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.

And here's the payoff in regards to their study:

The results also show a significant positive association between hours spent on household tasks and sexual frequency. For both men and women, greater time spent doing household labor is associated with higher sexual frequency... A 1% increase in wives' weekly hours on housework is associated with a 0.11% increase in yearly sexual frequency. For men...a 1% increase in husbands' weekly hours in housework results in a 0.06% increase in the couple's yearly sexual frequency.

To put this in more concrete terms, Gager/Yabiku provide this example, comparing two different couples:

[With] the first couple, the wife does 16 hr and the husband does 2 hr of housework (a week). In the second couple, the wife does 68 hr and the husband does 45 hr. The difference in predicted yearly sexual frequency between these couples is 15 times--or about 1.3 additional times per month for the second couple.

Not only do these findings contradict the assumptions of the "Time Availability" hypothesis but they also tested it against the "traditional attitudes" thesis (i.e. Gender Ideology) and found that the same work/sex relationship held regardless if the couples involved self-identified as having more "traditional" values or not.[2]

Their grand conclusion:

For both wives and husbands in our sample, those who spend more time on household labor report more frequent sex. Even after controlling for time spent in paid labor, the positive association between hours spent on housework with sexual frequency remains, and paid work hours are also positively associated with sexual frequency. These findings suggest that as life gets busier and time gets tighter, a select group of go-getter spouses can successfully balance multiple time commitments. They devote their time to paid work and housework, while maintaining an active sexual life. In other words, rather than compromise their sex life, this group of go-getters seem to make sex a priority. We further speculate that even if women and men adjust their schedules to prioritize having sex, these adjustments do not involve reducing housework or their labor force commitments. In sum, the much lamented speedup of everyday life and resulting time crunch does not appear to have adverse effects on sexual frequency among our sample of married couples.

It is worth noting that, at the end, the researchers make a point to mention that their data only could examine *frequency* rather than "quality". In other words, just because a couple is having more sex doesn't necessarily mean they're having better sex (though it seems to me that the big issue between married couples ultimately comes down to objective frequency of sex than subjective quality).

The other important detail that needs to be said is that the researchers are not positing a causal link. It's not the case that simply increasing the number of hours you work automatically results in being able to have sex more in a marriage. What they've found here is a correlation and a correlation with a plausible explanation. But again, it's not that working more will lead to a couple increasing their sexual frequency; it's that an increased workload and increased sexual frequency share a common bond: the work/play ethic of the couple. If married couples want to increase their sexual frequency, it's not enough for them to simply put more time into household labor; they need to change their attitude towards work and pleasure. Not the easiest thing to do, obviously.

In any case, this is just one study and apparently, it's the first of its kind to look at the relationship between issues of household labor and sexual frequency so "future research is needed" to test the validity of their findings. Nonetheless, it does fly in the face of the presumed wisdom that as we get busier, we cease to make time for our pleasures. This study suggests the opposite: the more we learn to multi-task, the more likely that pleasure becomes part of what we build into our hectic schedules.


[1] Cohabitation data is included in the NSFH data but for their study, Gager/Yabiku only looked at married couples for consistency sake.

[2] Traditional men and women alike did report higher sexual frequency. (Uh oh, liberals better start catching up!)