The relationship between sex, marriage and gender roles is so complex that unravelling it makes the work of the Large Hadron Collider look like playschool.
Psychologists and sociologists have argued for decades about what makes humans want to have sex, when to have it, with whom and how often. Now new research seems to confound modern thinking by "discovering" that men who want a great sex life should confine their domestic chores to mending the family car. Women, meanwhile, may state a desire for a New Man but in reality all they want is to be dragged, simpering, by the hair into the nearest cave.
According to Sabino Kornrich, a sociologist at the Juan March Institute in Madrid, couples who maintain traditional gender roles have sex on average 1.6 times more frequently than those whose ’’core’’ housework (defined as cooking, cleaning and doing the laundry) is shared equally. The result, published in the American Sociological Review and based on 4,500 heterosexual American married couples, mostly in their mid-forties, found that the more housework the man did, the less likely the couple were to have sex - with the most enthusiastic Hooverers reporting 20 fewer lovemaking sessions a year.
This contradicts other recent studies which suggest men can ’’trade’’ extra work in the home and expect more sex as ’’payment’’. ’’Based on our findings,’’ the authors of the new report write, ‘‘sex seems to lie outside the realm of conventional exchange... and suggests the importance of socialised gender roles for sexual frequency in heterosexual marriage’’.
This finding supports the most popular view of human evolutionary biology, that men are hardwired to want sex more than women. But according Prof Ruth Mace, an evolutionary anthropologist at University College London, ’’sex and housework are notoriously difficult areas to get data on’’. The fact is that people lie about, or at least misremember, how much housework they do almost as much as they lie about the amount of sex they are having.
There is also the correlation-causation problem: two ’’variables’’, in this case frequency of sex and core housework, may correlate well but what links them may be a third, or even several, other variables. It may be that women who like doing housework simply like having sex more than women who are happy to live in squalor. ’’Or it may be that if you are very secure in your marriage you can get away with doing a lot less housework,’’ says Prof Mace.
One of the main predictors of sex frequency is novelty. Put bluntly, people tend to want to have more sex with people they have just met than with people they have been in a relationship with for a long time - regardless of how much Hoovering they are doing. There is also evidence that women’s preferences can change depending on their ovulation cycle; studies have shown that at certain times women seem to find more masculine attributes more attractive, and at others (particularly around ovulation) ‘‘caring’’ qualities are seen as more desirable.
Looking to our evolutionary past may give some clues as to our sexual nature, but again, the evidence is muddled. Common chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), for instance, live in hierarchical social groups dominated by alpha males. But then the lifestyle of an even closer relative, the bonobo, is totally different: their societies are matriarchal and non-violent, and sex is used to foster companionship and affection. It is possible that human nature may be more like that of the ’’hippy chimp’’ than of their more unreconstructed cousins the other side of the forest.
So if anyone is wondering whether they might improve their sex lives by changing the type of housework they do, there are probably a hundred other things they should try first.