In a recent cover story in the New York Times Magazine (here), therapist Lori Gottlieb asked the question “does a more equal marriage mean less sex?” Her article was spurred by a recent ASR article by Kornrich, Brines, & Leupp that found couples who had a more traditional division of labor had more frequent sex (here). The argument is that as gender roles become more similar, sexual desire goes out the window. The authors of the ASR article suggest husbands and wives are more sexually active when the couple “plays out” traditional roles in the division of housework. This finding is in direct contrast to research I published with my colleague Scott Yabiku, using the same 1993 survey of over 7,000 married couples, that finds the more total housework (and paid work) performed by both husbands and wives the more sex they had (here). We suggest that a group of high-energy couples are working hard and playing hard. Other researchers report that wives who think their division of labor is fair have more sex. However, Gottlieb never mentions these other studies, but rather goes on to provide her own personal anecdotes from friends and clients (even one from her first year of training) as proof the new study is valid.
In contrast to Gottlieb, what I remember from my first year of graduate training was my Research Methods professor drilling into our heads that you don’t take one research finding and accept it as the new gospel. Rather, many studies must be done, that find similar results, before we start saying something is a real finding. The authors of the ASR piece are quite careful (as am I) in suggesting that there are many factors that could also be operating in this housework = sex equation, but cannot be tested with the 1993 survey. So clearly more research must be done to resolve these seemingly opposite findings. But Gottlieb goes on to write her article as though equal marriages are bad for married couples’ sex lives and her clients represent all marriages in America.
She uses one example from her client that really made me wonder if she understood the research at all. She describes a couple session where the husband complained that their sex life had fallen off. The wife said she liked to have sex when her husband came home from the gym, but that morning she was not turned on because the vacuum was in the bedroom. Gottlieb asked her if the husband had started vacuuming, would she then have wanted to have sex and the wife said no. As I have had to make clear over and over to the media, we don’t think that watching your husband do housework turns wives on. Rather many of us suggest that as women continue to be overworked and underpaid, if a husband relieves the stress of wives’ dual family-work burden, then wives might be in a happier mood and this happiness may lead to more sex. In fact research that measures stress levels, using cortisol — known as the stress hormone — finds that wives’ stress levels at the end of the day only went down when husbands pitched in with child care and housework and that these wives had higher sexual interest.
Another important issue was addressed by Brigid Shulte in a Washington Post response to the Gottlieb piece (here). The 1993 survey is more than 20 years old, so we should expect that the division of labor has changed since then. However, Gottlieb just takes it on the authority of Julie Brines, the second author of the ASR article, that the division of housework has not changed much since then. Really? In fact more recent data from the 2010 American Time Use Data using time diaries finds that although married fathers are doing slightly less housework (as are mothers) than in 1995, fathers seem to have shifted into doing more childcare. According to Bianchi and her colleagues, the gender gap in childcare declined over the period from 1995 to 2010. The ratio of married mothers’ to fathers’ childcare time declined from 2.5 in 1995 to 1.9 in 2010. Thus, research using the 1993 survey is problematic because it is 20 years old and data on childcare contributions are not included in the Kornich et al. or my research.
Although this is a sexy topic, much of these mixed findings boil down to data issues that are not so sexy. But filling in the blanks left by a lack of new data cannot be accomplished by using anecdotes from friends and therapy clients. It should be left to university researchers and the federal government to create and fund more recent data collection efforts on the important and complicated issues of gender, equality, and sexuality.
By Constance Gager, associate professor of Family and Child Studies, Montclair State University