Lori Gottlieb had a piece in the New York Times Magazine this weekend called “Does A More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?” By “equal marriage,” she means that “both spouses work and take care of the house and that the relationship is built on equal power, shared interests and friendship.” And aside from a few rather offensive generalizations about queer couples, she seems to mainly be talking about heterosexual relationships. The fact that her evidence is drawn mostly from anecdotes about her peers and her marriage therapy patients suggests they are mostly upper-middle class couples. Her answer to the question posed in the headline (which was surely written to make feminists like me click–ya got me!) is basically “yes, maybe, but that’s probably ok.”
Confession: I think I’d really love writing sex and relationship trend pieces. I like drawing on the limited experiences of my peers and my sense of larger cultural trends to draw sweeping conclusions. So here are five alternative conclusions one could easily draw from the evidence in Gottlieb’s piece.
This seems to the biggest confounding variable in Gottlieb’s theory. As far as I can tell, the common problem the busy professionals and uber-involved parents who populate her piece seem to have is they just don’t have enough time to do it–or at least not to do it well. Between jobs, child care, and housework, there are almost literally not enough hours in the day for sex, which is squeezed in “during a window between 10:30 and 11 p.m. when they [are] both tired but not yet asleep.” The piece is filled with stories of “two exhausted equals” trying in vain to “meet each other’s sexual needs.” And these are the privileged elite! If the upper-middle-class couples who populate Gottlieb’s small world are stretched so thin, the crunch is undoubtedly even worse for the minimum wage workers who need to juggle two jobs just to get dinner on the table. If those couples who are trying to balance the work most equitably still find there’s just too much, then maybe we should focus on transforming American work culture. I’m thinking a four-day work week, a universal basic income, and mandatory paid parental leave would be a boon to everyone’s sex lives.
2) Nobody can “have it all” and everyone is increasingly frustrated by that.
Of course, part of Gottlieb’s theory is that the couples who are attempting to balance all this work in the most gender equitable way are the ones whose sex lives are suffering the most. Again, the evidence to support this claim is pretty thin. She acknowledges that having a husband who shares in the housework and child raising generally increases sexual frequency–and is one of the biggest predictors of marital happiness for women overall (if you care about that sort of thing.) But she cites a study (using data from the ’90s) that found couples had less sex when men did so-called “feminine” chores like folding laundry, cooking or vacuuming compared to when they did “masculine” chores, like taking out the trash or fixing the car. So there’s that. And while the evidence is clear that sharing breadwinning and household duties decreases the likelihood of divorce, she notes that if a wife earns more than her husband, the risk of divorce increases. You’ve been warned.
Other than that, Gottlieb’s relying mostly on anecdotal evidence from her friends and therapy patients that suggest a certain “discomfort” with arrangements that buck traditional gender roles too much. If the dad stays home with the kids, “Mom comes home and feels guilty for being away all day” and resentful “because their husbands get to see more of the kids.” The husbands, on the other hand, “start to feel ‘financially emasculated’” and disgruntled that they’re putting in so many unpaid (and thus undervalued) hours. As one husband who works from home and took on much of the child care explained, “She’d say, ‘I work 10 hours a day.’ I’d say, ‘I work 16, and half of those I don’t get paid for.’”
There’s some interesting stuff happening here, but first it’s worth mentioning that very few couples are dealing with these dynamics right now. Over all, men continue to do less housework and child care than women, and while the number of stay-at-home dads has doubled in the last decade, they still make up only a tiny proportion of all families with kids. It hardly seems surprising that couples who are adopting a family structure that is discouraged by both cultural tradition and social policy–and who are almost certainly a minority among their peers–might feel a little “uncomfortable.”
But even more than that, I think the comments of these gender role-reversing pioneers show how much both men and women are cheated by the lack of any semblance of true work-family balance in the US. Perhaps it’ll take more men doing the unpaid care work that women have done for ages for us, as a culture, to truly grasp just how much we’ve devalued it. And perhaps as more working women object to being forced to sacrifice time with their families for career success, we’ll start to question whether we want a work culture that demands that of anyone. In the meantime, realizing that nobody can “have it all”? Definitely a boner-killer, in my opinion.
3) Most men are kinda shitty at meeting women’s sexual needs.
Sadly, I think this is an option that needs to be on the table. As Gottlieb notes, “The quality of sex in marriage—and not just the frequency—is a relatively new conversation that has come about with more egalitarian marriages.” I mean, back in the day, people didn’t even accept that women had sexual needs of their own–let alone that their husbands should try to meet them. Indeed, as Stephanie Coontz has written, one of the ways marriage has changed in recent decades “is that husbands have to respond positively to their wives’ requests for change.” Since sexual reciprocity is a relatively new expectation in relationships, perhaps even men who want an equal partnership with their wives are still a little lazy when it comes to negotiating a sexual relationship with an actual equal with idiosyncratic desires of her own. And perhaps the women who enter into these equal marriages would rather have less sex than put up with doing it with a guy who seems like he’d prefer to be getting off on Pornhub than with a complicated human being.
In fact, if people in “equal” marriages really aren’t having as much sex as their peers (which, again, is pure speculation), we could even consider the possibility that they’re having the exact right amount of sex, while “unequal” marriages, past and present, skew higher only because women feel obligated to have sex they don’t want to have.
4) There’s a lot of cultural shame around sex and we’re really bad at talking about it.
But here’s a more generous–and probably more likely–theory: Meeting the sexual needs of another complex, unique person–and getting yours met in return–is challenging. It takes communication and trust and a willingness to be open about your deepest sexual desires–an openness that our sex-negative culture actively discourages. And one of the most annoying ways the culture does this–at least to this sex-positive feminist–is by continually acting as though some sexual desires are at odds with a desire for social, economic, and political gender equality. Gottlieb notes that her patients “tend to feel awkward about bringing the concept of power into conversations about sex, mostly because it can feel so confusing.” While she’s purporting to simply be reporting a discomfort that’s out there–which I don’t doubt–Gottlieb’s piece itself reinforces this idea. She notes that, “many studies show that women often report fantasies, like those involving submission, that tend to be inconsistent with our notion of progressive relationships.”
Except no, they’re not. And the sooner we can all accept that, the sooner we’ll be spared ridiculous trend pieces by Katie Roiphe. For the love of God, have whatever kind of sex you want. It’s not even about “compartmentalizing,” as Dan Savage suggests in the piece. Power, dominance, submission–these are all parts of being human. Explore them. Talk about them. Feminism–my feminism at least–doesn’t give a fuck what you’re doing in bed.
5) Maybe it’s time accept that a life-long monogamous marriage isn’t a relationship model that works for most people.
I agree with Gottlieb wholeheartedly on one point: as a culture, we pin a lot of expectations on today’s “equal” marriages–far more than seems reasonable for one single relationship to sustain. Gottlieb quotes couples expert Esther Perel: “It’s the first time in history we are trying this experiment of a sexuality that’s rooted in equality and that lasts for decades. It’s a tall order for one person to be your partner in Management Inc., your best friend and passionate lover. There’s a certain part of you that with this partner will not be fulfilled.” For Perel and Gottlieb, that’s just something to accept. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this is the woman who’s been urging us to “settle” since 2008, Gottlieb seems to think the other benefits of an equal marriage are worth the trade-off of decreased “sexual heat.” (Again, just a reminder, there’s no real evidence this is actually the trade-off.) But if today’s marriages are an experiment, we could–oh I dunno–experiment a bit more? Of course, feminists, and queer communities, have been doing that for a long time.
Perel explains, “You deal with that loss. It’s a paradox to be lived with, not solved.” Or else you reject that and try to solve it anyway–working to create all the different kinds of relationships and families and communities we might be able to have with just a little more imagination.
Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing.