I do expect the author to at least have the heroine give it a moment's thought, as in, "If I do this and someone else finds out, there could be some very serious and unpleasant social consequences for me."
If not? Well, I don't think it means the book's terrible or the author's a dope. It does mean I don't quite buy the character, though - it's as if she's an actress playing a part. She may be doing a heck of a job, but she's not as real to me as she could be, either.