Everything you wanted to know about sex and housework but were too busy to ask

So husbands and wives who share work, housework and child care are sexless but equal? At least according to an explosive New York Times magazine article that is rocketing around the Web like a heat-seeking missile in the ongoing Battle of the Sexes.

Psychotherapist and writer Lori Gottlieb tells the stories of couples who are striving to more equitably juggle all the competing demands of modern life, but dropping the ball when it comes time to turn out the lights. She writes of egalitarian couples saying they’re bored in bed. Their sex lives mediocre and uninteresting. Or non-existent.

In contrast, Gottlieb cites a study that found that couples with more traditional marriages – she cooks and cleans, he mows and changes the oil  – have more sex. And the wives in these 1950s-era unions report feeling more sexually satisfied — more turned on, apparently, by the site of a sweaty hunk swaggering around outside with a manly leaf blower than a milquetoast throwing in another load of girly laundry in the basement.

That study, “Egalitarianism, Housework and Sexual Frequency,” was released to great hoopla last year. “Valentine’s Day Tip for Men: Sex More Likely for Those who Avoid House Chores,” trumpeted one headline at the time.

But men, don’t put those vacuums away just yet.

As with anything related to sex and the human species, the truth is like that movie about love, lust, infidelity, power, and happiness: It’s Complicated. And there are five things you need to know to understand why.

Here’s the first: Constance Gager, a social scientist at Montclair University, and her colleague used the very same data and came up with a very different conclusion: men who did more housework had more sex. Gager looked at men’s total housework hours. The newer study Gottlieb uses looked at the kind of housework men did and labeled the tasks either masculine or feminine.

“When our study came out, people kept fighting us, they couldn’t believe that if men did more housework they’d have more sex. Nobody wanted to hear it,” Gager said. (Her study found the correlation was true for both men and women.)  “But with this study, people can’t get enough, saying, ‘Men, stop doing housework and you’ll get laid.’ ”

With a host of surveys showing that majorities of men and women around the world, particularly younger men and women, prefer more egalitarian marriages, Gager worries about the message that sends.

“Is the idea that we’d all be better off if men went back to bowling and women went back to playing canasta, and then we’d all have more sex?” Gager said. “That men get more sex when they go back to being cave men?”

Which brings us to the second thing you need to know: the data both studies use – collected from interviews with 6,877 couples – is 20 years old. Attitudes have changed since then. In 1990 ,the Pew Research Center found that 47 percent of adults said sharing household chores was an important factor in a successful marriage. Now, 72 percent do, ranking chore-sharing as the third most important factor in a good marriage, just behind faithfulness and sex, and ahead of income and having adequate housing.

Other more recent studies have linked a father’s housework to more feelings of warmth for their wives, and linked a wife’s satisfaction with sharing chores with her husband’s satisfaction in bed. (Some researchers call this a “tit for tat” exchange: he does housework in order to get sex.)

And new time diary data collected by the American Time Use Survey shows that while men’s time spent doing chores hasn’t changed much since the 1990s, men have tripled the amount of time they spend caring for children. According to time diary research by Suzanne Bianchi, Liana Sayer, Melissa Milkie and John Robinson, mothers spent four times more time with children than fathers in 1965, 2.5 times more in 1995 and 1.9 times more in 2009-2010.

So what does that have to do with sex?

Here’s the third thing: With people working long hours and spending so much time with kids, never mind cooking and cleaning, they don’t have much time for sex anymore. Or they’re too exhausted. A roll in the hay can instead become just another nagging chore to be checked off the To Do list.

That theme runs throughout Gottlieb’s provocative piece. “The modern marital tableau,” she quotes someone at a dinner party quipping, “is two overwhelmed people trying to relax before bed: he on Pornhub, she on Pinterest. Then they kiss and go to sleep.”

But is it just people in egalitarian marriages not having sex?

Point number four: The National Health and Social Life Survey estimates that one in every five marriages in the U.S. are what it deems “sexless” – engaging in sex less than ten times a year.

And anecdotes of lackluster sex lives abound, regardless of who’s cooking dinner or mopping the floor. Just take a peek at the DeadBedrooms chat room on Reddit, a support group for people “who are coping with a relationship without any physical intimacy in it.” It had 11,873 readers on a recent day.

Which leads to the fifth and final thing you need to know: We don’t know as much about sex as we think.

Gottlieb writes that egalitarian marriages are dull between the sheets because the partners are too alike. And while it’s nice to have a “kindred spirit,” it’s not hot.

“What’s hot is being different, mysterious, unpredictable, and having power imbalance,” a sex therapist explained to me, “All things that can make for a conflict-ridden marriage reminiscent of those depicted on Mad Men, where the men have all the power.”

That sexy power imbalance, Gottlieb argues, may be why so many women were drawn to the erotic blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey and its fantasies of male domination and female submission.

The sex therapist encouraged people in egalitarian marriages to “get creative” to spice up their differences.

But Sinikka Elliott, a sociologist who studies gender, sexuality and inequality at North Carolina State University, said, it was time, instead, to throw out outdated gender “sexual scripts.”

“Here’s a possible scenario: you have an exhausted husband who’s put in long hours in paid and unpaid labor… and has consequently had less leisure time and less time to fantasize about sex, and is less likely to initiate sex.  Meanwhile, his wife may not feel empowered to take over this role and he may not want her to because men are ‘supposed’ to initiate sex,” Elliott wrote in an email.

So it’s not that a man needs to do less housework, or drop the iron for the lawnmower to get more sex, as the study Gottlieb writes about suggests. Instead, society needs to get over centuries of harshly repressing women’s sexuality, Elliott wrote, “so that women and men can feel more confident and comfortable with women initiating sex and acting on sexual desire.”

Natalie Angier, the New York Times science writer, in her fascinating book, “Woman: An Intimate Geography,” takes on long-held assumptions that women just don’t want sex as much as men do, and have to be pursued, won over with chocolates, wowed by manly wood chopping or obligated after a grudging bout of vacuuming.

“Men have the naturally higher sex drive, yet all the laws, customs, punishments shame, strictures, mystiques, and anti mystiques are aimed with full hominid fury at that tepid, sleepy, hypoactive creature the female libido,” she writes. “How can we know what is ‘natural’ for us when we are treated as unnatural for wanting our lust?”

After all, she writes, female primates, who share so much of our DNA, are pretty randy creatures.

In the end, what strikes me most about all the fury about sex and housework is just how much we are still on the bleeding edge of the first massive shift in gender roles since, oh, the Pleistocene era. It’s not surprising that things are confusing. And the demands of modern life leave us little time to sort them out.

But rather than mourn the supposedly sexier unions of the past, with dominant men and submissive women, or lament that the current move to egalitarian partnerships leaves us sexless roommates, why not, as Elliott suggests, throw out the old sexual scripts. Why not begin to imagine something entirely new – not only a fairer division of labor, but a more honest expression of our human sexuality?

Now that’s something to fantasize about.

Brigid Schulte writes about work-life issues and poverty, seeking to understand what it takes to live The Good Life across race, class and gender.
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