It is weird. The evidence from psychology, sociology, economics, neuroscience and history point in the same direction: there’s just not much to the claims of a war between love and lust or that equality in relationships—or even housework—damages sexual desire. Such clarity begs the question, why all the hype and misinformation about sexual disappointments in marriage or committed relationships?
There’s a quick, cynical answer, and I heard it from most people I spoke to when writing my recent article in Psychology Today on Love and Lust. The sex hype is instrumental in fueling anxiety with “How I’m doing?” “What’s wrong with me?” “Am I keeping up with the Jones’s?”
Why do we keep seeing these claims that long-term relationships mean you aren’t having the “best possible sex”? I discussed this with Vanderbilt University sex researcher Laura Carpenter: She speculated, “Is it some version of late modern capitalism gone crazy? Think about it: We are not good capitalists or good consumers anymore if we are committed to our car, house, brand of yogurt, clothes, shoes—and in a culture all about consumerism and desire—why would you not extend that idea—have that expectation about relationships and sex?” Carpenter continued, “We don’t know what normal is. We really don’t–even if merely in statistical sense, much less in the sense of what is good for you or what people desire.”
Who cares what normal is? People hate the imposition of “normal”—but it definitely absorbs attention. When it is in the air they notice it and respond to it. It is irritating to the mind, the heart, the ego.
One (non-sociologist) friend I talked to—a straight married guy with three kids–rolled his eyes about the recent series of sex-can’t-last-in-marriage articles. “Part of the premise is that ‘happiness’ is a never-ending quest for peak experiences–sexually and romantically. Our society conditions us to believe we can achieve and maintain a state of bliss, to have a peak marriage and a peak sexual relationship for decades. That isn’t the way it is, and if that’s how you set your expectations for a relationship then you’re guaranteed to be disappointed. There are valleys and plateaus, and they are based on other things in your life—career, children.”
A D.C. colleague I met during her busy work day—it started early because it was her day to drive her kids to school—was just pissed off by the claim that career couples don’t have sex. That’s not her normal. “You might be fighting or upset or low, for us it has nothing to do with what’s happening in our sex life. I find that is much safer, there’s no keeping score. Some people would say that’s so unemotional—but I think that is what makes it fun!”
The even more cynical answer—given that stories about disappointments with married sex focus on women’s sexual desire or on women’s careers—is that it fuels anxiety about “what’s wrong with women?” It works like a dog whistle: an argument using code that, in this case, signals that women just can’t get have it all—but they are on the hook for it.
One economist pondered, “Are articles like this a way of telling women ‘don’t expect too much from your husband; settle for what you can get; if you’re accommodating and don’t push on the chores you’ll get rewarded’?” She was making reference in particular to coverage of the ASR study on egalitarianism and housework–you know, the study where sexual frequency was associated with whether the housework you did was gender normative. My PT article takes a few steps to putting the ASR study into perspective–including useful comments from study co-author Julie Brines. But here’s how the dog whistle works: the study doesn’t say that couples have lower sexual satisfaction depending on housework, just a tiny bit of difference on sexual frequency. There is no disappointment. Well, that is sort of not true. I’ve been disappointed that we are still talking about this.