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Natural history of the present

Sex and domesticity

The most erotic thing a man can do for a woman is…. the dishes.

You’ve no doubt encountered this oft-repeated claim, or one like it, before. In this case it comes from a source no less authoritative than Naomi Wolf, about 36 seconds into her 2007 interview with Ali G.

The “research has shown” bit seems to come from a rather flimsy survey that therapist Neil Chethick did for his book VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think about Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework, and Commitment.

But the idea has legs. It taps into so many important veins of domestic angst: how can I spice up my sex life? How can I avoid doing the hoovering? Angst played out against the backdrop of ever-shifting sexual divisions of labour.

Yet, as always, reality is far more complex than the headlines. Some studies suggest that the more housework gets shared, the more sex the couple has. Other research claims that egalitarian couples have less passionate and satisfying sex lives. And still, millions of semi-domesticated men hang out for more wisdom on which chores to do and how to time them for maximum erotic payback.

If you’re one of them, you won’t have missed the recent news stories about a new paper in American Sociological Review that seems to overturn all the things you heard on Da Ali G Show.

The authors, Sabino Kornrich, Julie Brines and Katrina Leupp, have published an immensely readable paper in which they test the idea that “women, in essence, exchange sex for men’s housework”. I know, I know. It’s so narrow of me to begin from a position that married men want more sex than their wives do. In the interests of brevity, can I direct you to the excellent discussion of this issue and the argument that sex is transactional on pages 28-9 of the article?

It’s worth reading for its balance, because the authors end up favouring another idea - that “gender display” is more important than “marital exchange” in determing how often married couples have sex.

Basically, they analysed data from 7,002 couples who were part of the National Survey of Families and Households. Apart from answering questions about how often they had sex in the last month, religion, ideology number of children and just about any other confounding variable you could conceive, the survey asked detailed questions about the household tasks each member of the couple performed.

And then they split those tasks into the “core” tasks that traditionally were more the preserve of wives than husbands, and the “non-core tasks” that were not.

Core tasks include preparing meals, washing dishes, cleaning house, shopping, and washing and ironing; non-core tasks include out-door work, paying bills, auto maintenance, and driving.

I’d call that “housework” and “other stuff”. Driving? I didn’t realise I could claim that. Interestingly, husbands still only do around 20% of the “core” stuff and half the “non-core” tasks.

The point of the two categories is to explore the way in which couples divide their work along traditional gender lines. Does the husband do all the driving, pay the bills and mow the lawns? And does the wife clean, wash, cook and iron?

And it seems that dividing the tasks provided some new insights. Insights, I might add, that might just put a spring in the step of “traditional” husbands.

Households in which men did more of the once-were-feminine core tasks also had significantly less sex. But when blokes spent plenty of time paying bills, mowing lawns and driving, they also had sex more often. Though the results don’t report how long they spent having sex.

Don’t come over all devastated, egalitarian husbands. The difference between doing none of the core stuff and all of it equates to a difference between 3.2 and 4.8 times per month. But it’s also not to be sneezed at.

Disappointed as I am, personally, I’m also intrigued by this study and by the blow it deals to the sex-for-housework narrative that had taken on a life of its own. As an evolutionary biologist, I think the evidence that sex has a big transactional dimension is far too strong to ignore. But the dishes-movie-intercourse model always seemed too clunkily transactional.

The only disappointing bit of this paper for me was the climactic claim:

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 hetero-sexual desire.

Disappointing because I find it so hard to extract what authors mean when they write about “enactments of femininity and masculinity” and “sexual scripts organizing hetero-sexual desire”. What I think they mean is that relationships in which men act masculine and women act feminine tend to also be relationships in which people know how to get it on.

It’s the “sexual scripts” idea that really troubles me. I can’t yet buy into the notion that otherwise intelligent folk who can negotiate egalitarian housework arrangements and, presumably, two wage-earning careers can’t figure out how to have sex more than once a week. All because someone (perhaps that all-purpose bogey-person, “Society”) failed to slip them the appropriate script.

I’m intrigued enough to put “read up about sexual scripts” on my reticulating to-do list. But I’m going to take some convinvcing.

But here comes today’s irony. Does it take an evolutionary biologist to remind a group of sociologists about power? Yes, they did add variables to control for ideological, religious and wage-earning variations in male-female power. And yet it seems that relationships in which men do all the driving and the bill-paying and women do all the cooking, cleaning and laundry are relationships in which the balance of power is much more male-biased than those in which tasks are shared equally.

And when the power tips toward the man, would we expect the couple to have more sex or less?

P.S. The best kind of evidence, and the only evidence that can answer the question “Will this work for me?” is experimental evidence. Would it be ethical to conduct a randomised controlled trial in which some men were asked to do certain kinds of housework and other men were not?

Answers via Twitter, include #sex&chores and @Brooks_Rob, or Facebook

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