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Do wives whose husbands help out with “women’s” household jobs have lousy, or less frequent sex? Are women happier in bed when they are married to old fashioned men who don't help around the house?
That’s the suggestion made by Lori Gottlieb in a recent New York Times magazine cover piece entitled, “Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?”
Gottlieb, an L.A.-based marriage and family therapist, looked at a study saying that when men did certain kinds of chores around the house, couples had less sex.
“Specifically, if men did all of what the researchers characterized as feminine chores like folding laundry, cooking or vacuuming — the kinds of things many women say they want their husbands to do — then couples had sex 1.5 fewer times per month than those with husbands who did what were considered masculine chores, like taking out the trash or fixing the car.”
This idea resonated with Gottlieb.
“As a psychotherapist who works with couples, I’ve noticed something similar to the findings. That is, it’s true that being stuck with all the chores rarely tends to make wives desire their husbands. Yet having their partner, say, load the dishwasher — a popular type of marital intervention suggested by self-help books, women’s magazines and therapists alike — doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on their libido, either.”
Well, duh! Does anyone really see the dishwasher as an aphrodisiac? And correlation is not causation, as she admits. Does it make sense that a woman will feel a cold chill of indifference when her husband stacks the dishes, but will go wild with lust when he takes out the trash? No. Are other factors at work here? Yes. This is classic junk science — a provocative headline perched on top of flimsy evidence.
The study itself, by the American Sociological Review, has several problems. To begin with, it is concerned only with sexual frequency, not with the more interesting question of sexual satisfaction. Couples who have infrequent sex may, nevertheless, find their sexual relationship satisfying, while couples with high frequency may not.
Also, the husbands in the sample, on average, were born somewhere around 1947. Are they too old to represent many of today’s married couples?
Furthermore, the researchers looked at couples, but analyzed the data in a way that compared all the men and all the women. So they can’t say anything at all about the behavior of couples, just about men as a group and women as a group.
And the difference in the frequency of sex between the guys who did the traditional male chores and those who did more typically female chores is — drumroll — 1.5 times each month.
One-point-five rolls in the hay? Hardly the difference between raging libido and cold indifference. (Don’t ask what a .5 sexual encounter is; it’s merely a statistical artifact.)
But Gottlieb goes beyond the narrow findings of this study to claim that egalitarian marriages — in which both spouses have jobs, do housework and have a relationship “built on equal power” — essentially zap partners’ libidos. It “may be having an unexpectedly negative impact” on the sex lives of such couples, she claims.
Stories that predict dire fates for ambitious women just create too much buzz to be resisted.
No, it's not. There is substantial evidence to show this statement is absolutely wrong.
A study by one of the authors of this article, Dr. Rosalind Barnett, looked at men’s marital happiness and found that, overall, as a woman earns more relative to her husband, his marital quality — including sexual satisfaction — goes up.
In another study, Barnett found that among dual-earner couples, the more equal the amount of childcare he and she do, the better she rates the quality of the marriage. The hands-off macho man who stands back while his wife does the lion’s share of the childcare is apt to find himself standing alone. An unhappy wife is not likely to be wildly receptive to her husband’s romantic advances.
None of this related research is cited by Gottlieb. Not surprising, since it proves there’s really no story here. Her article is just another example of a longstanding media trend, using suspect or sketchy social science data to further a familiar narrative: when women stray from home and hearth, everyone suffers.
In 2005, for example, spinsterhood was the reported fate of bright women. The Atlantic published an item with the ominous headline “Too Smart to Marry?” The sentiment was echoed in many other mainstream publications. If you believe the media narrative, most women who don’t marry early and focus on their domestic abilities end up as lonely, wretched creatures.
Family historian Stephanie Coontz has said this idea is nonsense. These days, men rank intelligence and education way above cooking and housekeeping as desirable traits in a partner. Educated and high-earning women are now less likely to divorce than other women.
Alas, junk science will continue to be a favorite of the media. Stories that predict dire fates for ambitious women just create too much buzz to be resisted.
However, if you do indeed fall for the idea that when your husband folds a towel or does the dishes, your sex life will fall apart, we have a nice bridge we’d like to sell you.
This piece was co-written by Rosalind C. Barnett. Barnett is a senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. She and Caryl Rivers co-authored “The New Soft War on Women.”
- Listen to Lori Gottlieb on Here & Now: Will Helicopter Parenting ‘Land Your Kids In Therapy?
- More by Rivers and Barnett: Think Gender Struggles In The Workplace Are History? Think Again
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