Making Sex a Chore

by Oliver Wang

I was never that interested in scholarship about the family until—surprise, surprise—I had one of my own. I suppose there's a fairly obvious logic to this: you study what's close to you and when I was in my 20s and early 30s, I was mostly focused on music and culture but now that I'm officially in my late 30s and have a wife and kid, I've been equally as intrigued by scholarship looking at family life.

Case in point: Montclair State University's Constance Gager and ASU's Scott Yabiku put out a study last October that got a mention on Context's "Discoveries" blog: "Who Has the Time? The Relationship Between Household Labor Time and Sexual Frequency."

You don't have to be a sociologist to armchair theory this one: most would assume that as household labor time (i.e. the time couples spend on housework) increases, sexual frequency decreases.

Now, I just have to pause for a second and say something here: Scholarship of this sort often inspires the criticism of, "well, isn't this obvious? Why don't scientists study something we don't already know?" To be sure, there's some studies where even I am inclined to feel that way but the vast majority of the time, what may seem "obvious" is only obvious because it's been repeated enough times through various outlets (media, interpersonal, etc.) that we just assume it to be "true." But if that were all that it takes to turn theory into fact, we'd still be living in Ptolemic/geocentric universe, assuming Earth was the center of everything. There's a reason why science, social or otherwise, exists: to take on assumptions and either validate them or disprove them.

The Gager/Yabiku study is a perfect example since their findings more or less contradict "common wisdom." Indeed, instead of finding that household labor and sexual frequency are inversely related (i.e. as the former increases, the latter decreases), they found the exact opposite: the busier couples seemed to be, both in terms of housework and career work, the more sex they had. It's the "work hard/play hard" theory which Gager/Yabiku describe as the "multiple spheres" hypothesis (I'll explain this in a second).

Going into their study (which uses National Survey of Families and Households data), Gager/Yabiku had three hypotheses they wanted to test:

1) Time Availability. This is the "intuitive" theory: you work more, you have sex less because you have less time, you're more tired, etc.

2) Gender Ideology. This is an interesting example of trying to decouple any kind of causal link between household labor and sexual frequency by finding a "hidden" third factor that might explain the appearance of any relationship. To quote:

Because women with more traditional attitudes spend more time on housework, they would have less time for sex. Alternatively, women who are traditional might have more sex because they believe it is part of their marital duties

In other words, the key factor here is "traditional attitudes" rather than any direct link between work and sex.

3) Multiple spheres. The idea here is that some people "find time for multiple activities both inside and outside the home." If they're highly-organized at work, this might also apply to home life so that people who work in this "multiple spheres" mode basically make time to schedule in marital sex the same way they would organize time to get work done, etc.

So what were their findings? Let's first go over some worthwhile stats:

  • The average married couple[1] in their study[2] had sex 83 times a year, or a little over 1.5 times a week.
  • Wives spend about 1.8 times more hours per week on housework than husbands (42 hrs vs. 23.5).
  • Their study also validated the reality of the Second Shift...but not as much as one might think. Though men spend more time doing paid work then women, when you add up the total number of hours of work (whether pair or unpaid), women spend 4 more hours a week working than men do (61.4 hours a week for women vs. 57.1 for men).
  • A few findings they came across not directly related to their core thesis but still worth mentioning: Protestant couples have sex more than Catholic ones, wives with college degrees report lower sexual frequency but couples with higher incomes report higher frequency, and Black couples reported higher frequency than White couples.

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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