In some societies, a woman's sexual reputation is a very important thing. As she is expected to be a virgin on her wedding night, having sex before marriage (especially with a man other than the one she marries) is just about the most scandalous thing she can do. Not only will she have to suffer the disapproval of those around her, but it will seriously lower her chance of getting an offer of marriage in the future. In settings where women are economically dependent on their husbands and may not be educated, this could all but condemn her to a life as a beggar or a prostitute. She might even be at risk of being harmed or killed by her family or society. If she already has a fiancé, he would be considered justified in breaking off the engagement. The stigma is so bad that if a woman is even suspected of having had sex with a man, due to being alone with him for an extended length of time—typically overnight (there is no such thing as Innocent Cohabitation in the mind of society)—she will still have to suffer the consequences. The only thing that can avert this is for her to get married as quickly as possible.
Men in these societies are, of course, aware of the negative consequences as well. So a man who sees a woman at risk of getting a bad reputation may decide to help her out by offering to marry her, whether or not he was the one who initially caused her reputation to be in jeopardy. He may have other motivations for making the offer, of course—from being in love with her to needing a wife in a hurry for reasons of his own, or with some persuasion from the father-in-law and his "little big-armed friend" Mr. Winchester—but saving her reputation is the main impetus for the proposal.
Note that thanks to the good old Double Standard, men typically do not suffer the same stigma if suspected of having sex before marriage. Therefore, the proposer is basically Always Male, while the proposee is basically Always Female.
This trope is a particular favorite with writers of historical Romance Novels, especially Regency romances, and may lead to Marriage Before Romance. In Western works, it rarely appears in anything set later than The '50s, as the social upheavals of The '60s largely did away with the set of expectations that made it work. It may still apply in other parts of the world, however, or in fictional societies.
A clever couple can use this strategy to overcome a Parental Marriage Veto by arranging to be alone together long enough to cause talk. In such a case, the parents may find that they have to accept what they see as a less-than-ideal match in order to save their daughter's reputation. This is one of the purposes of an Elopement: even if the couple are caught before being married, the woman's reputation will be compromised if they have been alone together long enough.
A woman may also try the same tactic in order to force or encourage a proposal from a reluctant man. The phrase "make an honest woman of me" may come into this discussion.
- Memorably inverted and parodied twice in Axis Powers Hetalia:
- When Italy hugs Japan (and in the comic, kisses him on the cheek), Japan is so shocked that he immediately demands that Italy marry him as compensation.
- A flashback to Japan's days as a Hikiko Mori shows Japan's dog, Pochi, demanding exactly the same from the Netherlands' pet bunny after the other licks him on the cheek.
- In Lady and the Tramp, after learning that Lady has been out with Tramp, her friends Jock and Trusty try to gently persuade her to take one of them, as even though they're older, they're still in the prime of life. (No mention is made of what anyone would say when "their" puppies don't resemble them, as Gender Equals Breed is in full force for Lady's litter.) The wording is left rather ambiguous, making it sound more like they're inviting her to come and live in one of their houses, in order to keep the movie's G rating intact.
- In the film version of A Damsel in Distress (1937), based on the novel by P. G. Wodehouse, Lord Marshmorton uses this idea to gain his battleaxe sister Caroline's consent to his daughter's marriage to an American Broadway star. After sending Jerry to Alyce's room to make up with her after a quarrel, Lord Marshmorton informs Lady Caroline that the two are alone together. Once it becomes clear that this tidbit is about to spread to the guests at their fancy party, Lady Caroline is suddenly in favor of the match because "There's never been a scandal in Totleigh Castle!"
- In Double Harness, Joan's father finds her and John in a compromising situation, so John must marry Joan in the name of honour.
- After being discarded by Antoine Tardieu in Roger Vadim's And God Created Woman (1956), Juliette is poised to be sent away to a dissolute shelter. Antoine's younger brother, Michel, takes pity on Juliette and hastily marries her, believing that he can tame her wild ways. In fairness, Michel was also looking to score a hot babe to show up Antoine. Things unravel when Juliette, played by Brigitte Bardot, slips into sex kitten mode.
- Invoked (as a joke) in Four Weddings and a Funeral. The morning after Charles and Carrie sleep together, Carrie asks Charles when he's planning on announcing their engagement: "I assumed since we slept together, we'd be getting married."
- In The Philadelphia Story, Mike Connor offers to marry Tracy after their drunken antics of the previous night cause her fiance to dump her on the morning of her wedding.
- In Sailor of the King, Richard Saville offers one of these to Lucinda and is firmly turned down.
- Humorously referenced in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; when Caractacus kisses Truly at the end of the movie, she teases him that "Now you have to marry me!" and they both laugh, implying that this is exactly what will happen.
- In Grease, Rizzo has a pregnancy scare and Kenickie, upon hearing of it, tells her that "I don't run away from my mistakes." She gently tells him that it was someone else's mistake, which is a lie but she's trying to spare him. By the end of the movie, Kenickie makes the offer again, a bit more blatantly; Rizzo has since learned that she's not pregnant, but he assures her that it's "a bona fide offer" nonetheless.
- Georgette Heyer uses the trope a few times:
- Discussed in Charity Girl. Cherry's father says that Desford should offer to marry Cherry to save her reputation after he took her to London. Everyone who hears the idea laughs it off, as Desford went to great lengths to make sure Cherry's reputation was not damaged.
- Happens twice in Devil's Cub. First Vidal insists he must marry Mary to make up for compromising her reputation by taking her to France with him. Then Mr. Comyn, who happens to meet them in France, presents her with a way out of that dilemma by offering to marry her himself.
- Gender-Inverted in A Brother's Price; in the setting of the book, there's about one man for every ten women, and as such, sisters will share a husband between them. Given that STD Immunity is averted, there's a very real fear that a husband who's had sex before could have picked up something, which would subsequently spread to all of his wives. At one point in the book, main character Jerin has been kidnapped by a group of women who made their marriage-intent extremely well-known earlier in the book, in addition to having been alone with Cira, who has been rescuing Jerin from kidnappers. When he mentions this trope to the latter, she reassures Jerin that she is perfectly willing to marry him to protect his reputation. He doesn't believe her, as she would never be able to pay the brother's price for him all by herself, but since she's the missing Princess Halley, she's already one of his wives, though he didn't know that at the time.
- In The Breaking of Northwall, Jestak's primary motivation for most of the novel was rescuing Tia from slavery. Meanwhile, while a slave, Tia was raped at least once by the guards, and faces Defiled Forever as a result. After everyone escapes, the elders agree to ignore the time while Tia was enslaved, but ask Jestak to marry her since the two were together (and unchaperoned) for a few nights during the escape. This misses Shotgun Wedding because both Jestak and Tia are eager to wed.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire, Robb Stark marries Jeyne Westerling after sleeping with her, putting her honor (that of a girl deflowered before marriage) above his own (he promised to marry another). It's clearly also Honor Before Reason and Robb pays for it by being murdered by the family whose daughter he'd promised to wed.
- A variation in Evil Under the Sun: Kenneth Marshall, described as "one of those incurably chivalrous men", is said to have serially rescued two women from infamy by marrying them (the second after the first's death). A variation in that the reason for the women's ignominy was something other than sex.
- The relationship between protagonists Don and Denise in We Can't Rewind works out something like this, although she's not so much "defiled" in his eyes as she is a Broken Bird from being molested and impregnated as a preteen, and the marriage is more for love and forging a single wholesome family from two broken ones than restoring any of the long-lost "honor" she ever had to her. What makes it this trope is that the widower Don is basically extending his code of honor to her in wanting to get properly married before getting busy with her, so to speak.
- In the first book of The Young Ancients, Tor offers to marry his best friend's fiancée after she becomes pregnant with another man's child. Despite a generally sexually libertine culture (she would be expected to have several politically strategic lovers on the side in any case), her fiancé Rolph is a crown prince, so it's widely understood that the first child must be his. The offer is much appreciated, and does a lot to smooth things over, but ultimately the king and queen decide to marry her off to an entirely fictitious minor noble who will suffer a tragic accident after five years, leaving the widow a small estate and the ability to remarry without shame.
- In The Summer Before the War, Daniel proposes to Celeste after she became pregnant from a rape. Having a child out of wedlock was extremely shameful in the time period.
- toyed with and ultimately played straight in the Sebastian St Cyr mystery novels by CS Harris, set during the Regency period. In the fifth book, St Cyr and his acquaintance Hero Jarvis are trapped together in a crypt. With every expectation that they will die of starvation or lack of air, they have sex in an act of defiance of their fate. By a downright-miraculous chance they are discovered and released. As soon as their rescuer leaves, Sebastian invokes this, saying "I am prepared to do the honorable thing." Hero, who is an ahead-of-her-time feminist and determined never to marry, is horrified at the idea and flees. In book six, Hero discovers she's pregnant: rather than take Sebastian up on his offer, she arranges to have the baby in secret and give it up for adoption. But the friend is charge of the arrangements is murdered, and Sebastian called in to solve it, which leads him to discover the pregnancy. At the end of book six, Hero and Sebastian end up marrying after all; to their mutual astonishment (though not the readers) they're actually extremely well matched and their marriage swiftly becomes a real one.
- In The Outsiders, Sodapop's girlfriend Sandy "went to live with her grandmother in Florida." We later learn that he proposed to her despite knowing that he wasn't the father, only for her to leave and, eventually, start sending back his letters unopened.
- On Mad Men, Bob Benton offers to marry Joan Harris in part because her unmarried status means that she is getting less respect at work, and in part so that she can avoid the stigma of being a single mother. (He also wants to avoid questions about his sexuality.) She turns him down, not wanting to get stuck in another unhappy marriage.
- In The Bible, the young girl Miriam (Mary) is visited by an angel and told to rejoice, as she is now pregnant. Her fiancé Joseph accepts her anyway and marries her so that no shame falls on her. He then brings up her firstborn child as his own. (Zigzagged a bit because they were already engaged at the time, but Joseph mentally re-committed to marry her in order to save her reputation.)
- Joseph almost gave her an honorable divorce proposal. Under Jewish law, he had two choices when he found Mary was pregnant—publicly divorce her and have her stoned (which was the penalty for adultery), or quietly give her a certificate of divorce and send her on her way (which would still leave her an unwed mother with a bad reputation, but was the more merciful of the two options). Before he could do this, an angel came and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife—that she had not been unfaithful: she had become pregnant by the Holy Spirit. To outsiders, this was probably viewed as an Honorable Marriage Proposal, because the real reason was understandably difficult to understand at best and thought as bunk at worst.
- In Celtic Mythology, Math fab Mathonwy discovers that his virgin servant, Goewin, was raped by his nephew Gilfaethwy, who was helped by his brother, Gwydion. He married her to save her honor and punished his nephews by turning them into animals for three years.
- In one ending of War: 13th Day, Ambrosia is found in an inadvertently compromising position with Arsenik. After she is blackmailed, Arsenik proposes to her not only to keep her reputation intact but out of true affection.
Arsenik: Your honor would be preserved, and you would have a husband, willing to cater to your every desire. Please do not assume this is solely out of obligation. Truly, I would be happy to have you — more than happy. You must know that I fancy you, Miss Ambrosia.