Friday, February 14, 2014

Equitable Marriage and Frequency of Sex—Is Correlation Causation?

Some of my best experiences of sex have come after, or even during, times when my spouse and I were working together on household chores. While solo housecleaning has its upsides and its downsides (think Carol Channing on Free to be You and Me, reciting the poem "Housework"), there's just something sexy about working with my spouse on household tasks. Maybe it's the physical exertion involved, two sweaty bodies in close proximity. Or maybe it's the sense of joint purpose, of two people working together to care for home we've built, and continue to create and maintain. Or maybe it's the potent combination of both these factors. Whatever the cause, all I know is that I find a housecleaning man a huge turn-on.

Sexy or no?
So when I saw the February 6th New York Times Magazine online, which featured an article with the provocative title "Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?" you can imagine my surprise. Such a headline is almost guaranteed not only to catch the eye of the curious reader, but also to strike dismay, or at the very least frustration, in the heart of a feminist. Feminism has had to defend itself against a lot of criticism, some of it warranted, but most of it not. Do we really have to defend the ideal of egalitarian marriage against the specter of bad sex?

Psychologist Lori Gottlieb, the author of this piece, lays out her thesis early on: while a vast majority of adults aspire to an egalitarian marriage, one in which both spouses are employed and both participate in domestic chores, "the very qualities that lead to greater emotional satisfaction in peer marriages...may be having an unexpectedly negative impact on those couples' sex lives."

Gottlieb was inspired to investigate the connections between sexual satisfaction and egalitarian power-sharing in married couples as she began to notice a pattern in the couples she was counseling, as well as in those with whom her fellow psychologist friends were working:

No matter how much sink-scrubbing and grocery-shopping the husband does, no matter how well husband and wife communicate with each other, no matter how sensitive they are to each other's emotions and work schedules, the wife does not find her husband more sexually exciting, even if she feels both closer to and happier with him.

Gottlieb went on to interview other psychologists and sociologists who study issues of marriage and sex, as well as to investigate the current social science papers published on the topic, and found some support for her position, particular in a study published last year in The American Sociological Review, "Egalitarianism, Housework and Sexual Frequency in Marriage." Julie Brines, one of the authors of said study, suggested to Gottlieb that "the less gender differentiation, the less sexual desire." Or, in Gottlieb's words, "in an attempt to be gender-neutral, we may have become gender-neutered." Men who take on manly chores have more frequent sex than men whose chores are more gender-neutral, the egalitarianism study claims.

Gottlieb's article is far more nuanced that its stark headline suggests. She's clear about the limits of her own theories, and the current research on sex roles and sex in marriage. Early on, she acknowledges the scientific truism, "correlations don't establish causation." She also acknowledges the "risk of reporting bias and selective sampling" inherent in such scientific studies. But as I read through her article, I had a lot of questions:

• Is sexual frequency the only, or even the best way to measure sexual satisfaction?
• Do men and women value sexual frequency equally?
• Does less sexual frequency always mean less sexual desire?
• Would you prefer to have more sex, or to be happier and more emotionally intimate, with your partner?
• Is the opposite of stark gender differentiation complete gender neutrality? Where does gender flexibility fit in?
• Do Americans place a higher value on sexual frequency than people in other cultures?
• How does the very act of applying numbers and percentages to human relationships impact our thinking about them? For example, a study by Lynn Prince Cooke that Gottlieb cites found higher divorce rates when a wife earns more than her husband than when the opposite is true. But she also found that "the predicted risk of divorce is lowest when the husband does 40 percent of the housework and the wife earls 40 percent of the income." This might give you the impression that if we all strove to create that precise proportion of income & chores in our own relationships, we, too, would avoid divorce. But I'm guessing that no such outcome would happen, even if everyone in the country managed to hit the "right" balance.
• Numbers also seem to de-historicize relationships. What I mean is, would the 40/40 percentage cited in the point above have been the same 10 years ago? Will it still be the same twenty years from now? How does the historical moment in which a study is taking place influence the results one gets from it?

What I found the most provocative about Gottlieb's article was her discussion of the way power and sexual desire play out in relationships, in ways that are often at odds with the way they play out in everyday life. Esther Perel, another couples therapist, told Gottlieb that "Egalitarian marriage takes the values of a good social system—consensus-building an consent—and assumes you can bring these rules into the bedroom. But the values that make for good social relationships are not necessarily the same ones that drive lust.... most of us get turned on at night by the very things that we'll demonstrate against during the day." In other words, the power dynamics you've worked out with your romantic partner in everyday life do not have to be the same as the power dynamics you engage in in the bedroom.

Many couples, though, seem to have difficulty doing what I would term "code-switching," being flexible enough to take off one set of expectations, one sexual script, and don another, depending on the circumstance. For example, Gottlieb reported about one couple she worked with, where the woman asked her partner to be rougher with her during sex, asked him to dominate her. But "he said he just doesn't see me that way, that he doesn't see us that way." Having learned to be an egalitarian partner in his day-to-day interactions with his wife, this man just could not shake off the behaviors associated with such norms when he came to bed.

I asked my scientist-spouse to take a look at the actual American Sociological Review article, and he noticed something quite interesting. While there is a correlation between less sexual frequency and egalitarian roles in marriage (about -.4 for the science nerds out there), it's not the highest correlation the researchers uncovered. The factor that had the greatest (positive) impact on sexual frequency was, perhaps not surprisingly, how much time couples spent alone together (+.7; see Table 3, page 39, of the study). Perhaps if these couples didn't simply share the housework, but did it together, they'd find themselves having sex more often?

Of course, correlation is not causation...

How is married sex portrayed in romance novels? Is it less frequent than amongst newly in-love couples? Is it less hot?

Photo credits:
Man cleaning toilet: The Prisma
Power dynamics in bed: Lifestyle,


  1. "The factor that had the greatest (positive) impact on sexual frequency was, perhaps not surprisingly, how much time couples spent alone together "

    This is exactly what I was thinking as I read this.

    1. Yep. I'm guessing a big factor in lack of sexual satisfaction with a partner may come down to how busy people are, especially if small children are part of the family. Something that I regret not doing soon after our daughter was born was establishing a regular date night with my spouse--making that commitment that, no matter what, we were going to spend at least an hour or two a week together alone...

  2. ACK! Let's not let Mr. Stanley read this...he already thinks he does too much housework and doesn't have enough sex...
    (Just kidding. I think).

    That's an interesting study, but many factors that complicate the subject. And there's the quantity vs. quality issue, too...what if people are only doing it once a week, but it's so mind blowing that the wife can't walk for six days afterwards...? And then the husband would HAVE to do the laundry and the dishes, and...
    In addition to an overly imaginative romance novelist, I'm a scientist, too (biology, not sociology) and have a tendency to dig for alternate explanations for everything...

    1. My spouse is a scientist, too, Teri Anne. I love having folks like him and you around, to help us realize that understanding science is often as much a matter of how you/the researcher interprets the data someone's collected as a matter of hard and fast fact.

  3. Wow! This is interesting. This part really resonated with me: "Many couples, though, seem to have difficulty doing what I would term "code-switching," being flexible enough to take off one set of expectations, one sexual script, and don another, depending on the circumstance."

    It makes me think about the levels of consciousness we bring to both sex and role negotiation in marriage, and how we might have both the higher values of equality, and also deeper, non-rational desires, at play.

    I do wonder about sexual satisfaction, and if less frequent but more "equal" sex might be better for both partners.

    Thanks for sharing--worth discussing with DH!

    1. You're very welcome, Amber. I totally agree that there are different levels of consciousness about what we, and our romantic partners, desire, in and out of the bedroom. Hard enough to excavate those contradictory depths for yourself; doing so with/for a partner is even more of a challenge.

      Makes me wonder why "frequency" of sex is even the model used in the study. Because it's easy to quantify, while "satisfaction" is far less easy to measure?

  4. I just read your profile on Book Bloggers Int'l and want to THANK YOU for -- just -- even, the title of your blog. I feel underrepresented in the book blogging community as a feminist. I look forward to exploring your blog. :D

    1. Welcome, April! Always glad to hear from a fellow feminist :-)