A Reversal in Predictors of Sexual Frequency and Satisfaction in Marriage
A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families by Sharon Sassler, Professor, Department of Policy Analysis & Management, Cornell University
June 20, 2016
In the 1940s and 1950s, the consensus of the emerging profession of marital counseling was that marital happiness and sexual satisfaction depended upon a couple’s adherence to traditional gender roles, with the husband doing the bulk of the breadwinning and the wife doing most of the housework. Influential economists such as Gary Becker (A Treatise on the Family, 1981) argued that following such a conventional division of labor by gender would lead to the greatest marital intimacy and sexual attraction between husband and wife.
Indeed, as recently as 2013, an article in the American Sociological Review found that couples who divided housework more equally had lower marital and sexual satisfaction and less frequent sex than couples where the woman did the bulk of the household labor.[i] The authors concluded that conventional masculine and feminine behaviors at home served as sexual “turn-ons” for men and women, while nontraditional behaviors, consciously or unconsciously, turned people off.
But these studies relied on data from the 1980s and early 1990s, and thus represented marriages formed before the recent surge in dual-earner families and social approval of egalitarian gender roles. My co-authors and I compared findings based on data collected 22 to 24 years ago, in the second wave of the National Survey on Families and Households, with data from the 2006 Marital and Relationship Survey. As we describe in a forthcoming study in The Journal of Marriage and Family, the association between a non-traditional division of labor at home and couples’ sexual satisfaction and frequency has changed dramatically over the past two decades. By 2006, couples who reported sharing housework fairly equally, with the man doing more than a third and up to 65 percent of the housework, reported having sex significantly more often than did couples where the woman (or the man) did 65 percent or more of the housework.
In fact, contemporary couples who adhere to this more egalitarian division of labor are the only couples who have experienced an increase in sexual frequency compared to their counterparts of the past, whereas other groups – including those where the woman does the bulk of the housework – have experienced declines in sexual frequency. This finding is particularly notable given reports indicating that sexual frequency has generally declined worldwide over the past few decades.[ii]
What’s going on here? Couples report having more and higher quality sex when they are satisfied with their relationships. In today’s social climate, relationship quality and stability are generally highest when couples divide up the household labor in a way they see as equitable or fair. And the evidence shows that when men do a greater share of housework, women’s perceptions of relationship fairness and satisfaction are greater. In fact, how housework was arranged mattered more for couples surveyed in 2006 than it did among those interviewed in the late 1980s. It is therefore not surprising that couples with more egalitarian divisions of routine housework report being more satisfied with sexual intimacy today than they did 20 years ago. Sharing housework is now perceived as a sexual turn-on.
In our study, the reported sexual satisfaction of couples with egalitarian housework arrangements was about the same as that of more traditional couples, even though sexual frequency was higher. A different analysis of the same data–which compared the sexual satisfaction of couples who shared childcare equally, couples where the woman did most of the childcare, and couples where men did most of the childcare–found that the egalitarian child-raising couples not only reported more frequent sex but also higher sexual satisfaction than couples where the woman did most of the childcare. Today’s sexual scripts clearly have been realigned to value sharing the housework load over role specialization.
As June brides and grooms settle in for the long haul after coming back from the honeymoon and writing their thank-you notes, they might want to make sure their “to do” lists include a fair division of the dishes and laundry.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT
Sharon Sassler, Professor, Department of Policy Analysis & Management, Cornell University, Sharon.Sassler@Cornell.Edu.
[i] Kornrich, S., Brines, J., & Leupp, K. (2013). Egalitarianism, housework, and sexual frequency in marriage. American Sociological Review, 78, 26–50. doi:10.1177/0003122412472340.
[ii] Mercer, C. A., Tanton, C., Prah, P., Erens, B., Sonnenberg, P, Clifton, S., … Johnson, A. M. (2013). Changes in sexual attitudes and lifestyles in Britain through the life course and over time: Findings from the National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. The Lancet, 382, 1781–1794. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62035-8.