Well hi! If you got here via Google, this is probably not the type of post you are looking for. This one has math, and the only pictures are graphs. Sorry about that.
For everyone else, welcome to “From the Archives” where I revisit old posts to see where the science (or my thinking) has gone since I put them up originally.
Back in 2013, a concerned reader had sent me a headline that warned men about a terrible scourge depriving them of all that was good in life. Oh yes, I’m talking about housework. The life advice started from the headline “Want to Have More Sex? Men, stop helping with chores.” The article covered at study that had devised a mathematical model of a couples sexual frequency vs the number of chores they did. I couldn’t resist, and ended up writing a post called “Sex, Models and Housework“. It’s still one of my most viewed posts, though probably not the most read.
A few things to know about the original study (found here):
- That headline was pretty misleading. The study never said that men who didn’t do chores had more sex, the study said that men who did more traditionally female chores had less sex. Men who did more traditionally male chores actually had more sex.
- Despite being released in 2013, the data the study used was from 1992. The people in the study had an average age of early to mid 40s at that time, so this is a study looking at Baby Boomers and their relationships in the early 90s. With shifting culture, this is important to keep in mind.
- The model extrapolated out to men who do 100% of the traditionally female housework. One of my core concerns was how many data points they had in that range, or if they extrapolated beyond the scope of the model. Men reported doing an average of 25% of the “traditionally female chores” at baseline, with a standard deviation of .19. It does not look likely they had many men in the 100% range, and those relationships may have had something else unusual going on.
- Given #3, you’ll excuse me if I doubt that this model really should have been perfectly linear:
Those were my original thoughts, and rereading the paper I wanted to add a few more:
- One point I can’t believe I didn’t mention the first time around is the inherent selection bias in this data. You had to be a married couple to be included in the data. So a hypothetical couple who had an uneven distribution of housework and divorced was not counted. To be perfectly fair, they did take a bit of a look at this. These respondents were surveyed in 1988 and then again in 1992-1994. They did look at those who were married in 1988 but divorced by 1992 to see if the chore distribution/sexual frequency was different. It wasn’t. However, given the ages of the respondents (born in the 40s-60s) many of them could have actually already been divorced before 1988 rolled around1. Additionally, those who are going through a divorce or in an otherwise rocky marriage likely didn’t take part in the survey. We don’t know if those numbers would have changed things, but I think we have reason to suspect that those most bothered by chore arrangements would be more likely to divorce.
- The women in the study worked an average of 15 hours fewer per week than men at paid labor. The women in the study spent 18 more hours per week than men at household chores. It’s worth noting that an “average” man in this study doing half of the chores would have actually been doing more labor for the house than the “average” woman. It would have been interesting to see a total on “labor for household” to see what the effect of an even vs uneven total workload was. This is important to rule out that it’s not the “gender” of the chores, but potential perceived unfairness that drives the decrease in sex.
- Child care hours were not included anywhere for either partner.
Other than that, how has this research fared?
Well, as you can imagine, it caused a stir in academic circles. There was a New York Times Magazine cover story about it provocatively asking “Do More Equal Marriages Mean Less Sex?” based heavily on the study. Many people walked away concerned about the age of the data, and how applicable it was to people over 20 years later. Researchers from Georgia State University were able to (somewhat) replicate the study (pre-published copy) using data from 2006. A few things about that study:
- The study population was younger by about a decade and less wealthy than the original study population, and they had more sex overall
- Cohabiting but not married couples were included, but couples without children were not.
- They tossed 10 respondents who said they had sex 50 times a month
- This study ended up with three categories of couples: traditional, egalitarian, and counter-conventional. Of those
- Egalitarian: Divided housework approximately evenly, with anywhere from a 35%-65% split. This group was 30% of the sample size had the most sex and highest satisfaction.
- Traditional: The woman did more than 65% of the housework. This was about 63% of the sample, and had slightly less sex and women had slightly less satisfaction than the egalitarian couples.
- Counter-cultural: The man did more than 65% of the housework. This was only 5% of the sample size, and did not work out well. These couples had a lower sexual frequency than either of the first two groups, and were less satisfied overall.
- I felt thoroughly vindicated by this line “No research, however, has considered the possibility that the observed effect of men’s shares of domestic labor on sexual frequency and satisfaction could be non-linear.”
So I was at least correct in my concerns. Presuming that this data holds, the line is likely fairly straight until it hits the extreme on one end, then plummets. Interestingly, this study still didn’t compare total labor, and the women in this study worked 20 hours fewer at paid labor than the men, and about 15 hours more per week in housework. Again, child care was not included in the work totals. Since this group was younger, it’s likely at least some of that discrepancy is child care.
So where does this leave us?
Well, it looks like my concerns about assuming a linear model are valid, and that assuming relationships haven’t changed between Baby Boomers and Gen Xers is not a great idea. While some changes to marital set ups can have a negative effect (say a wife working longer hours) they are frequently immediately offset by a positive effect (increased income). This paper here has some interesting examples of these sorts of trade offs. I’m increasingly convinced that the details of the division of labor matter much less than sufficient and equally divided labor.
I would love to see a break down of just the couples on the “man doing all the housework” end. In the second study that was only 24 couples, and we don’t know if the arrangement was through conscious choice or because of circumstances such as unemployment. In fact, I think further research should ask people “how much does your current relationship reflect your expectations prior to the relationship?”. That might catch some of the effect of cultural script changes better than just asking people what they are doing.
Regardless, I have to go do some dishes.
1. According to this the median age at first marriage in 1975 was 21. If you got married in 1975, your chance of being divorced 13 years later was about 30%. This is not a negligible amount of people ↩