In the New York Times Magazine this week, author and psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb argues that there’s a pernicious downside to rising equality between men and women in America: The dissolution of traditional gender roles in marriage has deflated heterosexual desire. Gottlieb’s story, “Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?,” posits that when traditionally masculine tasks (breadwinning, mowing the lawn) and traditionally feminine ones (cooking, raising children) are shared between men and women, spouses start to see each other as equals instead of opposites, and boners die.
Gottlieb’s story relies heavily on a 2012 study (PDF) published in the American Sociological Review that found that when men in heterosexual marriages performed chores that are traditionally coded as feminine—like “folding laundry, cooking or vacuuming”—the couple had sex less frequently. But if the husband performed traditionally masculine chores, like mowing the lawn or taking out the trash, the couples “reported a 17.5 percent higher frequency of sexual intercourse”—and the wives were more sexually satisfied, too. The data on which the study is based was collected 20 years ago, when the husband who cooks dinner or does the dishes was still an anomaly, but Gottlieb cites one contemporary couple she’s treated in her psychotherapy practice as further evidence of the trend. The couple came to her looking for help distributing their career and household duties but found that once their responsibilities were balanced, their sex life suffered. The wife claimed that she was highly sexually attracted to her husband ”when you’re just back from the gym and you’re all sweaty and you take off your clothes to get in the shower and I see your muscles,” but that desire turns to irritation when the husband tossed his dirty clothes onto the floor, sparking an argument about his failure to vacuum the house. “So if I got out the vacuum, then you’d be turned on?” the husband asked. “Actually, probably not,” she replied. “The vacuuming would have killed the weight-lifting vibe.”
That contradiction provides ammunition for Gottlieb’s argument that doing women’s work drains men of their masculine sexual appeal; “in an attempt to be gender-neutral,” she says, “we may have become gender-neutered.” But are we really sure that this woman would be more attracted to her husband if he never cleaned the carpets? It seems like she would be happier if her husband always left the carpets so spotless she never had to hound him about it and if he also did the work necessary to look really hot at the end of the day. That may sound like an unreasonable expectation, but it is precisely the feat that midcentury housewives were expected to pull off before all of this gender equity let them out of the kitchen.
Gottlieb talks a lot about the work that modern husbands and wives are negotiating to share—bringing in an income, raising children, keeping the house clean—but there’s one type of work she leaves out of her account. Part of the job of the housewife was to keep the husband sexually satisfied. And pleasing your man did, in fact, require work. Flip through Helen Andelin’s 1965 guidebook Fascinating Womanhood— which instructed wives to cultivate the feminine “appearance, manner, nature, and role” necessary to “make your marriage a lifelong love affair”—to get an idea of the level of detail necessary here. It’s easy to forget that American wives were expected to put in a high degree of effort to be their man’s sexual helpmate, because part of the trick was to make the feminine performance seem totally effortless. After all, if the “feminine nature” Andelin talks about is in fact natural, why would you need to buy the book?
That’s not to say that men and women in America were having mutually satisfying sex back then. While women were actually legally required to please their husbands—the United States didn’t begin criminalizing the act of raping your wife until the mid-1970s—female sexuality was underestimated and dismissed. Women’s bodies were for giving pleasure to men, not for experiencing it themselves. As women gained sexual agency, it became clear that they, too, possess desires, and that satisfying them also takes work—in fact, a whole new category of work that was never acknowledged as necessary in previous generations. But when we talk about sharing duties in the modern marriage, we rarely talk about the work that sexual pleasure requires, and whether that responsibility is being shared equitably, too.