When it comes to sex, don’t believe everything you read on the Web.
As we discussed earlier, the myth of “sexercise” persists online despite physicians’ assessment that rolling in the sheets is hardly an efficient way to burn calories.
Now, a trio of sociologists, writing in American Sociological Review, takes on the notion that men who do more housework lead healthier sex lives, a bit of pop wisdom that went viral in 2009 thanks to the CBSNews.com article, “Men: Want More Sex? Do the Laundry!”
In fact, the authors argue, that write-up was based in part on an unpublished (unscientific) survey of 300 American husbands by Neil Chethik, a self-described “expert on men,” and tells us relatively little about the true relationship between housework and intimacy.
Modern love is a protean thing, but given all the hand-wringing—and Atlantic cover stories—about the end of men, the death of marriage, and the war on boys, it’s not a bad idea to ask whether the data supports such shrill alarmism.
In some ways, of course, “the demise of the male breadwinner model in the industrialized West” is well documented. The sociologists point to research which shows that, between the 1960s and today, men’s share of housework has climbed to 30 percent from 15 percent. When husbands pitch in, the authors assert, “fairness and marital satisfaction tend to rise” and “couples experience less marital conflict.” Egalitarian households may even have lower divorce rates.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that, pardon my academese, “gendered sexual scripts” are dead. Nor does it mean that “social exchange theory”—the notion that sex in marriage is a scarce resource which women control, and that they can trade it for favors, like having someone else scrub the kitchen floor for once—rules the day.
The sociologists culled data from the 1996 National Survey of Family and Households, which asked some 8,000 men and women about their sex lives, marriages, and domestic responsibilities. The survey differentiated between core tasks—“preparing meals, washing dishes, cleaning house, shopping, and washing and ironing”—and non-core tasks—“outdoor work, paying bills, auto maintenance, and driving.”
The sociologists compared couples where women did most of the domestic drudgery and men did most of the gutter cleaning with those where gender roles and responsibilities were less fixed, more fluid. The data were unambiguous: “Our results suggest that sexual frequency is highest in households with traditionally gendered divisions of labor,” the authors write.
(Or, in hardcore sociology argot: “Overall, these results suggest that sexuality is governed by enactments of femininity and masculinity through appropriately gendered performances of household labor that coincide with sexual scripts organizing heterosexual desire.”)
While the data is old, and in some cases imperfect, the researchers conclude that their statistical evidence is “difficult to reconcile with the idea that women trade sex to men for doing what is traditionally viewed as women’s work.”
Not that men should simply drop the iron and pick up the Doritos. First, the National Survey of Family and Households is merely descriptive; it captures the state of marriage as it is, not as it ought to be. Second, if the point is that sex in marriage depends on scripts and gender roles, then men have a part to play, too. In other words, put down the iron—and grab the gutter rake.