Not long ago, I was at a dinner party with several couples in their 40s, all married except for my boyfriend and me. The mood was jovial until, over dessert, one guest made an offhand joke about Internet porn.
His wife took issue, and during a tense back-and-forth between them, the rest of us sensed that we were about to learn way too much about their personal lives. Fortunately, another husband deftly maneuvered to a safe topic for middle-aged parents (kids and screen time!), and after a lively discussion about iPads, we made our excuses to leave.
In the car, I turned to my boyfriend and said, “I bet there won’t be any sex happening in their bedroom tonight.”
He smiled and shook his head. He predicted that the hosts would be the least likely to have sex that night.
I thought he was kidding. This couple were my “model marrieds,” true equals who share the housework and child care, communicate openly and prioritize each other’s careers. The best friends of happy-couple cliché. Earlier in the evening, I watched them work together in the kitchen, cheerfully cooking and cleaning: She bringing out the hors d’oeuvres, and he chopping and dicing. When their 6-year-old woke up with a nightmare, they wordlessly agreed that he would be the one to soothe her. It was the kind of marriage many people wish for.”
Marriage is hardly known for being an aphrodisiac, of course, but my boyfriend was referring to a particularly modern state of marital affairs. Today, according to census data, in 64 percent of U.S. marriages with children under 18, both husband and wife work. There’s more gender-fluidity when it comes to who brings in the money, who does the laundry and dishes, who drives the car pool and braids the kids’ hair, even who owns the home. A vast majority of adults under 30 in this country say that this is a good thing, according to a Pew Research Center survey: They aspire to what’s known in the social sciences as an egalitarian marriage, meaning that both spouses work and take care of the house and that the relationship is built on equal power, shared interests and friendship. But the very qualities that lead to greater emotional satisfaction in peer marriages, as one sociologist calls them, may be having an unexpectedly negative impact on these couples’ sex lives.
A study called “Egalitarianism, Housework and Sexual Frequency in Marriage,” which appeared in The American Sociological Review last year, surprised many, precisely because it went against the logical assumption that as marriages improve by becoming more equal, the sex in these marriages will improve, too. Instead, it found that when men did certain kinds of chores around the house, couples had less sex. Specifically, if men did all of what the researchers characterized as feminine chores like folding laundry, cooking or vacuuming — the kinds of things many women say they want their husbands to do — then couples had sex 1.5 fewer times per month than those with husbands who did what were considered masculine chores, like taking out the trash or fixing the car. It wasn’t just the frequency that was affected, either — at least for the wives. The more traditional the division of labor, meaning the greater the husband’s share of masculine chores compared with feminine ones, the greater his wife’s reported sexual satisfaction.
Granted, some might view a study like this with skepticism. Correlations don’t establish causation, and especially when it comes to sex, there’s always a risk of reporting bias and selective sampling, not to mention the mood of a subject at the time of the survey. (Was she answering the questions while standing next to a big pile of garbage that hadn’t been taken out?) What’s more, while this study used the most recent nationally representative data that included measures of sexual frequency and a couple’s division of labor, it was drawn from information collected in the 1990s. (Julie Brines, an author of the chores study, explained, however, that many studies on housework since then show that not much has changed in terms of division of labor.) But as a psychotherapist who works with couples, I’ve noticed something similar to the findings. That is, it’s true that being stuck with all the chores rarely tends to make wives desire their husbands. Yet having their partner, say, load the dishwasher — a popular type of marital intervention suggested by self-help books, women’s magazines and therapists alike — doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on their libido, either. Many of my colleagues have observed the same thing: 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.
I first noticed this while doing a yearlong training in marriage therapy. I was seeing a couple who had been married for five years and wanted to work out some common kinks related to balancing their respective jobs, incomes and household responsibilities in, as the wife put it, “an equal way.” Over the course of treatment, the couple reported more connection, less friction and increased happiness. One day, though, when their issues seemed largely resolved and I suggested discussing an end to their therapy, the husband brought up a new concern: His wife now seemed less interested in having sex with him. He turned to her and asked why. Was she still attracted to him? After all, he wondered, why did she appear less interested now that their relationship seemed stronger in all the ways she wanted?
“I’m very attracted to you,” she said earnestly. “You know when I really crave you? It’s when you’re just back from the gym and you’re all sweaty and you take off your clothes to get in the shower and I see your muscles.”
Her husband countered by saying that this very situation had occurred that morning but that his wife became irritated when he tossed his clothes on the floor, which led to a conversation about his not vacuuming the day before, when she worked late. He had worked late, too, which accounted for the lack of vacuuming, but still — she hated waking up to a messy room, and it was his turn to vacuum.
“Right,” she agreed. “I wasn’t focused on sex, because I wanted you to get out the vacuum.”
“So if I got out the vacuum, then you’d be turned on?”
His wife thought about it for a minute. “Actually, probably not,” she said slowly, as if hearing the contradiction even as she was speaking it. “The vacuuming would have killed the weight-lifting vibe.”
Brines believes the quandary many couples find themselves in comes down to this: “The less gender differentiation, the less sexual desire.” In other words, in an attempt to be gender-neutral, we may have become gender-neutered. It’s interesting to note that when I asked Justin Garcia, a research scientist at the Kinsey Institute, whether lack of gender differentiation affects the sex lives of gay couples, he said that male couples, who have more sex than lesbian couples, tend to differentiate by choosing partners sexually unlike themselves — who, say, want to be in the more submissive sexual position — and that lesbians don’t follow as much of a pattern of seeking their sexual opposites. I posed the same question to Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington who coined the term “lesbian bed death,” and she pointed out that gay male couples differentiate from each other in other ways, too. For gay men, she said, “the initial filter is erotic, so they’re more likely to end up with somebody who’s very different in terms of education or social class.” But, she continued, “a gay woman thinks like the heterosexual woman who asks: ‘Do we share common goals? Do we like to do things together? Is he smart?’ ” She believes that lesbian and heterosexual couples share sexual challenges because both relationships involve women who tend to seek similar mates. As she put it, most men, regardless of sexual orientation, prioritize the erotic, but “heterosexual men have to deal with heterosexual women.”
This isn’t to say that egalitarian heterosexual couples aren’t happy. Lynn Prince Cooke, a professor of social policy at the University of Bath in England, found that American couples who share breadwinning and household duties are less likely to divorce. And Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage, a History,” told me that having a partner who does housework and child care has become a bigger factor in women’s marital satisfaction than many other factors that used to predict marital happiness, like a man’s level of income or shared religious beliefs.
The chores study seems to show that women do want their husbands to help out — just in gender-specific ways. Couples in which the husband did plenty of traditionally male chores reported a 17.5 percent higher frequency of sexual intercourse than those in which the husband did none. These findings, Brines says, “might have something to do with the fact that the traditional behaviors that men and women enact feed into associations that people have about masculinity and femininity.” She calls these associations and behaviors sexual scripts. Men and women, she said, are continuously sending out cues that signal attractiveness to a potential partner, and often these cues involve “an ongoing reminder of difference and the sense of mystery and excitement that comes with the knowledge that the other person isn’t you.” When I asked Esther Perel, a couples therapist whose book, “Mating in Captivity,” addresses the issue of desire in marriage, about the role sexual scripts play in egalitarian partnerships, she explained it like this: “Egalitarian marriage takes the values of a good social system — consensus-building and 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.” In fact, she continued, “most of us get turned on at night by the very things that we’ll demonstrate against during the day.”
Power — and the act of balancing it — is a common topic with the couples I see in therapy. They’re eager to talk about leveling the domestic playing field but tend to feel awkward about bringing the concept of power into conversations about sex, mostly because it can feel so confusing.
One woman in her late 30s, for instance, who has been in a peer marriage for 10 years, said during couples therapy that when she asked her husband to be more forceful, “rougher,” in bed, the result was comical.
“He was trying to do what I wanted,” she explained, “but he was so . . . careful. I don’t want him to ask, ‘Are you O.K.?’ I want him not to care if I’m O.K., to just, you know, not be the good husband and take charge.” And yet, she said, his caring and his concern that she’s O.K. with what he’s doing are what she loves so much about him in every other area of their marriage, ranging from which brand of toilet paper to buy to what to feed their children to where their money is spent and which nights each of them can stay late at work. “I don’t want him to take charge like that with anything else!” she said.
I mentioned this situation to Dan Savage, the sex columnist, who told me that he sees similar themes in the letters he receives and the questions he fields at personal appearances. At a recent talk, for instance, one woman asked him if a certain sex act was “loving or degrading?”
“My reply was, ‘Yes,’ ” he told me. “Why can’t it be both?” He continued: “People have to learn to compartmentalize. We all want to be objectified by the person we love at times. We all want to be with somebody who can flip the switch and see you as an object for an hour. Sometimes sex is an expression of anger or a struggle for power and dominance. They work in concert. People need to learn how to harness those impulses playfully in ways that are acceptable in equal relationships.”