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5 States Where "Living in Sin" Is Illegal? America's Irrational Love Affair With the Institution of Marriage

Believe it or not, cohabitation is still illegal in five states. Why is the law so behind, and what's at stake?
 
 
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For most people living in major American cities these days, the idea of an unmarried couple living together is as controversial as toasted bread. Since the 1990s, more than half of married couples in the United States live in sin before getting married. The percentage of people who disapproved of unmarried cohabitation has dropped from 86 percent in 1977 to 27 percent in 2007. In fact, for most of us, it seems far more suspicious to see a couple moving in together after they’ve gotten hitched than before. So how is it possible that living with your boyfriend or girlfriend is still against the law in Michigan and several Southern states?

As Elizabeth H. Pleck details in her fascinating new book, “Not Just Roommates: Cohabitation After the Sexual Revolution,” unmarried cohabitation has had a rocky path toward cultural acceptance — and, unbeknownst to many of us, is still held back by widespread retrograde legal policies. For much of the 20th century, couples were dragged to jail, had their social benefits revoked or lost custody of their children because they decided to live with the person they loved. And even as the civil rights, feminist and gay rights movements gradually won more rights for cohabitators, the law has continued to place an irrational importance on marriage, especially when it comes to Social Security. Pleck’s book focuses on a series of key legal cases from the past half-century, but manages to make a convincing argument about the misguidedness of our country’s continued, irrational love affair with the institution of marriage — and why it’s high time the law caught up with our hearts.

Salon spoke to Pleck over the phone about the importance of gay marriage, the New York Times’ bad science and why America is still so obsessed with matrimony.

For someone like me who lives in New York, the idea that there is still a stigma or a legal case against unmarried people living together is really surprising.

There’s the cultural stigma and the legal stigma, but it’s the legal stigma that is more interesting to me. How come the law and our policies haven’t caught up to the fact it’s no big deal anymore? Cohabitation is still a crime in five states — the four Southern states and Michigan. Yes, no one has been arrested for cohabitation in recent years but there are a few situations in which the fact that it’s criminal can be used against people. There’s the example of Michael Schiavo, Terri Schiavo’s husband, who was denied guardianship of his wife because her parents went to court saying he broke the law of Florida because he was living with his girlfriend.

Like many other aspects of the sexual revolution, [the rise of cohabitation] appeared first and had its greatest effects on the two coasts and while it has affected the entire country, there are holdouts. You find lower rates of cohabitation and more opposition in the non-coastal and rural areas of the country.

How does this current state of affairs compare to the early 1960s and before?

The numbers of cohabitators are estimates, but to the extent they are accurate, the increase is absolutely off the charts. This is one of the huge trends of family and sexual history where you just find the arrow going almost straight up at an incredibly rapid rate. In the early ’50s and ’60s it was confined to cosmopolitan areas, bohemians, student neighborhoods, interracial couples and poor people because of poor people’s flexible relationship status. What we’ve found since then is that it’s become more common, more frequent, more acceptable, and spread in terms of regions, age profiles of the people and so forth. The majority of people, in the 70 percent range, now live together before they marry — about 12-15 million people right now.

 
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