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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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If these laws aren’t being enforced, why should we care?

The criminal laws are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s one of a variety of ways we don’t honor the idea that every person is the same or that everybody can be just left alone as an adult to do what they want. The law makes a symbolic stand in favor of legal marriage and promoting marriage, and major entitlement programs — both private and public — are based on this idea, and on the benefits side there are many important points of social insurance, personal insurance, that have to do with being married. Cohabitators, for example, are two or three times more likely not to have health insurance than married people. A lot of social insurance goes to people who are legally married and their dependents. You find many people on the Internet discussing how they only got married to get health coverage, and many who are engaged don’t understand their fiancés aren’t covered by this. Same with Social Security benefits, they are based on marriage. This is about something I call the right to not have to marry.

It’s funny, I’m Canadian and in a relationship with a man and I’m very conscious of the fact that, because of DOMA, I don’t have that option to marry my boyfriend if I want to stay in the United States. It’s something that I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about.

Yes, immigration policy favors legal marriage and punishes people who are not married. Cohabitation used to be thought of as immoral and one of the reasons for deportations was that people were engaged in immoral conduct.

Where does America’s extraordinary love of marriage come from?

I’m extremely interested in the exceptional nature of the American nation. The idea of promoting marriage and marriage policy goes way back. America is a very religious nation. Cohabitation [is seen by many as] a religious sin and a sin against God whereas marriage is not sinful. People think it has to do with 19thcentury and Victorian ideas, but the truth is that there has been an active fight going on in various states on cohabitation since the 1970s, in Florida and Wisconsin and different states. The growth of the New Right in the late ’60s and early ’70s added on new layers of emotional maneuvering.

So how did our attitudes change?

The first big turning point was when the Supreme Court struck down laws against interracial cohabitation in 1964. Florida had a law saying a black man and a white women or a black woman and white man could not legally cohabit at nighttime. It was a major victory for cohabitation but they still said it’s fine for states to have those laws; they just couldn’t use race as a classification in making punishments. You can’t punish black and white couples for cohabitation but it’s still a crime on the books for a couple to live together.

The No. 1 most important change was the domestic partnership movement. The gay liberation movement fought for it especially in the ’80s and ’90s and cohabitators — straight and gay — ended up being the major beneficiaries of it. It’s a huge shift because it took cohabitation from the shadowy world and made it be recognized. You can use it to receive benefits from private or public employers and you can register this status with a municipality and a state government to get favorable tax treatment and some benefits.

How important was pop culture’s role in making Americans more accepting of cohabitation?

 
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