Thursday, January 31, 2013

Foreplay That Really Works

Mark Twain popularized the saying that there are three kinds of falsehoods: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Twain realized it can be devilishly difficult to flush out the true meaning behind sets of numbers.

As a case in point, news organizations all over the world have recently been trumpeting the news of a paper published by lead author Sabino Kornrich in the current issue of the American Sociological Review. This study surveyed 4500 American couples to test the link between sexual frequency and husband’s participation in housework.

Prevailing wisdom for many years has been that men who roll up their sleeves and pitch in around the house are more likely to have appreciative wives who are less tired, less stressed out, and more likely to see their guys as sexually attractive. Several studies have supported this notion. For example, sociologists at the University of California, Riverside report the results of a survey involving 3500 American children and their parents. This work showed that “… wives interpret husbands’ domestic contributions as a sign of love and caring and are therefore more sexually attracted to their mates.”

As another example, in 2010 Constance Gager of Montclair State University published the results of a similar survey of 6800 American couples, which showed that wives and husbands who spend more hours in housework report more frequent sex.

Kornrich’s study suggests the opposite is true if the type of housework is taken into account. He asked husbands and wives what percentage of the work they did when it came to “core” housework (tasks more traditionally thought of as the woman’s responsibility, such as cooking and cleaning) versus “non-core” work (tasks more traditionally associated with men, such as mowing the lawn or household repairs).

The analysis found a negative correlation between the percentage of “core” tasks done by the men and the number of times the couples reported having sex in the previous month. In other words, couples where the men did more “women’s work” are the same couples who reported less sex.

This has resulted in some sensational headlines. Here are a couple of recent examples:

“More Sex Is In Store For Husbands Who Do Less Chores Around The House” blares the Huffington Post.

Yahoo! News puts it this way: “Want to have more sex? Men, stop helping with the chores”

Guys, take it from me – don’t you believe it! And I can explain why.

The news headlines above clearly imply that men helping with the chores causes less sex to happen. Various articles suggest such causal factors as the possibility that women might see their husbands as less manly if the guys do “women’s work.”

Sorry, but this is not what the research shows. You see, Mark Twain had it right. You have to be careful when interpreting statistical results.

The issue lies in the difference between correlation and causation. Let me illustrate with an example.

Let’s suppose we gathered statistics at various times on the height of the tide on a particular beach, as well as the position of the Moon as it moves around the Earth. We would, of course, find a correlation between the two. One conclusion might be that the movement of the water on our beach somehow causes the Moon to move into different positions in the sky. Scientists, however, tell us the opposite causal relationship is true; the Moon’s gravitational pull influences the tides.

The same issue arises with the correlation between helpful hubbies and how often they end up in the bedroom. Which one causes the other? Or are there other variables not included in the study that might somehow influence this correlation?

I can think of several possibilities:
  • In marriages where sex is less frequent (for any number of reasons), perhaps the husbands are prone to try whatever they can to entice their wives, including helping out more around the house. (And it might be that the frequency of lovemaking would be even less without these efforts.)
  • Couples who enjoy sex more frequently might also be the kinds of free spirits who are less picky about how clean the house is kept.
  • The lower frequency of sex might occur in couples where the wives are more tired and stressed, which is also why the hubbies are stepping up to help out more.
  • Guys who are secure in their marriage might be able to get away with helping out less without affecting the health of their relationships.

I could go on and on. The point is that there are plenty of possible reasons for the correlation. I understand why some folks might think the statistics imply the somewhat sensational idea that a husband who helps out is likely to inhibit the couple’s sex life. That causal relationship is simply not shown, however, by Kornrich’s research.

And notice I am not questioning the original research. Kornrich’s paper is valid, interesting, and published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal. My issue is with news headlines that imply marriages might be better off if husbands stick to more traditional household tasks. In my opinion, the exact opposite is true.

I should also point out how much “more sex” actually means in this case. Kornrich found that all couples taken together reported having sex an average of about 5.5 times in the month preceding the survey. Even for the most extreme case – couples where men do all of the “core” housework versus leaving all of it for the wives – the statistics predict a difference of only about 1.5 sexual interludes per month. While statistically significant, I’m not sure we’re talking about life changing differences here.

But here’s the biggest reason why I wanted to write this post. This is more to me than just a quibble over how to interpret statistics. My reasons have to do with you – the community of To Love, Honor, and Dismay readers.

Several articles have appeared on this site related to housework and supportive spouses. Readers have chimed in with a gratifyingly large number of comments and suggestions. The topics range from the effectiveness of traditional work sharing, how to ask your man for help, and this humorous look at the link between helpful hubbies and amorous wives.

Several messages have become clear in the course of this discussion:
  • Many women could use more help around the house;
  • Wives are not overly thrilled with this situation and have tried letting their husbands know about it, but with mixed results;
  • Frequent stress over this issue is common;
  • If this goes on long enough, many women give up and just stop asking; they figure if they’re going to end up doing all the work anyway, they might as well skip the arguments; and
  • Guys who do help out are usually very much appreciated … and sometimes in ways the guys are likely to enjoy.

This sort of feedback is why I decided to write a book entitled Housework Harmony: How To End The Chore Wars So You Both Win, which is scheduled to be published in the next few months. It is also why men who want to improve their marriage (including their sex life) would NOT be wise to try doing so by letting their wives handle all the housework alone. I suspect that would tend to backfire in rather spectacular fashion.

So as my final response to all those headlines, I’ll leave you with the following reader feedback, which I gathered from earlier posts. My thanks to everyone for your continued support and participation!

All the best,

Guys, here’s some “been there, done that” advice from a number of wives. You might notice there’s a certain consistency in the messages:
  • “I can vouch for the fact that there is nothing sexier than a man loading the dishwasher, washing the floor or bathing and putting his children to bed. I mean absolutely nothing!”
  • “My husband helps out because he wants me to feel appreciated, nay, cherished and it works! Some male friends don’t understand why he is always helping out but that may be because they are not around to appreciate the rewards he reaps when we are alone. ;-)”
  • “I would leave a comment, but I’m due in the bedroom. You see DH did the dishes, helped with dinner, and did some handyman stuff, so ‘away we go!’ ”
  • ”You are so right about the sharing of work being sexy and appealing! My hubby has taken it upon himself to share all the work with me once we are both at home in the evenings, and this works really well. Once the kids are in bed, we both can relax and unwind. Makes for a much happier marriage!”
  • “When my husband’s in the kitchen, he’s the sexiest man alive. There is nothing more appealing than a man willing to put on an apron for the sake of a woman’s happiness.”
  • “I wonder when men will figure out that if they help out more around the house, they will get lucky.”
  • “My husband has figured out that if he helps his wife out around the home she is more likely to have sex with him instead of being too tired and stressed out!”
  • “I always tell my husband, I think you’d look really sexy with a dish rag in your hand, or, I think it’s sexy when a man vacuums the floors. There were years when our sex life would have been so much better if he could only have taken the hint!”
  • “I think a man in the kitchen is HOT! HOT! HOT!”
  • “One afternoon my husband saw me trying to drag the dining room table outside to refinish it. After a moment he said ‘Hey, let me do that.’ I was more than happy to let him have a go. It was hot outside and after a few minutes he took his shirt off. I sat watching, fascinated because I saw muscles I never realized he had. Horny? You betcha. A few hours later, a little cold lemonade, a shower and, well, you all know where this is going.”

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