More Traditional Gender Roles, More Sex

In this age of increased egalitarianism in work and domestic roles, many researchers have sought to discover how changing roles influence one component of the glue that binds married couples together—sex. Much media attention has been given to a handful of studies that demonstrate that husbands who do more housework get more sex, as their happy wives are more inclined to acquiesce to their husbands’ needs. Researchers from the Juan March Institute and the University of Washington, however, suspect that the reverse is true. According to their hypothesis, husbands and wives who do more gender-related tasks tend to experience greater sexual frequency.

The researchers begin with the assumption that “greater sexual frequency is generally a desired good: conflict may exist over the timing and frequency of sex . . . but more frequent sex is linked to higher sexual and marital satisfaction for both men and women.” The belief that couples in more egalitarian marriages tend to be intimate more often is widely popular, say the researchers, but also based on “little empirical support.” Instead, the researchers highlight “the gendered nature of sexual scripts” and suggest that men who do more traditionally male tasks and women who do more traditionally female tasks will have greater sexual frequency in their marriages.

Using a large, nationally representative data set that reports on both sexual frequency and participation in household tasks, the authors study both “core” and “noncore” household labor. Core household labor is that typically described as feminine—childcare, laundry, cooking, shopping, and washing. Noncore household labor is more likely to be masculine—outdoor tasks, auto repair, driving, and finances. The researchers used a negative binomial regression to study the relationship between these tasks and sexual frequency, also measuring for such influencing factors as religious affiliation, views on gender, marital happiness, and whether both husband and wife worked outside the home.

The data overwhelmingly suggest that “sexual frequency is highest in households with traditionally gendered divisions of labor” and that “households in which men do more female-typed (core) tasks report lower sexual frequency.” These results “are statistically significant and substantively large.” In an effort to rule out any mediating factor, the researchers’ models also take into account other “variables that represent possible common causes of both a traditional gender division of labor and higher sexual frequency.” None of these variables, however, reduces the relationship between the type of housework men do and sexual frequency to zero; furthermore, almost none of them is even statistically significant.

The authors are also aware that increased marital happiness would likely increase sexual frequency and so tested to discover whether that link accounts for the housework/frequency link. They report that although happy couples do indeed report greater sexual frequency, this “does not reduce the effect of men’s share of these two types of housework to nonsignificance.”

The researchers conclude by highlighting potential weaknesses, the greatest of which is an old data set (20 years), but also suggest that the relationship between men’s housework and sexual frequency is unlikely to have changed significantly. Their results demonstrate overwhelmingly that in households in which men perform more masculine, non-core tasks and women perform more core tasks, couples enjoy increased sexual frequency. In an effort to realign the data with more palatably modern views, the researchers suggest in closing that egalitarianism is not necessarily tied to less sex. Because of the “double standard” that punishes women for increased sexual involvement while rewarding men, women in more egalitarian marriages may still be hesitant to initiate sex, while their husbands are more tired from household work. If only women could feel empowered to initiate, the authors weakly suggest, theirs, too, might be more sexually satisfying marriages.

These timid speculations aside, the data is clear. Traditional gender scripts seem to have something to do with how ready both wives and husbands are for sexual intimacy, while more egalitarian views tend to lead to roommate-like behavior.

(Sabino Kornrich, Julie Brines, and Katrina Leupp, “Egalitarianism, Housework, and Sexual Frequency in Marriage,” American Sociological Review 78.1 [2013]: 26-50.)