The truth about sex and equality

A New York Times Magazine story argues that parity squelches marital desire. It's not so simple

Published February 9, 2014 1:00AM (EST)

     (<a href=''>craftvision</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(craftvision via iStock)

My husband pushed me against the refrigerator -- playfully, but with enough force to set the humming behemoth rocking. He had been cozying up to me all morning: rubbing my shoulders, kissing me softly, whispering sweet nothings while spooning me from behind. Such tenderness, such indulgence!

I wasn't having it.

There were things to do -- coffee to make, clothes to put on, work to start. But at that moment, when he pushed me against the fridge, it all changed. My tight-lipped kisses became loose and longing. Instead of lying limply at my sides, my hands were in his hair, around his neck. My okay-that’s-enough laughs transformed into moans. Reader, we boned. In our post-coital bliss, we laughed at how his sensitive-guy overtures had fallen flat. We decided then to upend our feminist, egalitarian relationship and commit ourselves to retro gender roles -- all for the sake of our sex life.

Juuust kidding.

We went back to normal -- normal for us being me doing the grocery shopping and dishes, and him cooking delicious gourmet meals. Sometimes I do his laundry, sometimes he does mine. Sometimes he sweeps the floor, sometimes I do. Sometimes he drives, sometimes I do. Sometimes I nag him to clean, sometimes (OK, more often) he nags me. It’s a partnership. We don’t have roles assigned by gender. We're just two people who love each other trying to make life run as smoothly as possible.

I thought of that refrigerator incident after reading Lori Gottlieb's culture-trolling piece in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, headlined "Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?" In it, she relies on a study published last year, which found, as she puts it, that “if men did all of what the researchers characterized as feminine chores like folding laundry, cooking or vacuuming — the kinds of things many women say they want their husbands to do — then couples had sex 1.5 fewer times per month than those with husbands who did what were considered masculine chores, like taking out the trash or fixing the car.” What’s more, it found that “the more traditional the division of labor, meaning the greater the husband’s share of masculine chores compared with feminine ones, the greater his wife’s reported sexual satisfaction.”

She acknowledges that the research, which is based on data from the 1990s, proves correlation and not causation, and might possibly reflect a "reporting bias and selective sampling." Details! She then quickly waves off those concerns by assuring readers that her experience "as a psychotherapist who works with couples" backs up the research. (Surely that is reliable -- it's not like Gottlieb, author of "Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough," has a personal bias that might skew her interpretation or anything.) She entirely fails to mention other research finding that countries with greater equality report more frequent sex and greater sexual satisfaction, and that men with feminist partners report greater sexual contentment.

To Gottlieb's credit, she acknowledges the existence of same-sex couples, which, she argues, are similarly ignited by sexual differentiation. The most generous thing I can say about her piece is that she hits on an uncomfortable human truth: the libido is not politically correct. Lust does not answer to talking points. It's part of why we work so hard to contain sex: it is feral, untamed, uncivilized. Sometimes desire seems terribly contradictory, even hypocritical. As therapist Esther Perel, author of "Mating in Captivity," poignantly says: "most of us get turned on at night by the very things that we’ll demonstrate against during the day." If you are looking to sex to be tidy and restrained, you are probably not going to have very much of it.

Let's pretend for a moment that the research on which Gottlieb relies is airtight. Let's assume that straight couples get it on more when they occupy rigid gender roles, and that same-sex couples erotically thrive on difference. Equality might not inherently enact exaggerated difference, but that doesn't mean it requires sexual sameness. Maybe more important here is sexual literacy -- the ability to confidently fantasize and explore. Perhaps it isn't parity but rather a lack of sexual imagination that is to blame.

Toward the very end of the piece, Gottlieb writes, "Is the trade-off of egalitarian marriage necessarily less sexual heat? It’s possible that the sexual scripts we currently follow will evolve along with our marital arrangements so that sameness becomes sexy." First off, as I already argued, equality should not be conflated with sameness. Second, we need not wait for evolution -- it isn’t the only possible route to an equal and sexy relationship. As sex columnist Dan Savage puts it in the piece: "People have to learn to compartmentalize. We all want to be objectified by the person we love at times. We all want to be with somebody who can flip the switch and see you as an object for an hour." He adds, “People need to learn how to harness those impulses playfully in ways that are acceptable in equal relationships." Equality and sexiness are not an either-or proposition.

My husband pushed me against the refrigerator and I liked it. Does that mean my feminism is incompatible with a happy sex life? No. Does it mean that I secretly want less power in our relationship? Not in the least. Did I like it because of some biological truth about being female -- something one might assume from Gottlieb's article  -- or because my socialization and beliefs are instrumental in defining my taboos? I suspect the latter, but couldn't prove it. The important thing is that in the safety of an equitable relationship, we both have the freedom to explore our desires. That doesn't mean that we all know how -- and that's what needs fixing.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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