What if you found out that too much respect was hurting your orgasms? Being regarded as an equal in a marriage is great and everything, but would you give it all up if only it meant your partner still wanted to bang you? Or that you still wanted to bang him/her? Because marriages may be more equal than ever, but the sex is about as frequent as a gum scraping. But oh well, at least he vacuumed (or did he?).
The Piece: "Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?," in the New York Times Magazine
The Scribe: Lori Gottlieb, author of Marry Him: The Case For Settling For Mr. Good Enough, the book that boldly encouraged women to take whatever was around, because, hey, better than being ALONE, right? Jezebel was all over it here, here, and here, and described the approach as "calorie counting for the soul."
The Premise: Gottlieb investigates the uncomfortable notion that marriages are more equal than ever, and yet no one is getting any, probably because equality has gender neutered us all in the process. The idea piqued her interest when, at a dinner for mostly married couples in their 40s, things got weird when a husband made a porn joke and the wife tensed up. She joked that the porn joke couple prolly wouldn't be getting any that night, but her boyfriend said, nope, it's the other happily married couple here that you think is so awesome who won't be doing it:
I thought he was kidding. This couple were my "model marrieds," true equals who share the housework and child care, communicate openly and prioritize each other's careers. The best friends of happy-couple cliché. Earlier in the evening, I watched them work together in the kitchen, cheerfully cooking and cleaning: She bringing out the hors d'oeuvres, and he chopping and dicing. When their 6-year-old woke up with a nightmare, they wordlessly agreed that he would be the one to soothe her. It was the kind of marriage many people wish for.
"Exactly," my boyfriend said. "Least likely."
Aside from the fact that her beefcake is mad insightful, I will spoil this for you now: You never find out if the "model marrieds" got it on that night, although if they did not, I would point to the having of a 6-year-old over equality any day. But that's only one of the many frustrations of this piece! Buckle up, this one is bumpy, but not in the way that can titillate.
The Evidence: Some 64 percent of marriages with kids now have both partners working. Those partners are sharing ALL the responsibilities now, from the laundry to the dishes to the car-pooling to the braiding of the teen daughter's hair. People under 30 think this is "a good thing" — which is a nice bit of foreshadowing to imply they will be getting their perfect little egalitarian unions with no handjobs soon enough, just you wait:
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.
D'oh. But riddle me this: If equality makes sex bad, wouldn't it follow that sex was better when things were less equal? Or has married sex always been bad, but we hoped equality would fix it, only to find out it didn't? Furthermore, does this mean the women who grimaced through sex every night in the 1950s as their wifely duty were actually having better sex and just didn't know it? And! Did the people in this piece having all this great equality but fewer orgasms used to have hot sex when the husband was only mowing the lawn?
Can't tell you, because none of this is addressed. All we know from the piece is that equality might be making your sex bad, if we have zero idea how your sex was before, and never mention the simple fact that marriage has always been a challenge in the passion department. Also, I really had no idea that people thought equality would singlehandedly make familiarity breed lust instead of boredom in the bedroom. We're feminists here, people, not magicians.
Back in that chores study cited above, Gottlieb notes that when men did the chores women claim to want men to do, folding clothes, laundry, vacuuming, aka "feminine chores," the couples had sex 1.5 fewer times a month. Gottlieb concedes the data is from the 1990s. But one of the authors of the study contends that not much has changed on the data about the division of labor in the intervening years. However, no one seems able to admit that 1.5 sex times a month doesn't seem like a lot. And that most people would gladly trade 1.5 sex times for, like, a clean kitchen floor. (And, no, I do not say "sex times" in my actual life, promise.)
At any rate: It's a loooong piece and there are quite a few examples from Gottlieb's own experience as a counselor/marriage therapist. In one, a couple claims happiness with the power balance in their relationship, but complains the sex just isn't there. Is it a problem of attraction? Nope, the wife says she loves when the husband comes home from the gym and takes his shirt off to shower and she sees his muscles. But he counters that just that morning he disrobed to shower post-gym, and instead of jumping him, she complained instead about the fact that he hadn't vacuumed. BURN! No sex.
… his wife became irritated when he tossed his clothes on the floor, which led to a conversation about his not vacuuming the day before, when she worked late. He had worked late, too, which accounted for the lack of vacuuming, but still — she hated waking up to a messy room, and it was his turn to vacuum.
"Right," she agreed. "I wasn't focused on sex, because I wanted you to get out the vacuum."
"So if I got out the vacuum, then you'd be turned on?"
His wife thought about it for a minute. "Actually, probably not," she said slowly, as if hearing the contradiction even as she was speaking it. "The vacuuming would have killed the weight-lifting vibe."
Gottlieb seems to think this anecdote is some kind of a-ha! moment — IT'S THE EQUALITY, STUPID! — but I don't read it that way at all. Had he vacuumed, she'd have fucked him. You may disagree on whether not vacuuming once is a good enough reason to not bone your hot muscle dude, but this is not an equality problem, it's a not-doing-the-chore-you-said-you-would problem. And furthermore, there's some dubious conflating going on here with him asking her, So if I got out the vacuum, then you'd be turned on? and Gottlieb letting that stand. Wanting your partner to do chores is not at all saying you are supposed to be turned on by seeing them do the chores. Ugh. What he should have asked was, So if I had cleaned as promised, you would have been able to focus more on me and not the mess? The answer was probably yes!
In another example, a 40-something woman in an "equal" relationship saw her husband's porn, which finally made her feel comfortable asking for a certain sexual thing because it just so happened to be what he seemed to like in the porn. But he didn't want to oblige. He liked having that thing in his porn, and having "semi-respectable" sex with her.
Again, this is supposed to signal some bonerkiller equality thing definitively, but to me it reads like a guy who doesn't want to have new kinds of sex with his wife, not because they share the household responsibilities, but because that's his preference/hangup. What I would want to know to conclude that this was about the equality is whether they ever had good sex, if things were dirtier and sexier when they were less equal? Because this sounds like a guy simply not comfortable having a different kind of sexual encounter with his wife, whom he thinks of a certain way. That's not too much equality! That's a double standard.
Furthermore, porn has always been about a fantasy, and the idea that in our fantasies we are the opposite of what we are in reality makes a ZERO percent case that what we really want is to be dominated all the time. Or that what he really wants is to have a porn queen wife. It's healthy to fantasize about something outside of our comfort level. Doesn't mean we want to turn back the clock. Just means people want to be wanted in primal ways. That can still happen when she takes out the trash.
Moving on, there's a grab bag of notions about our sex times now that are ostensibly meant to round out the idea that equality is bad for boners:
After all, women are now coming into marriage with sexual histories and experiences on par with men's, leading to expectations that are difficult to replicate in any marriage, especially now that people live longer and will be having sex, presumably with the same person, for decades more.
You know what this tells me? That when women are less experienced, they have fewer complaints. Now they actually know what good sex is. If that is a reason sex sucks — because women now expect men to actually be good in bed — then this is not about equality, it's AGAIN about a double standard.
Similarly, older couples who can now wait and marry for love have less time together during their sexual primes and, if kids are in the plan, they may even miss that year or two of newlywed abandon. (Ask a 40-year-old couple trying and failing to conceive how much fun the sex is.) Pepper Schwartz, who serves as AARP's relationships expert, observes that 50-year-olds of the past were often grandparents without great expectations about their sex lives. Now those same 50-year-olds might have a 10-year-old, placing them in a life stage formerly occupied by people in their 30s and subjecting them to pressure to maintain the culture's view of "youthful sexuality" in marriage, especially with the ubiquity of Viagra and Estrace.
Again, this conflates different ideas that aren't connected. Trying to have a baby to beat the clock is what makes the sex utilitarian, not equality. Being past your sexual prime makes sex a challenge because of biology, not equality. And kids? Kids make everyone tired, even the people not related to them. That's about reproducing, not equality.
Finally, she quotes a father who says he's perfectly happy with his boring sex life, even as he knows that "a lot of people think it's supposed to be more exciting than this." Again, isn't this the real issue? Not equality, but expectations? That a lot o fpeople think sex should be more exciting than it is? Isn't this more about our expectation that marriage should fire on all cylinders at all times, which has always been acknowledged as a rare thing? Again, if we are applying this to sex, it's not because of equality, but more likely because of porn, which is as ubiquitous as air and (sometimes) creates unrealistic expectations. All this means is that we have to have a new conversation about desire.
It's not news at all that keeping the sex alive and passionate in a marriage is hard, but perhaps what is new is that men and women can talk about the dissatisfaction and difficulty of that struggle more openly than ever before. That's a good thing! Because now, instead of having to suffer silently through bad sex, both men and women are talking about the realities of their sex life and asking for what they want. It's ok if this is an awkward adolescence in the total history of sex — it's ok if there are a few kinks to work out in the kinks department.
Chemistry might always be a bit of a mystery that doesn't always line up with what we intellectually believe to be best for us, but it's naïve to think that equality inhibits the ability to get wild in the sack. The issue is that we are at an unprecedented level of equality, but that not everyone has caught up to the idea in the bedroom. I'll concede that everyone is more tired now in a family for a whole host of reasons, but it's economics that requires mothers and fathers to work just to barely get by. That necessitates splitting the household duties. If anything, we're all more tired than we used to be, instead of women just taking the heat and still putting out. (Women who are, by the way, still doing more around the house in this "equal" arrangement.)
In a piece about what the French can teach Americans about sexuality (I know), a cultural historian says: "Egalitarianism is wonderful in the kitchen but boring in the bedroom."
Pithy notion! But this, to me, deeply misunderstands what egalitarianism in the bedroom should mean. It's not some overly politically correct landmine where you can't risk offending someone, where every move needs permission and vetting by an independent panel of equality judges. It's where men or women can play with cultural expectations, or take turns being dominated (if they want) or, hell, reenact a 1950s version of stifled role-playing to their orgasmic content.
Respect ought to mean you can set aside the roles you play every day and indulge in perverse, silly, exciting, transgressive consensual acts, whatever they may be. Anyone who finds that dampening to the sexual spirit doesn't sound quite ready for equality. So next time you read a little stat like, "The risk of divorce is lowest when the husband does 40 percent of the housework and the wife earns 40 percent of the income," you shouldn't think, wow, equality is really killing my boner. You should think, wow, we've still got a long way to go.
Image via bayberry/Shutterstock.