This article was written by Jesse Game-Brown
Recently I found a link to this article posted in TODAY Health, with which I was less than thrilled. The article talks about a study published in the American Sociological Review; the article asserts that men who adhere to a stereotypical division of household labor statistically have more sex. Being aware of the ridiculous game of telephone that is science reporting in news media, I made it a priority to read the study itself.
In case it needs to be said, I’m not going to be excited about anything that gives some men a reason to repudiate egalitarianism or to feel insecure about it. But I’m always willing to consider factual data, with certain curmudgeonly caveats: 1) sociological conclusions are generalizations by nature, and no statistical finding is going to serve as a perfect model for everyone’s behaviors and attitudes, 2) a single study in one country in one decade is not going to serve as rigorous scientific proof of any immutable causal link between any things in human nature, and 3) there is an important difference between definitive and speculative implications of data.
I am not particularly accustomed to social science writing, so my ability to comb through and thoroughly comprehend this study may be limited. That being said, a few things stuck out to me in the information presented. For instance, there were these items in the study’s conclusions:
“. . . couples where men participate more in core tasks—work typically done by women—report lower sexual frequency. Similarly, couples where men participate more in non-core, traditionally masculine tasks report higher sexual frequency . . .” (pg 42)
“Although sexual frequency is correlated with sexual satisfaction, the correlation is far from perfect . . . The importance of sexual frequency for sexual satisfaction, marital stability, and marital satisfaction for egalitarian versus traditional marriages are testable questions, but not the ones this article asks.” (pg 43)
The study makes its conclusions with the following key words: sexual frequency. The study does not assert firm conclusions about correlations between egalitarianism and marital or sexual satisfaction, but discusses sexual frequency specifically.
There is also the nature of the sample used in the study:
“The age of the data may limit generalizability to the present day (interviews occurred from 1992 to 1994) . . . Despite the age of the data, we consider these results relevant for contemporary discussions of marriage and the family.” (pg 33)
The TODAY article particularly downplays the age of the data; I remain skeptical about 20-year-old records being applied to people in our culture today. But as far as the framing in the TODAY article goes, the following item of the study is particularly underrepresented:
“. . . it is not necessarily the case that egalitarianism in household labor is incompatible with sexual activity itself, but rather that egalitarianism is incompatible with current sexual scripts. Gendered sexual scripts punish women for being sexually agentic and encourage men to be sexual initiators. If these scripts were to change and both men and women initiated intercourse, then the division of household labor would presumably be less consequential.” (pg 44)
Here the study deviates markedly from the TODAY article, in that the researchers hint at a progressive approach to addressing this information: instead of changing to fit into the gender molds set out for us, let’s challenge and reform sexual scripts so we can be egalitarian and have lots of sex. How disappointing to consider that the notion may be revelatory for many.
With ad hoc, anecdotal skepticism to achieve the pretense of critical analysis, failure to challenge or examine the conflation of sexual frequency with marital and sexual satisfaction, and a framing of implications consistent with gender role adherence rather than gender reform (proclaimed assertively in the first sentence), TODAY’s coverage of the study leaves much to be desired. The moral I want to convey is caution—a comprehensive report of a study is hard to come by. Any news article with the words “according to a recent study,” or any variation thereof, is a news article to be observed with scrutiny.