Illustration by Dave van Patten

It’s Time to Stop Obsessing Over Housework and Sex

We’re overthinking the relationship between the kitchen and the bedroom

In 2014, a New York Times Magazine cover story titled “Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?” sent the internet into a frenzy. Citing a study in The American Sociological Review suggesting that heterosexual couples who left the cooking and cleaning to the women had more sex, combined with anecdotal evidence from egalitarian couples in sexless marriages, psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb presented the theory that an equal division of household labor kills desire. Julie Brines, one author of the study, told Gottlieb that gender roles serve as “an ongoing reminder of difference” — and, essentially, gender differences are a turn-on.

Psychologists and sociologists and feminist bloggers all had a lot to say about this. Slate argued that feminism has overall been good for our sex lives, since it’s led us to value women’s pleasure more. The Week and The Washington Post pointed out that the data were collected in 1993, and gender dynamics have changed since then.

What’s more, the research was far from conclusive. Another study using the same data found that both men and women had more sex when they did more housework and more paid work. And the one cited by Gottlieb only showed that couples in which men engaged in traditionally “feminine” housework (such as folding laundry or vacuuming) — not housework in general — had less sex. Yet the media latched onto this possibility that the more work men do around the house, the less sex people have. Why?

“When we look at the link between housework and sex, we’re essentially looking at what happens when you drop physical intimacy, passion, and sensuality into the business of daily living. And on top of that, the business of daily living is seeing shifts in gender roles,” explains Holly Parker, a lecturer on psychology at Harvard University who specializes in romantic relationships and lifestyle. “The boundaries around who cooks, cleans, takes care of the kids, goes to work, and makes more money aren’t as clear-cut as they used to be, and the lines that still exist continue to get fuzzier. Arguably, these changes are upending what it means to be a man or a woman.”

Changing definitions of manhood and womanhood have also changed how we think of sex. Whether or not the study’s findings can actually be explained by Gottlieb’s gender-roles-are-hot theory, the way they were interpreted and presented reveals an intriguing fact about American culture: While couples have been challenging gender roles in the kitchen, we just can’t seem to get them out of the bedroom.

Sabino Kornrich, the lead author of the 2013 study that Gottlieb’s piece cited, thinks his findings could stem from people’s desire for partners who conform to gender roles. “Couples with a traditional division of labor are likely to think of their partner or themselves as more masculine or more feminine depending on the types and amount of housework they do,” he explains. “In other words, it fits with their ideas of how their spouse should act — maybe they feel well taken-care of, etc. — and this leads down the road to more sexual activity.”

The way we think about sex has long been bound up with the way we think about gender. Even people in same-sex relationships face questions like “Who is the man and who is the woman?” and the expectation that there be a “top” and a “bottom.” We can’t seem to picture a romantic or sexual relationship that’s not divided into masculine and feminine roles. So when heterosexual couples share household duties or otherwise buck gender norms, we’re left with these same questions: Who’s the man and who’s the woman? Who wears the pants in the relationship?

Meanwhile, other evidence suggests that couples don’t need to adhere to gender norms to keep their passion alive. A study published this year in The Journal of Marriage and Family found that while couples with a more traditional gender dynamic did in fact have more sex back in the ‘90s, that pattern had reversed by 2006. The more recent data show that couples who split chores evenly have the most sex. “Today’s young adults are increasingly desirous of egalitarian relationships,” says study author Amanda Miller, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Indianapolis. While a traditional division of housework may previously have felt more equitable due to different expectations or higher relative contributions from men outside the home, that has changed, she says. This means our sex lives — and the ways that other parts of our lives influence them — are context-dependent.

People tend to talk about sex as if it transcended place and time. When we assume sex is immune from cultural influence, it’s easy to think the quality of our sex lives reflects some objective fact. Under this logic, if couples are experiencing lackluster sex, something must be wrong. And if gender equality is contributing to this problem, we question it.

But the conditions that make for a good sex life change over time — and could actually tell us a lot about the time we’re living in. If equal division of labor has indeed at some point been a boner-killer, maybe the problem is not with how people have divided chores but with how this division of labor has shaped our identities, both in and outside the bedroom.

A 2013 study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that men whose wives made more money than them were more likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction. But most people wouldn’t encourage women to earn less because of this study. A better solution, says Parker, would be to help men adjust to changing gender norms so their confidence doesn’t depend on the sense that they’re the breadwinner. In other words, if gender has been the foundation for couples’ sexual attraction, maybe it’s time to let it crumble and build a new one.

Perhaps, when that New York Times Magazine article came out, we should have been asking a different question. Rather than wondering if gender equality is bad for our sex lives, we should have wondered why these two things have been so connected in our minds for so long. We’ve conceptualized sex around gender roles to the extent that when gender erodes, we fear that sex will, too. And maybe it did — at one point. But the shifting results over time suggest that this effect isn’t permanent.

Still, we should be cautious about holding up the latest findings as proof once and for all that feminism has been for the better. This would be buying into the same view that lets us justify gender inequality based on the earlier findings: that sex is a barometer of how a culture is doing. Ultimately, studying people’s sex lives can’t tell us what’s right or wrong. It may be useful for couples with traditional views about gender to know it’s not helping their sex lives, Parker points out, but people should split housework fairly for the sake of fairness.

Even Kornrich doesn’t think couples should necessarily change how they divide labor based on how it affects their sex lives. Other research, he points out, shows that people in more egalitarian marriages are happier overall. “My main recommendation would be for people to take housework seriously as something to think about in their relationships,” he says, “for keeping themselves happy and fitting their images of what kind of marriage they want” — whatever kind that is.

Beyond that, no study can tell a couple what will work best for them. Esther Boykin, a marriage and family therapist, warns her clients against establishing any quota for how much work each person does. “I see couples who become so entrenched in ensuring that they each are doing 50 percent that they suck the fun and the fairness out of the relationship,” she says. Rather than count how much time everyone spends on what, it’s more useful to determine what feels most equitable given the circumstances specific to each couple. If anything, these studies (and our ongoing obsession with them) are a reminder that gender roles are ever-changing, and the best we can do is redefine our relationships such that they don’t depend on such a binary view.