Once they are ready to have a baby, many heterosexual couples expect that having sex to get pregnant will be the fun and easy part. They are often surprised to discover that sex for the explicit purpose of conceiving bears little resemblance to how they think that sexual intimacy should be. What, exactly, is going on?
I conducted interviews with 52 mostly advantaged White women in the United States married to men who attempted to get pregnant via sexual intercourse. Most of this sample is drawn from a study of individuals and couples who failed to become pregnant via sexual intercourse and went on to pursue fertility treatments, with a subsample who successfully conceived via timed intercourse.
I found that rather than sex being driven by desire, sex for the purpose of pregnancy is driven by cisgender women’s ovulation cycle, with couples attempting to optimize the timing of sex in order to maximize their chances of successfully conceiving. Having sex on a schedule makes it feel more like a chore that needs to be completed than an intimate moment. More than that, it is a chore that mostly falls on women. Sex for pregnancy ends up being a “third shift,” that is, extra work in addition to women’s paid work and unpaid household work (Hochschild 1997).
There are three different types of work involved in sex for the purpose of pregnancy. The first is body work (Gimlin 2007). Women need to monitor their ovulation cycle, with many taking their temperature, using ovulation predictor kits, checking their cervix, and entering data into phone apps or spreadsheets. The second is cognitive labor (Daminger 2019). Once they determine when they are supposed to have sex, they must coordinate their schedules with their husbands to make sure that they are both available to have sex at the right time. The third is emotion work (Hochschild 1979). Because in many heterosexual couples there is the expectation that men should initiate sex, many women also perform desire to make their husbands amenable to having sex at the best time for conception.
To illustrate the experience, here are the words of one participant explaining what it was like to have timed intercourse:
…when I finally started ovulating again, it was very like, ‘Okay. Now here we go.’ Now everything’s chugging along and sex was like, ‘Come here Tiger, put a baby in me.’ And four, five, six, seven months go by and it’s no longer sexy, ‘Come here and put a baby in me.’ Now, it’s like, ‘I have egg white cervical mucus. I know you’re tired but we’re doing it tonight.’ That’s just not sexy.
This participant did not want to “force” her husband to be part of the “non-sexiness,” however. She tracked her ovulation schedule on her own, tried not to talk about when the right time of the month for sex was, and when it was the right time, she attempted to seduce her husband, making it seem like they were having sex because she was aroused rather than because there was a greater chance that she would conceive that night. She said that all of this body work, cognitive labor, and emotion work was “exhausting” and “stressful.”
In fact, many study participants reported that having timed intercourse was hard on their marriages, some so much so that they accelerated their entry into fertility treatments in a medical setting so that they could stop having sex on a schedule. This study shows that sex for the purpose of pregnancy rather than being ‘normal’ is actually experienced as a deviation from heterosexual couple’s normal nonprocreative sex lives. The contemporary cultural ideal is that sexual intimacy is supposed to be driven by spontaneity and desire, not by reproduction. In fact, in my previous research, I found that advantaged women were so concerned about their romantic lives being determined by their reproductive timelines, that they decided to freeze their eggs (Brown and Patrick 2018). Ultimately, sex resulting in pregnancy is very different from—and often understood to be preferrable to—sex for the purpose of pregnancy.
On a practical level these findings suggest that just as medical professionals consider the sexually acceptability of different contraceptive methods, they might also consider how different methods of promoting pregnancy affect couple’s sex lives. On a more theoretical level these findings illustrate that when thinking about household chores, it’s important to remember that any activity can become a chore—and more than that, a gendered chore—depending on the context.
Brown, Eliza, and Mary Patrick. 2018. “Time, Anticipation, and the Life Course: Egg Freezing as Temporarily Disentangling Romance and Reproduction.” American Sociological Review 83: 5: 959-982.
Daminger, Allison. 2019. “The Cognitive Dimension of Household Labor.” American Sociological Review 84: 4: 609–633.
Gimlin, Debra. 2007. “What is ‘Body Work’? A Review of the Literature.” Sociology Compass1: 1: 353–370.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 1979. “Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure.” American Journal of Sociology 85: 3: 551–575.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 1997. The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books.
Brown, Eliza. 2022. “Less Like Magic, More Like a Chore: How Sex for the Purpose of Pregnancy Becomes a Third Shift for Women in Heterosexual Couples” Sociological Forum. DOI: 10.1111/socf.12803
Eliza Brown, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in sociology at University of California-Berkeley. Her research has been published in American Sociological Review, Social Science & Medicine, and Sociological Forum, and covered in media outlets such as The New York Times Magazine and The Atlantic. She is currently writing a book about twins related to fertility treatments. You can find them on Twitter @ElizaBrown_