Sociologist Julia Brines made a big splash Wednesday with a study finding that men who did more traditionally "feminine" chores around the house had slightly less sex with their wives than those who stuck to manly yard work. Specifically, men who did only "male" chores could expect 1.6 more sexual encounters a month than those who sometimes pitched in with dishes. But experts say the more sex-less housework link may be overstated.
Amanda J. Miller, who has studied housework divisions among cohabiting couples, says that what tends to affect a couple's satisfaction the most is "not so much the actual share of the housework the couples are doing or how they're dividing it up between male and female, but are they each doing the kind of work they want to do?" She points out that Brines was working with data on housework and sex collected between 1992 and 1994: "Twenty years ago when this data was collected, it was much easier to find couples who had more traditional viewpoints than it would be today." And those traditional couples may have been more likely to want a highly gendered chore breakdown, and to feel dissatisfied — and maybe less interested in sex — if they didn't get it.
Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and noted scholar of contemporary marriage, agrees that 1992's data may not describe today's marriages: "It would be very dangerous for men or women to take this description of an average finding from 20 years ago and think their sex lives will be better if they use it as a prescription for their behavior today."
In fact, she says there's ample research showing that couples are most satisfied when they share housework. She cited a 2009 study of 6,877 couples by sociologist Constance Gager, which found that both wives and husbands who spent more time on housework also had more sex. And psychologist and marriage research John Gottman has found that husbands who help with housework have better sex lives.
Brines also told the Toronto Star that couples in egalitarian relationships have "lackluster" sex lives: "They're really good best friends, but the sexual charge is missing from the relationship." Coontz says, "there are some studies that suggest the big challenge for couples is making friendship sexy. But I don't think we should back off from trying to do so."
Old scripts about sex and relationships die hard, she says: "We've had 150 years of telling a woman that what's sexy is a man who's stronger than you, who knows more than you," and who wouldn't be caught dead with an iron. So it's not surprising that some couples find that an egalitarian setup goes against what they've been taught is hot. But as more women work outside the home, a clean counter may trump old archetypes: "Wives who are dissatisfied with the amount of housework and childcare their husbands do have a lot less interest in sex and the marriage as a whole."
Miller says that rather than trying to go back to a 1950s model, couples should take a more nuanced message from Brines's research: "Finding a partner whose ideals best match yours is going to be the most important in this new gender frontier."