A recent study concluded that couples who have their better half take on the brunt of the household duties have less frequent sex then those couples who share household chores. This news circulated around my office about 8 times just before an email from my dear husband arrived informing me that he would be home cleaning the house for my post-work arrival. On the surface this looks like another of those “No shit, really? Someone gave you money to research this?” kind of studies addressing the obvious; in this case if you take away some of the factors, like housework, that cause people to be too tired or busy to engage in sexual activity that more sex happens. No ground was really broken with this study and much to the chagrin of men nationwide doing a load of laundry is not an automatic ticket to more sex.
The report opens up with the exciting news that men's contribution to housework doubled over the past four decades. Wow, great! Except 40 years ago only brings us to the late 60’s when the women’s movement just started gaining some steam. The use of “doubled” is accurate but misleading; men contribute to 30 percent of work in the house, up from an abysmal 15 percent. Can 30 percent really be considered a sign of increased household equality? The study did conclude that couples where both work outside are more apt to split household duties making the 30 percent contribution by men seem very low; one would assume with the rise of women, who are now contributing to family finances through full-time work, there would be a greater balance in sharing household duties.
It is easy to question the accuracy and statistical viability of this study when “household work” can fall within very loose interpretations. What is the definition of household duties used by responders in this study? To the defense of many men women often forget to include some of the contributions that are considered “men’s work” in the realm of the household. It is a massive generalization but men are often the ones carrying the burden of the outdoor work; lawn, shrubbery, asphalt, trash removal, grilling. On the flip side are other tasks that both men and women forget to include when assessing their list of household chores. These are referred to by sociologists such as Pamela Smock of UMICH as “invisible housework;” scheduling children’s doctors appointment (er, vet appointments), purchasing holiday gifts, arranging family gatherings, remembering birthday cards. These activities certainly take time and are contributions to the family unit but were doubtfully remembered by respondents as they estimated how much work they did thus leading to inaccuracies in the assessment.
Disparity between the contribution of men and women in the household can also be attributed to a choice made by many couples for one member of the family to take on greater responsibilities in the home versus working outside the home. Did the study take into account that women stay home more often than men and purposely take on a greater percentage of the household work through roles and responsibilities well established in the relationship? An imbalance of who cooks and cleans does not automatically denote gender inequality in a relationship. Housework is only one component of marital equality and all the labor it takes to keep a house running, inside and outside of the home, should be included in the workload equation. Where inequality does exist is in the disparity of which half of the couple gets saddled with running the home versus who finances the household operation; men still make up less then five percent of the stay-at-home parents.
The widespread media attention of this study is pretty sad. We are well cemented in the twenty-first century and we continue to discuss, debate, and deliberate the role of men and women in the house. Reading through comments posted by readers of various news sites were nothing short of heartbreaking. Far too many people saw the study as nothing but “feminist propaganda” aimed at “womanizing men” and giving women excuses to forego their “wifely duties.” There were actually comments focused on the virtues of marrying a less educated woman who would be more than happy to attend to their needs; apparently the fall of marriage and the world started the moment “fathers allowed their daughters to go to college and get jobs.”
After cleaning the vomit from my keyboard triggered by hundreds of comments from Neanderthals espousing their views of “women’s work” I could not help but wonder what kind of women these men were in contact with. Somewhere along the line these men were given permission, either overtly or tacitly, to believe that their role as a man was superior to women. These men learned not only that household duties were women’s work but also that these duties were not as important as their role of household “provider.” This view of women is perpetuated by women themselves who allow their role to be belittled, who see themselves as less worthy since they do not bring in a paycheck, who brush off help from spouses in their attempt to control the house, who see a father’s role as babysitter and not hands on parent, and who praise men for helping around the house as if it is above and beyond the call of duty.
Marriage is a partnership and a balance of tasks is a crucial element to successful relationships but shouldn’t have a tick sheet of who is contributing more or less to the union. Contributions ebb and flow and over the course of time the most successful marriages find a balance that allow both parties to thrive. Anyone who has played sports knows that successful teamwork includes each player doing a part in which they personally excel, understanding their roles and responsibilities, and respecting everyone on the team as equal contributors; a successful marriage is no different. Inequality on a team might win a game or two, but it's the team working together that wins the Super Bowl. Chances are if day after day, month after month finds one person ready to play in the sack and the other just wanting to collapse in it then there are greater marital imbalances then just who does the laundry, although gentlemen it might be worth a try to see what a little extra housework could get you.