It may be gratifying for women to see their husbands loading the dishwasher or folding laundry, but is it sexy? Yes, according to many media stories. “Men: Want More Sex? Do the Laundry” was headline of a 2009 report from CBS News. According to Naomi Wolf, “research has shown that the most erotic thing a man can do for a woman is the dishes.” Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In, agrees. “Nothing is sexier” she says, than a man who wants to do his share of the housework. “It may be counterintuitive,” writes Sandberg, “but the best way for a man to make a pass at his wife is to do the dishes.” Sandberg urges readers to check out a “fabulous little book” called Porn for Women produced by the Cambridge Women’s Pornography Cooperative. It is full of images of hunky guys vacuuming, dusting, and cleaning the kitty litter.
But now a new study in the American Sociological Review casts doubt on the truth of this happy feminist idyll. Men routinely doing “female” chores appear to have less—not more—sex. According to the authors, Sabino Kornrich (Center for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, Madrid), Julie Brines (University of Washington), and Katrina Leupp (University of Washington):
Couples in which men participate more in housework typically done by women report having sex less frequently. Similarly, couples in which men participate more in traditionally masculine tasks—such as yard work, paying bills, and auto maintenance—report higher sexual frequency.
The three researchers looked at data from a nationally representative sample of 4,500 heterosexual married couples from the U.S. National Survey of Families and Households, 1992–1994—the most recent large-scale study measuring household chores, sexual frequency, and marital satisfaction.
Men in the study reported having had sex an average of 5.2 times in the month prior to the survey, while women reported 5.6 times on average. But both men and women in couples with more gender-traditional divisions of household labor reported having had more sex than those with more egalitarian divisions.
In marriages where women performed all the typically female tasks (cleaning, cooking, shopping—called “core work” by the researchers), couples had sex 1.6 times more per month than couples where men carried out all these traditionally female chores. In marriages where men helped out but stuck to stereotypical male tasks (“non-core” work such automobile maintenance, yard work, bill-paying, and snow shoveling), couples had sex 0.7 times more than those where women performed the traditional male tasks. But, as the researchers point out, even in marriages where men did 40 percent of the “female” chores, couples experience “substantially lower sexual frequency than households in which women perform all the core [typically female] chores.” Put simply: There appears to be an inverse relationship between husbands doing traditionally female tasks and sexual frequency.
The researchers considered the possibility that traditional couples have more sex because the husband is coercive. They ruled this out because wives in conventional marriages report similar levels of sexual satisfaction as those in more egalitarian marriages. As lead author Sabino Kornrich notes, “Had satisfaction with sex been low, but frequency high, it might have suggested coercion. However, we didn’t find that.” They also controlled for variables such as religion, age, gender ideology, income, and participation in paid labor. “If anything surprised us,” author Julie Brines told reporters, “it was how robust the connection was between traditional division of labor and sexual frequency.”
Critics of the study point out that it is based on data from the early 1990s. Husbands and wives are different today, they say. As Montclair State University sociologist told Live Science, today’s younger generation is more comfortable with fluid definitions of gender. “Gender roles around housework and child care have been slow to change, but I think it’s naïve to think they haven’t changed in the last 20 years,” But the latest research shows little change in husband’s participation in core housework in the past two decades: Sociologists refer to this lack of change as the “stalled revolution.” What is most striking about today’s younger generation is not that men are adopting more “fluid definitions of gender” and becoming more engaged in core housework—it is that millions of fathers are not in the home at all.
Where did the myth originate about husbands who do laundry getting more sex ?The authors explain that the misleading media accounts are based on research that failed to take into account how couples divide household chores. While it may be true that men helping around the house increases sexual frequency—how men help makes a difference. Maintaining the car, mowing the lawn or shoveling snow seem to be more arousing than ironing or shopping for dust ruffles. According to the authors, among heterosexual couples, expressions of sexual difference create sexual desire. Gender-linked tasks are far more sexually charged than prominent egalitarians like Naomi Wolf and Sheryl Sandberg would have us believe.
Does this mean husbands can behave like slobs and let their wives do all the washing, cleaning, cooking, and shopping? Definitely not. The authors warn that a man who refuses to help out with core chores is likely to create strife and conflict in the marriage. And with so many women working full-time, what might be best for a couple’s romantic life may be unworkable and unfair in real life.” Each couple will have to work it out for themselves. Not an easy task. Egalitarian “peer marriages” where couples share all domestic tasks equally can be quite happy, report the authors—though they tend to take on a “sibling-like” tonality that “undermines sexual desire.”
What’s a couple to do? This new article is part of the solution. It is a helpful reminder that the sexes are not interchangeable. Couples need to know this. The authors don’t say so, but men and women, taken as a group, don’t merely find conventional sex roles exciting—many seem to like those traditional roles as well. Cheryl Mendelson, author ofHome Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, has a Ph.D. in philosophy and a J.D from Harvard Law, but she confesses to leading a “secret life” as an old-fashioned “housewife.” She adds that the pleasure and comfort of homemaking are “central to my character.” Few men view homemaking as central to their character—but millions of women do. Males are not the market for Family Circle, Better Homes and Gardens, orMarthaStewart.com. A few months ago I found myself at Calico Corners—a fabric store outside DC. The shop was full of purposeful, engaged women busily looking for materials for window treatments and cushion fabrics. In the middle of the store there were some easy chairs filled with a few dazed men waiting patiently to be released. Men have a far more tenuous relationship with housecraft than women.
Some will read these generalizations and cry, “Sexism!” or “Essentialism!” So let’s be clear about what these group comparisons mean. I am talking about statistical averages, not absolutes. Clearly, not all men and women embody the stereotypes of their sex. Though they are not typical, there are women who dislike homemaking and would far prefer reading Popular Mechanics over Traditional Home; and there are men who enjoy many aspects of homemaking. No doubt, there are women for whom nothing is sexier than the sight of their husbands doing the dishes. But, as the new article in the American Sociological Review reminds us, they are a distinct minority. In our search for a solution to the work/life balance conundrum, it is best to begin by telling the truth about who we are.