Matthew D. Johnson and his colleagues published their recent work in an academic journal, but the title clearly reveals their intent to jump into the mainstream debate over whether traditional or egalitarian couples have better sex lives: Skip the Dishes? Not So Fast! Sex and Housework Revisited. Indeed, they conclude that their findings “are of great importance to couples seeking to maintain sexual intimacy while also balancing the demands of daily life”:

Rather than avoiding chores in the hopes of having more sex, as prior research would imply, men are likely to experience more frequent and satisfying (for both partners) passion between the sheets when they simply do their fair share. We suspect that this will involve scrubbing dishes from time to time.

Why would men believe that skipping the dishes could improve their sex lives? Primarily because widely publicized work by Sabino Kornrich and his colleagues found that sexual frequency was lower when the man did a greater share of core housework (read as: traditionally female tasks like dishes) and higher when the man did a greater share of non-core housework (read as: traditionally male tasks like lawn mowing). Even work challenging the Kornrich et al. study—by showing that couples who shared core housework equally were just as happy in bed as more traditional couples—nonetheless affirmed that a “counterconventional” division of core housework (the man doing the most) was associated with less frequent and less satisfying sex.

Johnson et al. revisit the question of whether men serve the couple’s best interests by shunning traditionally female tasks using five years of data from Germany. Using data from multiple points in time is the key strength of their analysis. After all, with data from only one point in time, how do we know whether men seeking to improve relatively poor sex lives contribute more to core tasks (e.g., doing the dishes to get to bed before the woman is exhausted) or whether men doing more traditionally female tasks actually costs the couple in bed? Employing data from five points in time and using statistical models that allow sex to influence housework and housework to influence sex, Johnson and his colleagues believe they have the answer.

Given the excerpt from their conclusion quoted above, it may surprise you to learn that the answer is that the share of core housework men do has no effect on either sexual frequency or sexual satisfaction. How, then, are Johnson and colleagues able to conclude “men are likely to experience more frequent and satisfying (for both partners) passion between the sheets when they simply do their fair share”? Because in addition to testing the effect of men’s share of the housework, they also tested perceptions of fairness. They found that “when male partners reported making a fair contribution to housework, the couple enjoyed more frequent and satisfying sex in the future.” In other words, if the man said his contribution was fair in one year, he and his partner were both happier in bed the next year. Johnson and his colleagues argue that the determination of fairness necessitates considering “housework contributions in relation to the broader context (e.g., societal norms, personal preferences and expectations, and the intricacies of one’s intimate partnership)” and that focusing on objective shares of housework ignores these important factors.

I agree, but that is precisely why this study doesn’t really tell us much about how couples “should” be dividing housework. If the actual division of core housework doesn’t matter but perceived fairness does, doesn’t it follow that if couples are dividing labor in a way that works for them, then exactly who does what might not matter? The fairness measure the authors used specifically asked the respondents how fair the division of labor was across both housework and paid work. In other words, there is plenty of room here for a couple dividing labor along traditional gender lines to report a high degree of fairness.

This is the second time I’ve written about work seemingly supporting the idea that an egalitarian division of labor enhances couples’ sexual lives and essentially concluded that the jury is still out. Johnson’s study represents a great step forward from analyses based on data from a single time point, but we still don’t know whether the theory is true.

This study may in fact overturn Kornrich et al.’s finding that men’s greater participation in core housework is associated with less sex because it shows that in Germany, men’s participation in core housework now has no effect on the frequency or quality of sex in the future. But showing no effect is a far cry from showing that egalitarianism is sexy. The authors suspect men doing their fair share will involve scrubbing the dishes from time to time. While they may be right, their evidence suggests couples have a lot of latitude in determining what is fair.