Are Vacuuming Men Really a Turn-off? A Closer Look at the Study, “Egalitarianism, Housework, and Sexual Frequency in Marriage,” in American Sociological Review, Feb. 2013
At the end of January, many popular news websites were quick to report that men who do “women’s work” get less sex. Titles like“Want to Have More Sex? Men, Stop Helping with the Chores,” “Does Female Housework Make Men Less Sexy?”and“Husbands Who Do ‘Her’ Chores Have Less Sex,” abounded, making it seem like men had better “put down their vacuums and pull out their lawn mowers,” and fast. However, as usual with any scientific study upon which popular articles are based, there is more to look at than a provocative title suggests.
Most of these articles do mention the fact that this study contradicts previous research with opposite outcomes. This is important because the data used in the February 2013 study is 20 years old. The authors of the study in the American Sociological Review acknowledge the importance of the age of the data, but conclude that “given the durability of some features of marriage, including the gendered division of labor” the researchers “suspect our results would still hold despite the time that has passed since the data were collected.” That is a big leap of faith for scientists.
In fact, just one year earlier, yahoo.com reported this: “Men Who Do Housework Have More Sex,” and quoted a 2008 study commissioned by the US Council of Contemporary Families that, in fact, men benefit in several ways, including sexually, from doing traditional household chores like cooking and cleaning. Another article on the same 2008 study reported, “Psychologist Joshua Coleman, a senior Council fellow, said sharing household chores ‘is associated with higher levels of marital satisfaction—and sometimes more sex, too’. He said: ‘Wives report greater feelings of sexual interest and affection for husbands who participate in housework.’”
Neil Cheithik conducted a randomized national telephone survey of 288 men for his 2006 book, VoiceMail: What Husbands Really Think About Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework and Commitment. He defined housework as “inside and outside responsibilities (not including paid work) that contribute to keeping up the home.” What he found was: “…the actual frequency of sex tends to be higher when a woman feels that the housework is divided fairly.” His study can’t tell us how women perceive fairness. However, it has been noted in other recent studies that wives spend twice as much time on housework as husbands, on average. In Cheithik’s survey (taken in 2003-2004), housework was the third most contentious issue for married couples. Fairness in housework was under discussion, and when it was worked out, it mattered for a couple’s sex life. This is likely a more true-to-the-times message than “it turns women on when you change the oil but not when you sweep the kitchen.”
Beyond the fact that 20 year old data is likely irrelevant today, it is interesting there is an assumption that it matters whether or not men have sex 1.6 times more often in a month. Okay, maybe it matters to sociologists. But is sex really so important to the average married man that they would pull less of their weight around the house to get—maybe, on average—one and a half more rolls in the hay per month? (I would say something like “love-making sessions” but the approach of the media is to turn even married sex into a commodity). I’d hate to think that about men, but the popular media assumes this is true.
Another important question is the attitudes of the women who were engaging in more sex with the husbands who were doing only more of the traditionally male chores. Were the women more likely to submit to sexual pressure due to beliefs about women’s roles? Were the men pushier due to those same beliefs? The University of Washington researchers wondered about this too, but noticed that the women whose husbands did more traditionally male chores also had higher levels of sexual satisfaction. But did the women’s traditional values include an unquestioned assumption that “satisfying” sex means pleasing their husbands sexually, and rarely saying “No”? It’s quite possible, but the study didn’t ask.
A final question to ask is, does sexual satisfaction equal marital satisfaction for men and women? The study could not answer that question either. But what we do know is, sex sells, and so a study that added little to the public’s understanding of gender relations in 2013, and possibly did some harm, was exploited to its fullest by the popular media.