Young people today have revolutionized marriage. More than any, more than any other group in human they have chosen to live within a marriage of equals. In it, husband and wife are supposed to share all responsibilities and all chores equally.
Now, Lori Gottlieb asks whether this revolutionary concept has produced an unintended consequence. Does a marriage of equals extinguish sexual desire? Are today’s men and women, Gottlieb asks, so alike in so many ways that they no longer feel very much lust?
The customary use of language gives it away: there are no more men and women. Young people are all equally persons. Obviously, there are no more husbands and wives. In some cases, people do not even bother to call it a marriage; it is a domestic partnership.
The situation is anything but clear. Gottlieb reports on research that shows male homosexuals selecting sexual partners with whom they have more clearly defined differences. Among gay men, opposition seems to enhance desire. The same research shows that lesbians choose sexual partners with whom they have more in common, more affinity, a deeper emotional connection.
Since male homosexuals are more interested in having more sex, the studies seem to demonstrate that opposites attract. And yet, relationships between male homosexual partners have traditionally been far less durable than relationships between lesbians. On the other hand, recent research—probably too recent to be conclusive—suggests that lesbian marriages are less durable than marriages between male homosexuals.
In any event, Gottlieb suggests that we, in our crazy-quilt way of disrespecting human realities might have taken the notion of gender neutrality one step too far. She suggests, as I among many others have noted, that people who are gender neutral end up being gender neutered.
Two neutered persons might go bump in the night, but do they really want to?
So, a generation that is more free and more open about the pursuit of sexual pleasure has talked itself into a form of marriage that feels and functions more like an arrangement than a love match.
If marriages between equals feel like arrangements, or like relationships between siblings, it makes sense that participants will find alternate modes of sexual satisfaction. If they are perfectly modern they will indulge porn. If they are less modern, they will resort to the traditional solution to a sexless marriage-- adultery.
In many ways, the most interesting part of Gottlieb’s article involves the extent to which young people, both men and women have been convinced that they must have gender equality.
In her words:
Marriage is hardly known for being an aphrodisiac, of course, but my boyfriend was referring to a particularly modern state of marital affairs. Today, according to census data, in 64 percent of U.S. marriages with children under 18, both husband and wife work. There’s more gender-fluidity when it comes to who brings in the money, who does the laundry and dishes, who drives the car pool and braids the kids’ hair, even who owns the home. A vast majority of adults under 30 in this country say that this is a good thing, according to a Pew Research Center survey: They aspire to what’s known in the social sciences as an egalitarian marriage, meaning that both spouses work and take care of the house and that the relationship is built on equal power, shared interests and friendship. But the very qualities that lead to greater emotional satisfaction in peer marriages, as one sociologist calls them, may be having an unexpectedly negative impact on these couples’ sex lives.
A study called “Egalitarianism, Housework and Sexual Frequency in Marriage,” which appeared in The American Sociological Review last year, surprised many, precisely because it went against the logical assumption that as marriages improve by becoming more equal, the sex in these marriages will improve, too. Instead, it found that when men did certain kinds of chores around the house, couples had less sex. Specifically, 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. It wasn’t just the frequency that was affected, either — at least for the wives. 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.
This suggests that, for people to sustain desire, being male and female is not enough. People seem to need to affirm their maleness or femaleness through the performance of certain duties. Could it be that conforming to the traditional division of labor sustains sexual desire in ways that full equality does not? Are modern couples oppressed by unrelenting sameness?
This raises an important issue: was the traditional division of household labor an imposition on a perfectly malleable human organism or did it evolve to be consistent with a basic sexual difference?
If there is a reason why women have traditionally been homemakers, then perhaps, for all I know, women whose men are more domesticated feel fewer concupiscent longings for them because they do not look very manly. Perhaps the men who adopt such roles in modern marriages resent performing chores that their fathers never did. Of course, men whose mothers cared for them might find it somewhat difficult to function in a relationship with a woman who refuses to do either.
Not because they want mothers, but because they want what their fathers had, wives.
In some modern cases, the parents of today’s young people already had egalitarian marriages. If these marriages worked well, young people might be inclined to repeat the experience. But, as is often the case, these arrangements produced broken homes, young couples might dread a repetition.
This leads Gottlieb to a frightening conclusion:
No matter how much sink-scrubbing and grocery-shopping the husband does, no matter how well husband and wife communicate with each other, no matter how sensitive they are to each other’s emotions and work schedules, the wife does not find her husband more sexually exciting, even if she feels both closer to and happier with him.
On the other hand, some scientists believe that they have discovered that egalitarian marriages are happier than traditional marriages. Gottlieb quotes British professor Lynn Prince Cooke and American author Stephanie Coontz to that effect.
But, there are also studies that reach an opposite conclusion.
The Daily Telegraph reported on a study performed by Prof. Thomas Hansen in Norway. Since Gottlieb did not know about it, I will quote the report at length:
In what appears to be a slap in the face for gender equality, the report found the divorce rate among couples who shared housework equally was around 50 per cent higher than among those where the woman did most of the work.
“What we’ve seen is that sharing equal responsibility for work in the home doesn’t necessarily contribute to contentment,” said Thomas Hansen, co-author of the study entitled “Equality in the Home”.
The lack of correlation between equality at home and quality of life was surprising, the researcher said.
“One would think that break-ups would occur more often in families with less equality at home, but our statistics show the opposite,” he said.
The figures clearly show that “the more a man does in the home, the higher the divorce rate,” he went on.
Hansen suggests that an equal division of labor is simply too confusing. When roles and duties are not clearly defined no one knows exactly who is going to do this and who is going to do that.
Gottlieb notes the same problem in American egalitarian marriages:
What do partners do when they have needs that directly conflict with those of their spouses? What if both have to work on the same weekend or be out of town at the same time? Who goes to the school play or compromises without feeling resentful? It used to be that husbands and wives operated largely in their own spheres with so little overlap that these questions rarely came up.
In a marriage of equals such questions are always coming up. To solve them, couples need to exercise sophisticated negotiation skills. Even in the best of couples, doing so requires a considerable amount of work. It adds unnecessary stress to the marriage.
If a couple is constantly negotiating the minutiae of a complicated life, will this enhance or dampen sexual desire?