A More Equal Marriage Means More Energy for More Sex

The ‘New York Times Magazine’ claims that feminism leads to bed death. That argument is as exhausted as an overextended wife in an unequal marriage.

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Sunday night, I arrived home from the sort of shattering, non-stop day familiar to mothers the world over—multiple birthday parties, exhausted, sugar-hyped children—to find two things waiting for me on the kitchen table: 

1. Dinner, made by my fiancé, Keeril

2. The New York Times Magazine, with its cover declaring that egalitarian marriage kills sex

“Yeah,” Keeril said, as he dished out bowls of vegetable stew, “that piece is pretty much about how our relationship doesn’t exist. It’s stupid.”

By now you’ve maybe read the piece, or read about it: In breathless, hey-girlfriend!-type prose, Gottlieb—a therapist best-known for the self-help book Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good-Enough—attempts to persuade us that a marriage of equals—in which both partners work and split the chores—leads not just to less sex, but to an unhappy erotic life, in which neither partner’s porn-inspired fantasies are fulfilled. Her emphasis, of course, is on women, who want, she believes, to be dominated in the bedroom to counterbalance the stress of their leadership roles in the workplace. (One imagines a suit-clad Barbie squealing, “Corporate mergers are hard!”)

Women, Gottlieb concludes, want a man who’s going to take care of traditionally male tasks—fixing the car, taking out the trash, mowing the lawn—while earning as much or more than do they and spending ample time at the gym, but retaining enough energy to come home and reenact scenes from Fifty Shades of Grey (or, Gottlieb hints, Anal Invaders).

Those 21st-century men, helping with the laundry and changing diapers, or—worse!—staying home with the kids, so that their wives can lean in? They’re simply not sexy! This is, of course, an old saw of anti-feminist rhetoric—and I honestly can’t believe the Times magazine is trafficking in it—trotted out since the 1970s, when the idea of the sensitive, Alan Alda–like, quiche-eating partner first invaded the public consciousness. Women don’t want intimate conversation—Gottlieb explains, citing a study that indicates that conversation in marriage also kills sex—they want to be conked on the head by a caveman and dragged by their hair to his cave to be raped.

Gottlieb’s proof for all this comes from one small study conducted more than ten years ago—a study, I should add, that is always trotted out in magazine pieces on gender roles (Hannah Rosin employed it in her widely read story-cum-book The End of Men)—interviews with a handful of therapists, sessions from her own Los Angeles practice, as well as that most reliable source of reporting, the dinner-party conversation.

 What’s missing from the piece, of course, is actual reporting, yes, but also actual women. Sure, there are a few women’s voices—a patient of hers, complaining that her husband doesn’t vacuum, another expressing disappointment that her wimpy husband isn’t psyched to act out scenes from a porn film. But for the most part, the piece is lacking real women’s stories. Which is to say, stories representative of the average American marriage. Because—and I dare you to find proof otherwise—that marriage is far, far from egalitarian. And if egalitarian marriages lead to—according to Gottlieb—less sex, and sex that’s—horrors!—less inventive than she might like (for that’s what it really comes down to, ultimately), non-egalitarian marriages lead to NO sex.

Since Gottlieb’s piece relied on anecdote, so will mine: The vast majority of women I know—all of them, like the upper-middle-class couples profiled in Gottlieb’s piece, educated at the nation’s best colleges, with graduate degrees, and enormously impressive CVs—regardless of whether they work full-time out of the home, or stay-at-home full-time with the children, or—and this is most of them—stay-at-home with the kids part-time, while trying to maintain some semblance of a professional life during nap times and school hours, all these women are pulling more than their load domestically. They are the keepers of the house, the schedulers of piano lessons and pediatricians’ appointments and haircuts, the researchers of safe car seats and organic diapers and preschools and non-cortisone eczema creams and gluten intolerance. They are the ones who get up in the night when the baby cries or the five-year-old wakes from a nightmare, hot and tearful and afraid to go back to sleep, the chefs for the dinner parties who also must wake the next morning and do the dishes. They are the keepers of epi-pens, the changers of Brita filters, the packers of lunches—and the makers of breakfast, and usually dinner. They are the ones who must remember: to buy tickets for the school auction, and birthday presents for the endless, endless parties, to return the library books, to call grandma, to find a babysitter so they can have a break.

They are also—you have been this woman and you have seen her, too—the ones traipsing through the aquarium or the Met or the Museum of Natural History on a Saturday or midway through winter break, with two or three kids trailing after her, and an expression of pained patience on her exhausted face. They are at Whole Foods, with two kids in a double stroller, one crying for a lollipop, struggling with three heavy bags. “Where are their husbands?” you wonder, as I wondered this past Sunday, as mother after mother arrived at the movie theater where I was holding my son’s birthday party. “I hope you get a moment to relax,” I told one woman, whose son’s chronic illnesses have kept him home from school half the year. She has two other kids, one of whom is home-schooled. “Oh, right,” she said, with a tight laugh. “I’m going to Costco. With the two girls.” Where is your husband? I thought. Another mother brought three of her four children with her, and stayed for the party. “My husband is with the baby,” she explained, as if this was all that could be expected of him, though the baby is actually a toddler, not an infant. Though it was perfectly fine for her to schlep a 10-year-old, a 6-year-old, and a 4-year-old through the snow.

And let me take a moment to explain that we live in Cambridge, the most liberal, intellectual city this side of Berkeley.

In New York, where we lived for many years before moving here, any conversation—at school drop-off, at the grocery store, on the street—between neighborhood mothers devolved within five minutes into a tale of domestic overload. And after a glass of wine, into sex. As in, how little they were having.

These were smart, educated women, women raised in the 1970s and ’80s, when Betty Friedan and Free to Be You and Me were simply in the ether, women who were led to believe that marriage for them would mean what Gottlieb refers to as “egalitarian marriage,” that they would be able to work—to be president, or write books, or fly airplanes, or perform brain surgery—and also have happy, fulfilled marriages, marriages in which they were listened to and respected, inside and outside of the bedroom.

Instead, they’ve found themselves—in these increasingly, perniciously, conservative times, times in which a piece of misogynistic bullshit like Gottlieb’s article can run on the cover of a major magazine and no one blinks an eye—morphed into some warped version of a 1950s housewife, puréeing their own organic baby food, working their way through Julia Child (or Yotan Ottolenghi), with the added burdens of maintaining a yoga hot body and some semblance of a career. These women—the women I know—are not just too exhausted for sex, but to—like the few women mentioned in Gottlieb’s piece—even think about sex, not to mention too resentful of their husbands, and of the world that has placed such monstrous expectations on them, and led them to place such monstrous expectations on themselves. That is, those who are still married. For many of them, so many, are getting out—as, I will confess, I did—so that they have one less child to take care of: their husbands.

For Gottlieb, the lack of sex in egalitarian marriages represents a cataclysmic crisis in modern society. This is what we wanted and it turns out it sucks! But the crisis, very clearly, lies elsewhere. Lies in the lack of egalitarianism in Western marriages, half a century after Betty Friedan first pointed it out. Times magazine, can we have an exploration of that on your cover?


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