Unequal Chore Division Is Killing Women's Sex Drives, Research Shows
You’re probably familiar with this story: Man and woman meet, fall in love, have fabulous sex. They move in, maybe get married, maybe have kids. Her interest in sex starts to drop; his doesn’t. Tension ensues, spoken or unspoken. He’s always initiating; she’s always turning him down.
While that narrative actually isn’t as universal as many people make it out to be (more on that in a minute), some research has shown that women are indeed more likely than men to experience a decrease in sexual desire over time in long-term relationships.
How an unequal division of household labor impacts women’s sexual desire
In the study, psychology researchers Emily A. Harris, Ph.D., Aki Gormezano, Ph.D., and Sari van Anders, Ph.D., surveyed over 1,000 women currently in relationships with men, all of whom were living together and had kids. They asked questions about the women’s levels of sexual desire, the division of housework with their male partners, and how they felt about that division.
The results? Women who performed a larger proportion of the household labor had significantly lower desire for their partner, compared to women in relationships where the men were more involved at home. In other words, women were much more sexually excited by men who cooked, cleaned, and took charge with the kids.
But the most telling part of the findings was the why: It wasn’t just that women’s libidos tanked in response to doing a bunch of chores, and it wasn't just because women were busy and exhausted from it all. Rather, the researchers found two specific mediating factors that explained exactly why the unequal division of housework had such an impact on women's desire.
Blurring the roles of partner and mother
Firstly, the study found that women shouldering more of the housework were also likely to perceive that dynamic as unfair—and that feeling of unfairness in the relationship was part of what was leading to lower desire for their partner.
This is important, the researchers note in the paper, because it refutes the argument that women take on more domestic tasks because they want to or because they simply enjoy caregiving. While that might be true for some, this study found women in imbalanced partnerships were actually often resentful of the situation. And it's pretty hard to be turned on by someone you kinda resent.
Secondly, the researchers found that women dealing with an imbalance at home were more likely to feel like their partner was dependent on them. That feeling—that is, feeling like your man relies on you to take care of him and perform basic life tasks for him—was the other factor associated with lower sexual desire.
As Harris and the team point out in the paper, doing someone’s laundry, cooking for them, cleaning up after them, and planning their social calendar are tasks people typically perform for children. So, when a woman has to perform these tasks for her husband with no real reciprocity or recognition, the relationship “more closely mirrors that of a mother and a child.”
Unsurprisingly, that’s not very sexy.
“The inequitable proportion of household labor may contribute to a burdensome blurring of mother and partner roles, whereby partners are perceived as recipients of caregiving, akin to dependent children,” they write. “As a result, women may experience lower desire for partners who are perceived in dependent-like ways.”
There’s a common joke married women make where, when asked how many kids they have, they include their husband in the count. That dynamic is often laughed at and accepted as the norm between men and women, but as this study shows, it comes with direct consequences for a couple’s sex life. It’s very hard to be sexually attracted to someone who you feel like you need to mother.
Challenging a popular myth about women’s libidos
That common anecdote we mentioned up top—about the wife who is constantly rebuffing her husband’s sexual advances—is tied up with the idea that women are always or inherently less interested in sex than men are. It’s a popular narrative, though of course, reality is much more nuanced.
For one thing, you’ll find varying levels of sexual desire across all genders: Some women want lots of sex, some men can take it or leave it, and most people have libidos that regularly fluctuate depending on all the other things happening in their life. While different studies2 estimate anywhere from 10 to 55% of women deal with “low libido” compared to between 1 to 28% of men, some research3 on mixed-gender couples finds men are equally likely to be the lower-desire partner as women are.
The current study also offers another challenge to the idea that women just naturally lack interest in sex by demonstrating that women’s lower libido actually seems to be directly tied to the role they’re often relegated to in long-term, heteronormative relationships.
“Our findings challenge the assumption that low sexual desire in women is necessarily located in women, in their bodies or minds,” Harris and the research team write. “Instead, we find support for a socio-structural explanation for at least some considerable portion of low desire in women, whereby the system of heteronormativity brings about gender inequities in household labor that are associated with lower desire.”
Meaning: Maybe women would be more interested in sex if they weren’t so often forced into such inequitable, libido-killing roles and relationships.
So, what does this all mean for the average couple trying to navigate their home and sex life?
Particularly in relationships between men and women, prioritizing creating a fair division of housework is well worth the effort for many reasons. Studies like this one suggest that, in addition to creating a more functional, balanced partnership, addressing the inequities at home may also boost a woman's sexual desire.
More broadly, this research reminds us how important it is to be thoughtful about the various factors that might be contributing to you or a partner's interest in sex. For example: Resentment gets in the way of connection of any sort, physical or otherwise. And a partner who pitches in, pulls his weight, and treats you like a teammate and an equal? That's sexy as hell.
Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
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