Two Friends Discuss: “Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?”

photo by ashraful kadir

photo courtesy ashraful kadir

Psychotherapist and author Lori Gottlieb recently wrote an article for the New York Times titled “Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?” and as you can imagine, it attracted a lot of attention. In the piece, Gottlieb discusses a study that found couples in “egalitarian” heterosexual marriages are having less sex than those in more “traditional” marriages. From the article:

“…if men did all of what the researchers characterized as feminine chores like folding laundry, cooking or vacuuming — the kinds of things many women say they want their husbands to do — then couples had sex 1.5 fewer times per month than those with husbands who did what were considered masculine chores, like taking out the trash or fixing the car.“  and she adds: “The more traditional the division of labor, meaning the greater the husband’s share of masculine chores compared with feminine ones, the greater his wife’s reported sexual satisfaction.”

Not long after reading the article, my close friend and author Laura Warrell and I found ourselves discussing it. It was a lively discussion that I thought would be interesting to capture and share with you folks. So, here’s a bit of the back and forth we had… If you haven’t already,you may want to read the original article that sparked our conversation -here- before moving on.

Gottlieb’s article covers a lot of territory, so we weren’t able to cover everything. We did manage to address a couple of key points in our conversation, as you’ll see below:

Duane de Four: First thing’s first Laura, I thought there was a lot of gender essentialism in the article. For example; Gottlieb references a “sweaty T-shirt” experiment that found women were more attracted to man-funk from guys with “genes markedly different from their own…” which, by the way, contradicts another argument made in her article, by a sociologist who claims that women; “tend to seek similar mates” thus, “lesbian bed death,” while men, whether gay or straight, “prioritize the erotic.” Us poor hetero-men she says “…have to deal with heterosexual women.” Later on, she even makes a joke(?) about “men visiting PornHub while women visit Pinterest…” when sexual needs aren’t being met. I hate arguments like these because they boil down to; men are always like this, women are always like that and there’s no point in fighting it because… biology. Bullshit! If our ability to reason is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, why are we constantly trying to revert back to some sort of feral reason-not-required state of being?

Us poor hetero-men she says “…have to deal with heterosexual women.”

This article illustrates what happens when things shift and change… People struggle to adapt and accept the change, which in this case is shifting gender roles. We’re all struggling to find a new equilibrium because ingrained behavioral scripts are very difficult to change. But beyond the internal struggle, let’s not forget that we’re all constantly being bombarded with these old messages about what it means to be a man or a woman. So when I read quotes from Gottlieb’s clients like: “I know what a 50-50 marriage should be like. But what is 50-50 sex supposed to be like?” or this one:

“For all the men from the days of ‘Mad Men’ who felt like the woman’s place was in the home, all the sexist troglodytes who might have thought that way, or even the enlightened men who cared deeply about their partners’ happiness,” he said, “you could round up a thousand of them, and not one would say the woman should watch the kids, clean the house, do the cooking and at the same time make the same amount of money as the guy. So when my wife had those expectations, it seemed a bit unrealistic.”

I can’t help but think; this is what happens when men and women try and forge new identities in a world that continues to shove traditional, restrictive gender norms down our throats.

For example, when I first started discovering feminism as a young man I started rethinking a lot of things about my life. As my perspectives and behaviors changed, I quickly started losing male friends who’d say things like “we can’t talk to Duane about women anymore.” Then they slowly started excluding me from more and more of the “typical guy talk” I used to participate in. Honestly, those sorts of moments were difficult for me. To this day, 20 years later, I still struggle with what it means to be a new kind of man in this world. So I can only imagine what it’s like for Gottlieb’s male client who feels “financially emasculated” because he’s a stay at home dad.

She never says it, but I would venture to guess that while he’s at home with the kid(s) most of this guy’s male friends are likely off in the corporate world, living more traditional family lives. I wonder; What do his friends say to him when they’re hanging out? Do they accept him or make fun of him? Do they avoid talking about their jobs around him? What about when Mr. Stay-at-home-dad turns on the TV or watches a movie? Do you think he finds many men like him, stay at home dads and the like, that he can emulate? Nope! Instead he is bombarded with messages about male breadwinners and executives, athletes, etc.. Men who’s lives revolve around their work.

Do you think he finds many men like him, stay at home dads and the like, that he can emulate? Nope!

Is it any wonder a man in this situation starts feeling like his masculinity is threatened? Could this potentially have an effect on a couple’s sex life? I’m sure it can. But none of that is explored in the article… Gottlieb could have easily argued something along the lines of; “if society were to be more in-tune with changing gender roles, accepting and supportive, maybe things would be a bit easier for couples struggling to figure this stuff out.” Instead, Gottlieb seems to argue the gender essentialist point of view; “if you want a happy sex life, you better stick to traditional gender roles.”

There’s plenty more I could talk about, but I’ll stop there for now. I’d love to hear you thoughts…

Laura Warrell: Duane, You may be surprised that I’m going to disagree with you on the essentialist take the author has on her subject.  Human beings are amazingly complicated, complex, contradictory.  The sexual instinct is, too.  But I do believe there’s something primal about sex that rarely fits into our highest wishes for ourselves, especially our political ideals.  I’m not saying men always do this and women always do that, but I think there are some constants.

I do believe there’s something primal about sex that rarely fits into our highest wishes for ourselves, especially our political ideals.

My initial thought when reading the headline of the article and talking briefly about it with you was this: are egalitarian couples less interested in each other sexually because, despite what we may want to believe about human nature, sex is primal and the notion of equality doesn’t play into that primal-ness?  Certainly, there are many facets to our individual desires but I think among them is the desire to be dominated and receive or to dominate and give.  I can’t believe I’m writing that either!

Many strong, liberated women I know, including myself, find themselves attracted to men who fit traditional tropes of masculinity: the tough guy, the bad boy, the less than intellectual dude whose physical energy is through the roof.  Of course, we can be attracted to the guy with the funky shirt as much as the smart, sophisticated guy with less overt physical energy.  But we are probably going to notice Mr. Funky Shirt (some women, of course, more than others).  So I can imagine when you level the playing field in a marriage – which certainly makes sense emotionally and politically – the sexual dynamic could change significantly.  The woman in the article who talks about how turned on she gets when her husband comes home from the gym smelly, stinky and bulging with muscles makes a lot of sense to me.

I was married and can admit that some of my ex’s sexiest moments were when he was being “typically” masculine.  One of my most vivid memories of him was a time we were hiking.  I slipped on some rocks and in the blink of an eye, he caught me in his arms.  He rescued me!  I remember another time he yelled at some snotty teenagers for being rude in public and I was weak-kneed.  Literally, swooning!  Now, he was no meat-headed jerk.  In fact, he was a gentle souled creature and we shared an egalitarian life.  But when he was “manly,” oh, it was lovely.  Strong women especially, I think, want a man who can match their energy, their intensity, who can even exceed it.  It’s not a comforting political truth, at least for me, but it’s sexy.

It’s not a comforting political truth, at least for me, but it’s sexy.

It’s also interesting to think about what we used to hear about the more traditional marriages our grandparents had; when the women stayed home to cook, clean, nurture and pleasure their husbands.  If the literature from the time period, the films, television shows, etc., are to be believed, it seems the wives considered sex as an obligation, a way to keep their husbands and to “provide” for them.  The idea is that they didn’t necessarily want it and that husbands sometimes had to beg for it.  Even nowadays, I see television shows like “Everybody Loves Raymond” or more recently “Modern Family” where the stay-at-home mom has to fight off her husband’s advances, leaving him begging for sex.

Certainly, we can’t base our understandings of what’s happening to normal people on what’s happening on TV, but I do find myself wondering whether the sexless housewife trope still exists in pop culture because it still exists in real life.  The point is: those women, we are told, had sex with their husbands whenever their husbands wanted because they thought it was what they were supposed to do.  Because their husbands were dominant, the wives did as their husbands asked.  So maybe married women in more traditional marriages are having more sex because they feel obligated and/or their husbands are insisting.  Men in more egalitarian marriages probably aren’t pushing when they get the idea their wives aren’t interested.  This begs the question of the quality of the sex.  Maybe the more traditional couples are having more sex but is it better than the egalitarian couples?  Moreover, in an egalitarian marriage, the husband may be more concerned about his wife’s pleasure.  The article discusses that:

“The archetype of the porn queen is that she’s a woman who derives sexual pleasure by giving the man pleasure, and — here’s the key — everything he does is absolutely perfect! What you don’t see in porn is anything that needs to be negotiated, the woman having needs of her own or the roles being reversed.”’

Not to suggest that traditional wives are porn queens, but the expectation seems to be that there’s less negotiation about the how, when and why of the sex act.

In the end, what’s more important, quality or quantity?

Here’s a quote from the article about that: “The quality of sex in marriage — and not just the frequency — is a relatively new conversation that has come about with more egalitarian marriages. In today’s marriages, she said, “we don’t just want sex; it has to be intimate sex. It has to be transcendent and self-actualizing.”’  Transcendent, self-actualizing sex certainly doesn’t happen every time, especially if you’re exhausted and worried about work the next morning.  So maybe these couples put it off until the time is better.

I hear you on the shift in gender politics and how people are dealing with it.  There are so many examples of how the culture is not dealing with this well, too many to go into.  The reason I think the dialogues are so crazy and confusing about this right now is because there are huge segments of the population who just don’t want the shift to happen.  And I say this with all the love for you in the world, but lots of the people resistant to the shift are men.  They don’t want to have to negotiate anything, don’t want to lose the fruits of their privilege.  What do we do about them?  God only knows.

But the rest of us.  We have to accept that this is hard and confusing, it is for women, too.  We women want to enjoy our jobs, have fun with our friends, be loved, give love, have great sex, raise happy children, live full lives, but we’re getting all kinds of awful messages about how to do it, and many of those messages are telling us we’re doing it the wrong way.  This week, you and I are talking about an article that suggests egalitarian marriages may cause a decrease in a couple’s sexual appetites.  Next week, we’ll read the opposite.  No one knows.  Everyone’s scared and confused.

We have to accept that this is hard and confusing, it is for women too.

This may seem to belittle the whole argument, or seem too earthy crunchy, but it comes down to individuals.  It comes down to negotiating between ourselves and our partners, communicating with each other, staying attuned to each other so we can create a marriage that works for us as individuals.  Tune out the noise, the advice and research the world thinks it has to offer, and just sit together and figure things out.

I see a lot of men holding back what they perceive as overly masculine qualities.  In some ways, I think that’s a mistake.  Most of the men who are doing so are clearly not jerks, not violent, not misogynistic.  The mere fact that they are choosing to be “better” men proves it.  Part of the problem in these egalitarian marriages may be just that: the men are trying so hard to be “good” men that the healthy expression of their masculinity, which both they and their wives can get a charge from, is stifled.  Let it out, guys, it can only be good.

Duane: You raise some great points Laura. We’re running a bit long here so we’ll have to stop for now. Maybe we can pick this up again soon? I don’t think we’re quite done with this topic yet.

Laura: Looking forward to it!



Thoughts? Please share...

  • Lola February 12, 2014, 2:35 PM

    after 10 years of a partnership and 2 kids, i can’t think of anything sexier than my man bending over and vacuuming the rug. Sweaty or not, that would make me want him.

    • Duane de Four February 12, 2014, 2:41 PM

      Thanks for the comment Lola. If I knew your husband I’d tell him to get vacuuming (and to be sure not to use an upright, so he can bend over while doing it)!

%d bloggers like this: