This paper is part of the Council on Contemporary Families Gender Revolution Rebound Symposium

This look at sexual frequency among younger couples in equal marriages refutes recent claims that when a man shares the housework equally, it is bad for the couple’s sex life.

For several decades, research has suggested that attitudes and laws favoring gender equity have changed more quickly than people’s actual behavior in intimate relationships. One recent highly publicized article reported that married couples who split domestic chores in an egalitarian manner had sex less often, and reported less satisfaction with their sex lives, than couples who adhered to more to conventional gender behaviors. The depressing message heard round the world was that couples remain stalled in their attachment to old “gender scripts,” and that attempts to revise these scripts decrease sexual desire and satisfaction, even among couples who claim to hold egalitarian values.

But the underlying study, based on data gathered over a quarter of a century ago, was focused on the sexual behaviors of married couples in the late 1980s, many of whom had met and married in the 1960s and 1970s. My colleagues Dan Carlson, Amanda Miller, Sarah Hanson and I wondered if the apparent erotic resistance to gender equality still applied to more recent marriages and partnerships, so we turned to newer data (from 2006), examining a sample of low- to moderate-income young married and cohabiting couples with minor children.

When couples divvy up household tasks, they both have to remember to put sex on the list! Photo via TSP.
When couples divvy up household tasks, they both have to remember to put sex on the list! Photo via TSP.

Like Cotter and his colleagues, we found evidence that things have changed significantly in more recent years. Couples who shared domestic labor had sex at least as often, and were at least as satisfied with the frequency and quality of their sex, as couples where the woman did the bulk of the housework. In fact, these egalitarian partners were ranked slightly higher in all these categories, reporting more frequent sex and greater satisfaction with the frequency and quality of that sex than conventional couples, although these differences did not reach the level of statistical significance. This suggests that it is good news for couples, not bad, that men have more than doubled the amount of housework they do since the 1960s.

The one group that did score significantly lower than both egalitarian and conventional couples?   Couples where men did the bulk of the domestic labor. Apparently, completely reversing gender roles in housework was not a sexual turn-on to either the men or women involved. But such couples accounted for only a small share (less than 5 percent) of those in our sample.

Although it is very clear that progress toward gender equality in Americans’ attitudes and behaviors has not come to a standstill, it is true that some areas remain stubbornly resistant to change. For example, only about three out of ten couples in our sample reported that housework was equally shared (and men were more likely to report they share things more equitably than were their female partners). The majority of our sample couples (63 percent) practiced rather conventional divisions of domestic labor, where the woman did approximately two-thirds of the housework. Perhaps if more men realized that sexual frequency was higher when the domestic load was more equitably shared they would grab that Swiffer more often.

Another area that seems especially resistant to change, despite being perceived by many men as an onerous responsibility, is the tradition that men are responsible for initiating relationships. In heterosexual marriage, for example, it is still usually the man who is expected to propose. In my research with Amanda Miller on cohabiting couples in the U.S., we find that even though such couples are egalitarian in many ways, with the women often having more schooling than their partners or contributing the same amount of income, the vast majority of both men and women view proposing as the right and responsibility of the man. It will be interesting to see if this pattern also changes in coming decades or if it will remain one of the last bastions of traditional gender arrangements.

July 30, 2014

Sharon Sassler is in the department of policy analysis and management at Cornell University. Her research includes examining cohabiting unions, the pace of relationship progression among young adults, and how relationships are shaped by gender, nativity, and whether relationships are interracial.