The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Shacking Up, Sleeping Around

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Progressives do not worry about the sharp rise in the number of couples cohabiting outside of wedlock. After all, they have reasoned, cohabitation gives society the functional equivalent of wedlock without the baggage of outmoded tradition. But progressives’ complacent acceptance of cohabitation looks deeply suspect when assessed against a growing body of research showing that what cohabitation actually gives society is something far worse than wedlock. As the most recent addition to that body of research, a study completed at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, demonstrates that women who cohabit rather than marry are much more likely than their married peers to maintain simultaneous sexual relationships with two or more men and much more likely to abuse alcohol and illegal drugs (often obtained in exchange for sex), so making them part of a social network that spreads HIV and other pathogens.

Collected in 2002 and 2003, the data for the new study comes from a national probability sample of 7,643 women representative of the female American household population ages 15 to 44. It should surprise no one that these data indicate that the practice of maintaining simultaneous sexual relationships with two or more men was much more common among separated and previously married women (Odds Ratio of 11.55) and among never-married women (Odds Ratio of 7.79) than among married peers. But it should unsettle progressive defenders of cohabitation that cohabiting women are also much more likely (Odds Ratio of 3.24) to maintain such simultaneous relationships than are their married peers.

Progressive Americans may suppose that so long as it does not involve coercion or underage partners, sexual behavior is entirely a private matter, undeserving of critical public scrutiny. (The unfortunate prevalence of such thinking in 21st-century America may indeed explain why the North Carolina researchers found in their study that “foreign-born women of all racial/ethnic groups were much less likely than were US-born women to have concurrent sexual partnerships.”) But private sexual behavior can have harmful consequences meriting public attention.

For one thing, the researchers found that women maintaining simultaneous sexual relationships with two or more men (disproportionately separated, divorced, single, and cohabiting women) also engaged in other harmful behaviors. When comparing them with women who reported only one or no sexual partner, the researchers found that women with multiple simultaneous partners were significantly more likely to be involved in “exchanging intercourse for money or drugs, binge drinking, drug or alcohol intoxication during sexual intercourse, using crack or cocaine, and
. . . [intercourse with] a nonmonogamous male sexual partner.”

Progressives may continue to provide anodyne assurances about cohabitation and other forms of non-marital sexual activity. But the authors of the new study cannot ignore the way that women—overwhelmingly unmarried, divorced, and cohabiting women—who maintain sexual relations with multiple partners are helping to create “interconnected sexual networks that contribute to population dissemination of HIV and other STIs [Sexually Transmitted Infections].”

Quite understandably, the North Carolina scholars conclude by noting that “the association of substance use with concurrency links elevated infection risk with elevated opportunity for dissemination and reinforces the importance of interventions to prevent abuse of alcohol and other substances.” It would certainly appear that few interventions would count for more than those which steer women (and men) toward enduring wedlock.

(Adaora A. Adimora et al., “Concurrent Partnerships, Nonmonogamous Partners, and Substance Abuse among Women in the United States,” American Journal of Public Health 101.1 [2011]: 128-136.)