Does A More Equal Marriage Really Mean Less Sex?


A recent New York Times piece by Lori Gottlieb entitled "Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?" made a lot of waves over the weekend. Gottlieb's analysis suggests that couples in egalitarian marriages (i.e., marriages in which the spouses share power and divide responsibilities equally) tend to have worse sex lives than couples who adopt more traditional gender roles. As some support for this idea, Gottlieb cited a study published in the American Sociological Review last year, which reported that married couples who divide household chores along gendered lines (i.e., with women doing more work inside the home, such as cleaning and ironing, and men doing more work outside of the home, such as mowing the lawn and fixing the car) have sex more often than couples who divide chores evenly [1]. However, a closer look at this research suggests that Gottlieb (like many others who have reported on this particular study) may be overselling the implications.

First and foremost, it’s important to recognize that this is a correlational study. Granted, Gottlieb admits this is a limitation, but she quickly dismisses it because the results are consistent with her personal observations. However, this doesn't change the fact that while gendered housework and sexual frequency were statistically associated, we don’t know why and we don’t even know whether this association is meaningful. Gendered housework may not be driving sexual frequency at all. For instance, perhaps  people who divide household chores along gender lines subscribe to very traditional ideas of male dominance and female submissiveness. Consequently, the women in these relationships may be less inclined to refuse a partner’s request for sex or feel as though they have a duty to provide a certain amount of sex to their partner.

Second, the data for this study were collected nearly 20 years ago. Gottlieb (like the authors of the original study) doesn't think this is a problem, though, because "not much as changed" since then. I disagree. In fact, I would argue that marriage and women's role in society have changed dramatically since the early 1990s. For one thing, the marriage rate is now at an all-time low. In addition, there are more women today working outside of the home than ever before, women are getting college degrees in greater numbers, and women are contributing a greater share of the household income in heterosexual relationships. Thus, I don’t think it’s safe to simply assume that the same results would be found in today’s world.

Third, although gendered housework was linked to more sex, it did not translate to a huge increase in sexual activity. The difference in sexual frequency between a household in which a woman does all of the “female” chores and one in which she does none is 1.6 times per month. Obviously, when trying to define what “a little” or “a lot” of sex is, we’re talking about a subjective judgment; however, I think most of us would agree that a difference of 1.6 times per month is far from earth-shattering. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the researchers only asked participants how often they had “sex” without defining what sex was or inquiring about how much time participants spent on sexual activity. Thus, we do not know whether participants were only referencing vaginal intercourse here, and we cannot say whether there is actually a difference in the overall amount of time couples spent on sexual activity. Perhaps couples who adopt more traditional gender roles have sex that's all business, with little to no foreplay, whereas egalitarian couples spend more time warming each other up.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, although frequency of sex was higher among those who engaged in gendered housework, we do not know if that translated to higher levels of sexual satisfaction. Quantity and quality of sex are two completely different things, and just because a couple is having more sex doesn’t necessarily mean that they are having better sex than everyone else. It could be that people who take on very strict gender roles have a very limited view of what they are "supposed" to do in bed, making sex less spontaneous and exciting. Consistent with this idea, a recent study found that both men and women who possess traditional gender role beliefs have lower sexual self-efficacy, which refers to one’s perceived ability to turn down sex, to achieve sexual satisfaction, and to initiate safe-sex practices [2]. In light of these findings, one could argue that adopting traditional gender roles may undermine the quality of your sex life.

In short, I would be hesitant to generalize the findings of the American Sociological Review study to all married couples. And even though Gottlieb's own observations as a marital therapist are consistent with the study, I would caution against generalizing the observations of a single therapist too broadly. For one thing, a marriage therapist is only working with clients who already have problems and therefore is not seeing the full spectrum of couples. In addition, there are important selection biases in who goes to therapy. I would suspect that couples who share power equally would be more likely to seek out therapy in the first place when their marriage is in trouble, whereas couples who adopt more traditional roles would be more inclined to suffer in silence. So it could be that Gottlieb isn't seeing a lot of egalitarian couples because equality causes more problems; instead, it may be that egalitarian couples just feel more empowered to seek help.

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[1] Kornrich, S., Brines, J., & Leupp, K. (2013). Egalitarianism, housework, and sexual frequency in marriage. American Sociological Review, 78, 26-50.

[2] Rosenthal, L., Levy, S. R., & Earnshaw, V. A. (in press). Social dominance orientation relates to believing men should dominate sexually, sexual self-efficacy, and taking free female condoms among undergraduate women and men. Sex Roles.

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