The Soapbox: On Lori Gottlieb, “Egalitarian” Relationships And Sexual Passion

The author Lori Gottlieb markets herself as a teller of harsh relationship truths for women. As a contributor to The Atlantic, she saw her 2008 piece “Marry Him!” turned into a full-fledged book in which she advocates that women abandon long lists of qualities marriageable men need to have and marry Mr. Good Enough before their biological clock ticks its last tock. (I interviewed Gottlieb about Marry Him: The Case For Settling For Mr. Good Enough back in 2011.)

Gottlieb, who is also a psychotherapist, is back with a new controversial subject in The New York Times Magazine: how trying to be completely egalitarian in our relationships may be taking the passion out of our sex lives.

I nodded in agreement to Gottlieb’s practical arguments in Marry Him; I could see her observations reflected in my well-educated, ambitious 20-something and 30-something female friends. While her New York Times Magazine article reads a lot more like a biased opinion essay than a factually reported article, I can’t say that I found it too far afield either.

First, let’s define our terms. I should note that Gottlieb is referring mostly to heterosexual marriages, although she does inject some observations about lesbian and gay couples in as well. By “traditional marriage,” she refers to one where one partner contributes the bulk of the income while the other contributes to the bulk of the housework and childcare (i.e. unpaid work). By “egalitarian marriage,” Gottlieb is referring to one where both spouses work and contribute to income in some way, as well as participate equally in housework and childcare. (However, something that Gottlieb does not note in her Times piece is that we know that studies show women still spend more time doing housework and childcare than men. The most recent Pew study from 2013 found that although more moms are working and more dads are changing diapers and Swiffering floors, “Neither has overtaken the other in their ‘traditional’ realms.”)

Referencing a study from The American Psychological Review called “Egalitarianism, Housework and Sexual Frequency in Marriage,” Gottlieb notes that the kinds of chores a man does around the house affects the couple’s sex life. When men do more traditionally “feminine” chores, like cooking and folding laundry, the less sex the couple has. Additionally, when men do more traditionally  “masculine” chores, like taking out the garbage, women reported a better sex life.

Gottlieb points out that correlation does not equal causation. But she nevertheless bolsters these findings with her own anecdotal stories about which relationships are most functional. She writes:

[I]t’s true that being stuck with all the chores rarely tends to make wives desire their husbands. Yet having their partner, say, load the dishwasher — a popular type of marital intervention suggested by self-help books, women’s magazines and therapists alike — doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on their libido, either. Many of my colleagues have observed the same thing: No matter how much sink-scrubbing and grocery-shopping the husband does, no matter how well husband and wife communicate with each other, no matter how sensitive they are to each other’s emotions and work schedules, the wife does not find her husband more sexually exciting, even if she feels both closer to and happier with him.

Gottlieb quotes sociologist Julie Brines, who worked on the above-cited housework study, who wrote, “The less gender differentiation, the less sexual desire.” A wife may want her husband to vacuum and dust the house (or, at least, she doesn’t want to do it herself) but she may be more turned on when he does something more traditionally “masculine” or “manly,” like chopping firewood or removing air conditioners. Being “gender-neutral,” Gottlieb writes,” can erase those initial male-attracted-to-female/female-attracted-to-male feelings and leave both lead feeling ‘gender-neutered.'” Brines continues later in the piece that who does what chores is an expression of how we perceive our partner’s “femininity” and “masculinity,” which, for some of us, is integral to how we experience sexual feelings towards them.

This feeling doesn’t, of course, apply to everyone. But in my view, needing a “feminine” or “masculine” cue for sexual passion absolutely does apply to a lot of people’s basic, lizard-brain, caveman-like desires. Some people carry this into the bedroom for more overt fantasy power play, behaving “dominant” or “submissive,” with their partner. (Others carry that fantasy power play outside the bedroom as well.) My heart broke in Gottlieb’s piece when she wrote about a failed attempt at bedroom power play:

One woman in her late 30s, for instance, who has been in a peer marriage for 10 years, said during couples therapy that when she asked her husband to be more forceful, “rougher,” in bed, the result was comical. “He was trying to do what I wanted,” she explained, “but he was so … careful. I don’t want him to ask, ‘Are you O.K.?’ I want him not to care if I’m O.K., to just, you know, not be the good husband and take charge.”

I’ve heard versions of this story from friends who are sexually submissive or sexually dominant and badly partnered in relationships with more hesitant folks dozens of times. People are afraid that behaving one way in the bedroom makes them a “doormat,” a “dick,” “weak,” a “jerk,” “unfeminist” outside of it. (To be clear, there are controlling assholes who claim to be “dominant” or “traditional.” That’s not who I’m talking about.) It’s hugely difficult for some people to understand you can be one way in bed and one way outside of bed … or you can be the way you are in bed outside of bed, too!  I 100 percent agree with Gottlieb’s argument that policing our own behavior to make sure we’re as “egalitarian” as possible in relationships really dampens the passion for some people. So, going back to the notion of “traditional” versus “egalitarian” relationships, the question is to me why we’re labeling ourselves this way at all.

My own opinion is that the most functional, happy and (judging by “time spent happily married”) long-lasting relationships are a mix of the two. Forcing youself and your partner to rigidly be one way or rigidly be another way is allowing outside dictums to rule your private relationship. Yet especially in the liberal, well-educated, Northeastern big city circles that my friends and family exist in, I’ve often felt a pressure that domestic life needs to be “egalitarian.” Both partners have to do paid work outside the home. Both partners have to contribute equally to housework. Both partners have to contribute equally to childcare. Everything has to be as close to 50/50 as possible. In more conservative parts of the country — and, um, the entire religion of evangelical Christianity —  this same pressure exists, only flipped for the “traditional” side.

I believe people should be able to define the constructs of “masculinity” and “femininity” for themselves. I believe couples should define how “traditional” or “egalitarian” their marriages are for themselves and not cave to the social pressures around them. I also think it’s helpful for people to work with basic, lizard-brain, caveman desires with integrity and respect for their partner, rather than fight them. (“Are you doomed to cheat on your Swedish feminist husband?” New York magazine’s blog The Cut snarked.) I know this isn’t a super-popular opinion within feminism in 2014, but I also think individual people care more about being happy than they do about being “good feminists.” And that says something.

For what it’s worth, Amanda Hess has an alternate point-of-view on the piece over at Slate’s XX Factor blog. What did you think about Lori Gottlieb’s New York Times Magazine piece? Let us know in the comments.

[New York Times Magazine]
[Pew Research]
[Slate XX Factor]
[ The Cut]

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[Image of man vacuuming via Shutterstock]