Honestly, I really think reading how the media reports academic studies is generally a bad idea. This is how you get headlines like this:
It may be the 21st century, but a new study suggests sticking to old values may reap benefits — that is, if you like sex. (source)
Want to have more sex? Men, stop helping with the chores. (source)
Couples wanting to improve their sex lives may want to look at how they divide household chores, because men and women who follow traditional roles have sex more often than other couples, researchers said on Wednesday. (source)
Why husbands who share household chores miss out on sex (source)
Article after article, jumping all over this idea that men can improve their sex lives by stopping doing the dishes. Because that’s what this brand new study released yesterday in the American Sociological Review said, right? If you want more sex (raise your hands, guys!), all you have to do is stop doing chores! Actually, that’s really not what the study said. In fact, that third headline, the the one that says the researchers said their evidence suggests that couples should rethink how they divide up chores? Yeah, no. They didn’t say that.
Let’s look at the abstract of the actual study:
Changes in the nature of marriage have spurred a debate about the consequences of shifts to more egalitarian relationships, and media interest in the debate has crystallized around claims that men who participate in housework get more sex. However, little systematic or representative research supports the claim that women, in essence, exchange sex for men’s participation in housework. Although research and theory support the expectation that egalitarian marriages are higher quality, other studies underscore the ongoing importance of traditional gender behavior and gender display in marriage. Using data from Wave II of the National Survey of Families and Households, this study investigates the links between men’s participation in core (traditionally female) and non-core (traditionally male) household tasks and sexual frequency. Results show that both husbands and wives in couples with more traditional housework arrangements report higher sexual frequency, suggesting the importance of gender display rather than marital exchange for sex between heterosexual married partners.
In other words, this study is a corrective to the narrative that if men do more housework, their wives will reward them with more sex. It turns out that that’s not true. And you know what? Good. I find the idea that sex is something that should be bought and sold within marriage appalling. Here is how the authors describe that theory, which they are arguing is flawed:
The difference in men’s and women’s desire for sex underpins a key perspective on sex: sex can be used as a resource for exchange. Predictions of social exchange theory are of particular interest (Homans 1961; Sprecher 1998). Because spouses (the parties to the exchange) possess different resources, they benefit from exchanging a resource one possesses for another scarce resource the other possesses. Sex, in this view, is a resource that partners might use for exchange. A self-interested view of social exchange suggests that individuals exchange when each party benefits. Partners thus trade sex for other scarce resources such as time, money, commitment, or other goods when they both benefit (Baumeister and Vohs 2004).
Although the condition of mutual benefit suggests a gender-free venue for exchange, both popular and scholarly understandings see sex as a female, rather than male, resource. Baumeister and Vohs (2004) argue compellingly that sex should be seen as a female resource due to the principle of least interest—if men want sex more than women, they must induce women to engage in sex by offering other benefits. A review of a wide variety of measures of sex drive suggests that men want sex more than women (Baumeister, Catanese, and Vohs 2001). Whether men’s greater sexual desire results from biological or cultural factors is immaterial; either condition results in women’s possession of a scarce resource.
An exchange perspective, combined with the assumption that men desire sex more than women, suggests that women could trade sex for resources men control. This could apply to any set of bargaining goals (e.g., decision-making, monetary or gift exchange, or time spent on any task), but we focus here on the application to household labor, because labor has been at the center of a discussion about how much marriages have changed. In addition, a long research tradition investigates whether and how women exchange another resource they control—their earnings—for men’s participation in housework (Brines 1994; Greenstein 2000; Gupta 2007;Lundberg and Pollak 1993). A central assumption of this line of research, which we follow, is that both men and women prefer to avoid housework, but housework is more likely to fall into women’s sphere of responsibilities by default (cf. Lundberg and Pollak 1993). The implication is that women are likely to use their resources—in this case, sex—to bargain their way out of performing housework.
Can I say how very very uncomfortable this whole thing makes me? Sex should be about mutual pleasure and bonding, not something you trade or leverage. Marriage should be about friendship, companionship, and a life lived together, not a business relationship in which things are bought and sold. Seriously, “if you do the dishes tonight, I’ll have sex with you, but if you don’t, I won’t”? Who thinks that’s a good idea? Treating chores and sex like a business transaction is just bizarre to me, and the further away we can get from that conception the better, in my book.
With that out of the way, I have to say, the most misleading thing about the quotations from news articles above is that they assume the authors of the study found that the men who did more chores had less sex. That’s not actually what the study found. In fact, it found that men who did more chores had more sex. The question at hand, however, was the type of chores being done. The authors divided chores into those gendered female (“core”) and those gendered male (“non-core”). Things like washing the dishes and sweeping the kitchen were gendered female while things like mowing the lawn and fixing the care were gendered male. What the researchers found is that couples where the man does the male-gendered chores and the woman does the female-gendered chores have more sex than do couples where the man and woman share both the male-gendered chores and the female-gendered chores. Here is where they explain this:
Our main question of interest, however, is whether and how men’s participation in household labor is linked to sexual frequency. Our results suggest that sexual frequency is highest in households with traditionally gendered divisions of labor. As Table 3 shows, the coefficient for men’s share of core house hold labor is negative: households in which men do more female-typed (core) tasks report lower sexual frequency. The coefficient for men’s share of non-core household labor, on the other hand, is positive: households in which men do more male-typed (non-core) tasks report more sex. These effects are statistically significant and substantively large. Overall, these results suggest that sexuality is governed by enactments of femininity and masculinity through appropriately gendered performances of household labor that coincide with sexual scripts organizing heterosexual desire.
The suggestion, then, is that sex is still tied to traditional sexual “scripts,” meaning that a woman may find a man fixing the car sexy and a man doing dishes, well, not. The authors suggest that it has to do with signaling masculinity or femininity. I find this entire idea fascinating.
But even if the authors of this study are correct that there is a causal link between men doing female-gendered chores and a decrease in the frequency of sex, note that the authors do not use this findings to suggest that the solution is rejecting egalitarianism and adhering to traditional gender roles. Not at all. Instead, they use it to suggest areas of change that are needed to move forward toward a more authentic egalitarianism:
The notion that sex within marriage is bound to traditional sexual scripts does not necessarily put egalitarianism at odds with sexual frequency. Rather, the saliency of traditional sexual scripts suggests that if maintaining certain features of marriage, such as sexual frequency, is desired, increased egalitarianism in one area of marriage must be paired with comparable shifts away from traditional gender behaviors, attitudes, and scripts in others. One potential change may be women’s sexual agency. As we noted earlier, Baumeister and colleagues (2001) document substantial differences in sexual interest and activity between men and women, reflecting double standards that penalize girls and young women for sexual activity while often rewarding sexually active young men. To the extent these double standards become internalized, heterosexual women may subjugate their own desires and may not feel as free to initiate sex. One potential interpretation of our results is that husbands’ participation in core housework increases their stress levels and makes them less likely to initiate sex. If wives do not feel empowered to initiate sex, then husbands’ housework and ensuing fatigue would reduce the frequency of intercourse. In this interpretation, it is not necessarily the case that egalitarianism in household labor is incompatible with sexual activity itself, but rather that egalitarianism is incompatible with current sexual scripts. Gendered sexual scripts punish women for being sexually agentic and encourage men to be sexual initiators. If these scripts were to change and both men and women initiated intercourse, then the division of household labor would presumably be less consequential.
Note that there is absolutely no suggestion here that these “sexual scripts” are somehow inevitable or hardwired into our brains rather than socially constructed and learned. The authors are suggesting that it is the sexual double standard that is at fault here, and that if we correct the sexual double standard we may be able to eliminate, or at least significantly reduce, the difference they found in sexual frequency. I actually think that what they say here makes a lot of sense. The issue is not egalitarianism, it is the leftovers of patriarchy that we have not fully worked through. And guess what? Even though this paragraph has a primary place in the conclusion of the study, and even though I’ve combed like ten news articles on this study, not one of them mentions anything said here. Not one.
And this leads into my list of caveats.
First, the authors did not take sexual satisfaction into account. Here is what they say about sexual satisfaction, as differentiated from sexual frequency:
Sexual frequency appears to lie in the realm of sexual scripts, but couples are not purely interested in the amount of sex they have—they undoubtedly also care about the quality of sex. Although sexual frequency is correlated with sexual satisfaction, the correlation is far from perfect. We focus on sexual frequency in this article in part as a response to existing media claims about the topic, but also because sex and housework are enduring components of marriage, historically predating romantic love and sexual satisfaction (Coontz 2005). The importance of sexual frequency for sexual satisfaction, marital stability, and marital satisfaction for egalitarian versus traditional marriages are testable questions, but not the ones this article asks. If scripts define a moment as sexual, and govern sexual initiation, then the sexual scripts theory explains sexual frequency, not sexual satisfaction. Even if egalitarian couples have the least but most satisfying sex, the scripts perspective would not be invalidated. Still, the question of satisfaction is undoubtedly important and should be pursued in future research.
This means that even if it’s true that a traditional division of chores may be correlated with couples having more frequent sex, that does not mean it is necessarily correlated with couples having more satisfying sex or more fulfilled sex lives. Again, this is something the news reports on this study seem to be ignoring.
Second, the authors did not take marital satisfaction into account. In fact, the authors cite evidence suggesting that an egalitarian division of labor leads to greater marital satisfaction for women as well as lower levels of marital conflict and divorce.
For example, research shows that when men do more housework, wives’ perceptions of fairness and marital satisfaction tend to rise (Amato et al. 2003; Stevens, Kiger, and Mannon 2005) and couples experience less marital conflict (Coltrane 2000). Other research shows that U.S. couples who have more equal divisions of labor are less likely to divorce than are couples where one partner specializes in breadwinning and the other partner specializes in family work (Cooke 2006).
So note that their intent here was not to suggest that couples who have a traditional division of the chores are necessarily happier or more fulfilled in their marriage. In fact, after noting what other researchers have found regarding marital satisfaction, housework, and the division of labor, they don’t even examine the question of marital satisfaction themselves. The only question before them was frequency of sex. This is another thing the news reports seem to be ignoring. Believe it or not, sex isn’t everything.
Third, the study uses dated data. The they used was collected from 1992 to 1994, and the average age of the males was 46 while the average age of the females was 44. It’s been twenty years since then, and I’m willing to bet that if you conducted this study among young people today, you would find very different results. In other words, I seriously think this study uses outdated data. I’m not saying the sexual scripts the authors talk about have completely disappeared, but rather that I think the culture we young people move in today is heading in the direction of changing those scripts. I know it’s hard to be truly introspective about this kind of thing and there is likely subconscious stuff going on, but I personally find it sexy when Sean does his part around the house, and I really don’t think there’s much more attractive than seeing his wonderfully father skills at work with the kids. And on that note, I’ll offer you with this and this and this image:
Fourth, correlation does not equal causation. This means that just because having more frequent sex is correlated with a traditional division of labor that does not mean that it is caused by that more traditional division of labor. Now obviously, the authors think the correlation is strong enough to suggest some sort of causation, and their argument is that when men do traditional masculine things, including male-gendered chores, that makes them more sexually attractive to their wives, and that when wives do traditional feminine things, including female-gendered chores, that makes them more sexually attractive to their husband. While the authors said they controlled for religion and gender ideology, it is still possible that another factor here entirely created this correlation of these two things rather than the one being caused by the other.
Fifth and finally, the authors used self-reported data. I don’t know enough about statistics and how studies are conducted to know for sure about this, but I wonder if it’s possible that couples that are less egalitarian might possibly over report the frequency with which they have sex while couples that are more egalitarian would feel no need to do so. I didn’t see this possibility addressed in the study.
In conclusion, I’ll simply repeat that I think there is a big problem with media reporting of a whole range of scientific studies. I know that whenever I see a news report on a study like this, I immediately think “I shouldn’t assume I actually know what these researchers found until I check what the actual study says.” Reading through news reports about this study and then the study itself only confirmed this for me.