• Living

Chore Wars: How the Division of Domestic Duties Really Affects a Couple’s Sex Life

6 minute read

Are women less attracted to men who do more domestic chores? Or are men who share equally in the workload at home more appealing to a generation of stressed wives who are juggling family responsibilities and more work hours than ever?

It’s not a new debate, but it is one that has resurfaced recently thanks to a series of articles about stay-at-home fathers and a feature this month in the New York Times magazine by writer and psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb in which she suggests that that equality is turning us off. She writes: “In an attempt to become gender neutral, we may have become gender neutered.”

To support her point, Gottlieb cites an American Sociological Review study first released in 2012 that found women were less attracted to men who did tasks like laundry or cooking that are traditionally considered feminine. But the same was not true about women who watched their guys do ‘manlier’ chores like taking out the trash or mowing the lawn. The study prompted headlines like: “Guys Who Do Housework Get Less Sex.”

But don’t drop the mops yet, men.

The data on which the study is based was collected 20 years ago, and a lot has changed since the 1990s. New York University sociologist Kathleen Gerson found a sea change in what young couples are hoping for in marriage. In her 2010 book, The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family, she interviewed young couples and found that 80 percent of the women and 70 percent of the men aspired to an egalitarian relationship where men and women shared both breadwinning and childcare duties equally. In practice, this isn’t easy to achieve, but more young couples are hoping to enter into equal partnerships. And more recent studies have found that men who help out around the house are more likely to get lucky.

Neil Chethik, author of VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think About Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework and Commitment, conducted a survey of men in 2006 that found the more housework husbands did, the more sex they were having with their wives. After years of interviewing and counseling couples, Chethik has found that couples with egalitarian marriages tend to fight less and have sex more. He believes that women care more about having an equal partnership than they do about what kind of chores their husband takes on. “I don’t know that women get turned on by men in aprons, but they get turned on by men who see there is an equal need equal responsibility for housework,” he says.

One thing that hasn’t changed much in the past 20 years is the way in which childcare is distributed. As more women have entered the workforce, men have been slow to pick up the slack at home in terms of childcare. Though fathers have nearly tripled the amount of time they dedicate to childcare from 1965 to 2011, that number has gone up from 2.5 percent of their time to seven percent of their time — still only half a mother’s 14 percent, according to Pew Research. “Kids definitely reduce the amount of sexual frequency, but paid work and housework don’t,” says Constance Gager, a sociologist at Montclair State University, who has conducted many years worth of research about work-life balance. Gager found that a new generation of “go-getters,” working men and women found the time to complete all their chores and have sex in after-work hours. For both genders, the more chores they did, the more sex they were having. That is, until kids come along.

Men and women are not sharing the burden of childcare equally after office hours (whether women worked outside the home or not). Fathers are spending their free time after work relaxing or doing chores like cooking or the laundry. Mothers are still the ones on duty for tasks that involve direct interaction with children like driving to soccer practice or getting the kids to bed. And mothers are more likely to be on 24 hour alert for kid-related issues. According to the American Time Use survey, mothers in dual earning households are three times more likely to report interrupted sleep (to go check on the crying toddlers) than fathers are. And when Gager interviewed full-time working couples, she found that men disproportionately had time to exercise and read the newspaper every day, but women did not.

“All the data that I’ve seen shows that men are picking up a greater percentage of the household and child-raising duties, but they’re still lagging behind compared to how much work women are doing both in and out of the office,” VoiceMale author Chethik says. “I still think we’re struggling with it.”

That extra time spent with kids forces women to multitask, and all that busywork puts extra stress on mothers. Researchers at UCLA tested cortisol, the stress hormone, levels in mothers’ and fathers’ saliva at the end of each day once both had a chance to wind down. Whereas men’s cortisol levels dropped significantly with a little leisure time, women’s did not. Biologically speaking, women trying to have it all are more stressed than men trying to have it all — and they stay that way constantly, which can’t be promising for their sex life.

Mothers’ stress level only fell when their husbands made more of an effort helping out with kids and chores — an effort at equality. And less stress is generally associated with a higher libido for women.

On the dad’s side, there may be a biological reason for the drop in the frequency of intercourse after kids. A 2011 study found that new fathers experience a 33-34 percent drop in testosterone for a year after their baby is born. And those who spend more than three hours a day doing childcare see another 20 percent drop beyond that. Men with less testosterone tend to be less aggressive and more caring, and past research has shown men with less testosterone feel a greater impulse to respond to a baby cry.

Researchers believe this drop in testosterone is biology’s way of encouraging fathers to care for their children. Unfortunately, it also means less sex. New fathers who took part in the study reported having less sex after their baby was born: the lower the testosterone level, the less sex they were having. Researchers suggest that may be partly because women are less attracted to their baby-daddies after their hormonal change.

Call it a lose-lose situation for new parents, but don’t blame the chore wars.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com