Reading last weekend’s New York Times Magazine, “Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?,” I was feeling a little anxious. My husband both loads and unloads the dishwasher. He sweeps the kitchen floor now and again. When our kids were in diapers, he changed a whole lot of diapers. Is my marriage doomed? But then just in time for Valentine’s Day came some advice, via the Today show website: seven tips for “keeping your marriage sexy, even after (a lot of) kids.”
The advice comes from the best possible source, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar. The reason they are good role models is because despite having 19 kids, the “romance is still strong.” In fact, they are “like a newlywed couple every day,” says Jim Bob. The No. 1 secret? “Say yes to sex, even when you’re tired.” Apparently a friend once gave Michelle advice she will never forget: “In your marriage there will be times you’re going to be very exhausted. Your hubby comes home after a hard day’s work, you get the baby to bed, and he is going to be looking forward to that time with you. … Anyone can fix him lunch, but only one person can meet that physical need of love that he has, and you always need to be available when he calls.” But don’t worry. This isn’t creepy or anything, because, “it’s not all sexytime at the Duggars. They abstain when Michelle has her period, and also after childbirth: 80 days before sex if it’s a girl, 40 days after a boy.”
A very uncomplicated myth is taking hold in our culture, that our perilous drift away from roles based on gender essentialism (women raise kids, men lift heavy objects and sweat) is destroying our sex lives. The New York Times Magazine story is based on a survey that, using information from the mid-1990s, says that when men did certain kinds of “feminine” chores around the house—folding laundry, cooking or vacuuming—couples had sex 1.5 fewer times per month. And conservatives love to quote an old health survey showing that evangelical women have better sex. But this glimpse into the Duggars’ bedroom reveals what I have always suspected. If it is true that less-equal marriages have more sex, it’s not because the men are doused with sexy man pheromones when they fix the car engine but refuse to wipe the counter. It’s because the women don’t say no.
And anyway, are those studies really true? Other studies have shown the opposite: that men get more sex when their wives are happier, and wives are happier when husbands help out with the housework. And as a person who would not feel all that sexy having to cook and clean up every night while my husband kicks back and watches the game, this feels intuitively correct. My guess would be that the frequency of sex has nothing to do with equality. If couples where men load the dishwashers have less sex, it’s probably because both parents are so busy and overworked that everyone has to pitch in on all chores, and everyone is tired. Also, Duggars aside, we live at a moment when a family’s evening life focuses around the children, and although Ayelet Waldman got in trouble for saying it, that may not be so sexy either.