Sex & Relationships

A Discovery About Women's Sexual Desire That Will Make Conservative Heads Spin

The conservative media need not worry about women's libidos in equal relationships after all.

Ever since the second wave of feminism kicked off, women—straight women, anyway—have been darkly warned that embracing sexual liberation and demanding equality in their relationships would only bring them misery and doom. We’re told that unless we marry young and try not to be picky about our partners, we will face certain lifelong loneliness. We’re told men will never accept us as equals and that if we get too much education or make too much money, we’ll be left on the shelf while men pursue women who aren’t too threatening.

We’ve even been told it’s fatal to the sexual health of a marriage to allow the husband to do his chores, with conservative gender warrior Lori Gottlieb arguing in the New York Times that women don’t really want men to do their share, and you can tell because our libidos supposedly dry up at the image of a man holding a broom. You may think you want feminism in your personal relationships, the dour reactionaries of mainstream media warn, but you’ll be sorry if you try it, ladies.

Well, it’s all nonsense, as a new series of reports from the fine folks at the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) demonstrates. Collectively titled “After a Puzzling Pause, the Gender Revolution Continues,” the reports find that Americans are growing fonder of egalitarian relationships, both in theory and in practice. Conservatives have long held out hope that Americans would taste equality and find it bitter, electing instead to run back to traditional gender roles. Instead, researchers find that while there is some ebb and flow in American attitudes about equality, the general trend has been toward more equality, with an uptick in recent years. Oh, and our sex lives are not actually sadder because men have learned how the vacuum cleaner works.

The sexiest finding by far was recorded by researcher Sharon Sassler, who, along with her colleagues, put to bed the myth that women’s libidos dry up at the sight of their husbands pulling their fair share of the housework. Sassler found that while earlier research did show a correlation between men doing more housework and couples having less sex, that study “was focused on the sexual behaviors of married couples in the late 1980s, many of whom had met and married in the 1960s and 1970s.” Wondering if people who actually grew up and married after the second wave of feminism might feel differently, Sassler looked at couples who had met and married mostly in the '90s and later. The finding was that “Couples who shared domestic labor had sex at least as often, and were at least as satisfied with the frequency and quality of their sex, as couples where the woman did the bulk of the housework.” In fact, they had slightly more sexual satisfaction, though it wasn’t considered statistically significant.

All of which makes perfect sense. Many reactionaries would like you to believe that people’s attitudes about gender and sex are hardwired and therefore “tinkering” with the machinery by asking men to do more housework is bound to backfire and create sexual dysfunction. But in reality, our sexuality, like our lives generally, is shaped by the culture around us. For women of an older generation who grew up in an era when the idea of a man doing housework was portrayed as humiliating and emasculating, it makes sense that it might be a turn-off. But for younger women who were raised in a more egalitarian society—and who were much more likely to see their own fathers doing housework—those associations are much dimmer or may not even exist at all. There’s no inherent reason to believe that a man doing the dishes is any more or less sexy than a woman doing dishes, and the data from the younger generations shows how true that is.

But while the sex news was the biggest relief, CCF’s larger findings are generally good news for feminists and bad news for people who were hoping that human beings are hardwired to reject equality. In another report, sociology professor Christine R. Schwartz found remarkable proof that people really can change and adapt to new, more egalitarian gender norms. “Up until the 1980s, marriages in which wives had more education than their husbands were more likely than other couples to end in divorce,” Schwartz writes. “But among marriages formed in the 1990s and later, this was no longer the case.”

Women who are more educated than their husbands no longer are at a higher risk for divorce. In fact, couples who have similar education levels had a lower risk of divorce than marriages where the husband has a higher level of education. As with a previous study that found cohabitation before marriage is no longer associated with a higher rate of divorce, it seems things like female education and cohabitation—markers of women’s growing independence—may have been associated with emotional turmoil in previous generations, but now the wrinkles are smoothing out and women’s growing power over their lives is actually improving their relationships with men.

Men are a big part of the change. Despite attempts, such as Gottlieb’s New York Times article positing that women hate seeing men do housework, to argue that women are hardwired not to want equality, the fact that women are clamoring for it is hard to deny. (Yes, even most women who swear they aren’t feminists; somehow despite their hostility to feminism, they are still using contraception, getting educated at higher rates than men, and joining the workforce at unprecedented levels, suggesting that they want feminism even if they retreat from the word.) But there was always the implication that no matter how much women demanded more respect from men, men were never going to give it to us.

But it turns out that men are more responsive to feminist messaging than you’d think. In another CCF paper written by David A. Cotter, Joan M. Hermsen and Reeve Vanneman, researchers found that while “women are slightly more egalitarian than men,” belief in female equality to men has been on a fairly steady rise for both sexes since 1977, with only a slight dip in the '90s but rising again starting around the year 2000. Right now, both men and women have more egalitarian beliefs than they have had before since the '70s, when CCF’s data begins.

The truth of the matter is feminism is making a huge impact. Not only have attitudes about gender slowly become more progressive over time, but people are trying to live up to those ideals. Despite all the dour warnings to the contrary, people who try to live more feminist lives find it’s not only a good way to organize relationships, but that equality makes relationships better.