Why Parents are not Having Enough Sex Part 2

It’s the Patriarchy Stupid!

(I should mention before I start that there are lots of same sex couples with children in the UK and beyond but the research is sparse at best unfortunately, so for now this post is all about heterosexual relationships.)

In my last post I described how the Aka and the Ngandu have a lot more sex than we do in the West. In part this can be explained by the fact that they see sex as important work in a society in which having children and children themselves are greatly valued. One Aka woman summarised this outlook by describing sex as ‘night work’. However, something I didn’t mention is that the Aka are one of the most gender equal societies on earth. They’re also often cited as an example of a society that has exceptionally active and committed fathers. Could it be that we’re not having as much sex as we’d like because our relationships aren’t equal? Are women just too tired? 

Cartoon by French comic artist Emma, link to her full strip at the end of the post. It’s brilliant.

Charlotte Faircloth (total legend) has written several papers related to the domestic burden that women carry in long term relationships which I’ll talk about in future posts as they’re worth considering on their own. But for this post I just want to focus on one sociology study done in the US with long term married couples. What the researchers discovered is that almost all the couples they studied reported conflict around sex. The conflict was mostly about husbands wanting more sex than their wives. But as one of their participants, Chantalle says, it’s “what goes on outside of the bedroom” that’s important, it’s about how fairly the household labour has been shared that impacts the quality and quantity of sex. As she put it, “[I tell him] If I have had a really good day, and you have been helpful, I would say you took out the trash and you brought the trashcans in and you mowed the lawn and everything. Those are the things that work for me to kind of get me going.” Housework is a turn on. In other words, if your partner is pulling his weight outside of the bedroom you’re more likely to want more sex. You feel appreciated, you’re less tired and you have more mental head space.

It’s well known that the majority of domestic labour in families is still carried out by women and that this isn’t just about cooking and cleaning but planning kids parties, buying presents for Christmas, planning social engagements, play dates, holidays and so on and so forth; what’s been described as carrying the ‘mental load’. The US research also rather depressingly points out, that not only are women carrying the greater burden of domestic labour but they also then carry out the ‘emotional work’ of making their partners feel desired, what they call ‘performing desire’. The women explained that making their husbands feel desired felt like just another task on the list.  As one husband explained, “You can’t engineer [sex]. You know, you can’t say, ‘Okay here is what we are going to do. We’re going to do this. I mean you can’t. Sex is more a—is totally this animal, chemical whatever it is.” But the bigger picture reveals that this ‘spontaneity’ is often faked by women who feel over-burdened and tired.

In Part 1 I suggested that planning or ‘engineering’ sex might not be so bad after all, it’s the good ‘night work’ that all couples would do well to make an effort with. However, sex doesn’t happen in isolation from all the other factors in a couples life. The reason the Aka maybe make the time to have frequent sex is because the men are sharing in the domestic and childcare responsibilities. In the UK unemployed working class men report a lower desire for sex than other categories – they’re unemployed, they have loads of time! But if you don’t feel valued or important then you don’t feel sexy. It turns out feeling respected is sexy. Equality is sexy.

Here are some great references and a list of my favourite findings from the ‘British national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles’

  • You’ve probably seen this French cartoon by Emma about the ‘mental load’ but it’s always worth another look, especially if you’re a guy – please read this! 
  • The Performance of Desire: Gender and Sexual Negotiation in Long-Term Marriages Sinikka Elliott and Debra Umberson The University of Texas, Austin (2006)
  • Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Job Segregation by Sex Heidi Hartmann (Univeristy of Chicago Press, 1976)
  • What factors are associated with reporting lacking interest in sex and how do these vary by gender? Findings from the third British national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/7/9/e016942

These are some of the findings I found interesting but couldn’t include in the post.

  • Only women in longer relationships report less interest in sex, doesn’t make any difference in men’s level of desire.
  • “women living with a partner were more likely to lack interest in sex than those in other relationship categories (see table 1). For women, all relationship categories had lower AORs than living with partner. Duration of most recent sexual relationships was significantly associated with lacking interest in sex only among women, being more common among those in longer relationships.”
  • “Among women but not men, not sharing the same level of sexual interest with a partner, and not sharing the same sexual likes and dislikes, was also associated.”
  • Those who found it ‘always easy to talk about sex’ with their partner were less likely to report low interest.
  • Having been pregnant in the last year was associated with lacking sexual interest as was having one or more young child(ren) (women only). 
  • In contrast, for men frequency of masturbation reflects reduced frequency of partnered sex. (not the case in the US though)
  • Women who’s first sexual experience was not positive carry that through to the rest of their lives. The regret lasts forever it seems. These findings suggest that for women early sexual experiences may shape future sexual encounters/relationships to a greater extent than for men.
  • Supporting the idea that men like sex more than women makes women less likely to want to sex The results suggest that endorsing stereotypical gender norms related to sex may adversely affect women more than men.
  • For women in particular, the experience of sexual interest appears strongly linked with their perceptions of the quality of their relationships, their communication with partners and their expectations/attitudes about sex. 
  • Depression affects men’s sexual desire more than women
  • Disability or physical limitations affect’s women’s sexual desire more than men

Why Parents Are Not Having Enough Sex Part 1

Putting in the Work – Sex in Long Term relationships

Since starting my blog my children have grown beyond the baby/toddler stage and I do now have more time to go on regular dates with my partner and generally hang out in the evenings. Which has got me interested in topics not just about parent’s relationships with their kids but with each other too. So, I’m going to start with the fun topic of sex in long-term relationships.

When I say fun I mean largely unspoken about and assumed to be boring by most, including researchers! Whilst it’s super easy to find countless academic articles about sex work, extra marital sex, pre-marital sex, adolescent sex etc etc. Sex between married or long-term couples does not seem abundant beyond some basic stats.[1]But a sociological study I read did make it clear that many couples feel they are not having enough sex.

The romantic story about being human most of us carry around in our heads is roughly along the lines of, we’re born, we grow up, we meet someone, we have children and then we die.  There’s a lot of research about all these stages (as well as a lot of art about the growing up/meeting someone stages too) but the after we meet someone and before we die bit doesn’t get that much attention. This part of our romantic lives however, can last a really long time so I’ve been digging around a bit and found a really interesting academic paper about the sexual lives of Aka and Ngandu married couples in the Congo. 

Anthropologist couple Bonnie and Barry Hewlett have spent a lot of time with the Aka and Ngandu and they noticed that married couples seemed to have a lot more sex than couples in the US. They were referencing research from the early 90’s that showed couples in the US having sex around 2-3 times a week. More recent UK research was lower than this with once a week on average. Both the Aka and Ngandu however, have sex around three times a week but significantly for us, they have sex around three times on those occasions, not just the once which we consider standard practice.

Why are they having so much sex? And why aren’t we? Or maybe we are? Are you having sex several times a night three times a week with your partner? I’m not one for oversharing but I can comfortably say that I am not doing this. So how do the Aka and Ngandu find the time and energy? As they put it, this is important ‘night work’ which whilst pleasurable it’s done in order to have children. Pregnancy isn’t achieved as a one-off event but is accumulative and the more sex the more likely the woman is to get pregnant and stay pregnant. Both partners climaxing is believed to be necessary and once pregnant, semen continues to sustain the growing baby so it’s worth keeping up sexual activity during pregnancy too.

However, older couples who are too old to have children still have sex and see its frequency as contributing to a good marriage and to show love. It seems like whilst the discourse around sex is that it has a reproductive purpose, in practise it’s also about love and connection and contributes to the overall idea of sex as important ‘work’. For the Aka in particular children are seen as the source of joy and meaning in life so it makes sense to me that frequent sex might then be seen as central to a good marriage as it represents the source of children, whether it literally contributes to having them or not. 

This idea of ‘night work’ reflects UK advice I’ve read suggesting that parents should schedule in time for sex. However, unlike the Aka we don’t see this in an entirely positive light. In the West we tend to have an attitude to sex that is built around the idea of spontaneity, freedom, individuality and expression which sometimes makes the reality in a long-term relationship feel a bit disappointing. We feel like good sex shouldn’t be planned but what if we saw sex as work, nice work, fun work but work nonetheless? It might make us feel more at ease about scheduling it in because whether you’re Aka or British a good sex life is key to a good long-term relationship even if it’s not three times a night several times a week!

Reading List

B Hewlett and B Hewlett – A Biocultural Approach to Sex and Intimacy in Central African Foragers and Farmers (2008)

NHS summary of research data into sexual behaviour in the UK

A nice summary on Foucault and sexuality and his questioning the idea that sex is not an expression of our true selves but a socially mediated activity like any other

[1] I might be missing something and if so do let me know about the great research out there!

Starting Again

It’s been a while since I last wrote but with my kids being back in school and the pandemic holding back any paid work, I’ve got some time and I thought I’d write again. Since my last post years have literally gone by and my interests have changed to reflect my growing children, who are now five and nine. So, I’m less interested in potty training and breastfeeding and more curious about education, gender and even parent’s relationships with each other (we have time for that now!). Also, since doing my MSc in Digital Anthropology* I am super interested in how we as humans make and are made by the technologies we live with. So, there’ll be some posts about that too, especially in relation to how it affects families which is basically everyone.

Image still from Video by Stephanie Gonot featured in from Tear it Up and Start Again NYT article

Living through Covid-19 has been a particularly intense time in terms of our dependence on digital technology. Who’d have thought we could become even more reliant on our smart phones than we were already? Even more monitored than we already felt we were? I spent months home-schooling via various apps and platforms and despite my reluctance have ended up using all the different video conferencing services regardless of what they do or don’t do with my data. 

It’s also revealed how massively social human beings are. All those months unable to socialise, congregate, generally be near each other was and continues to be super tough. Economists, psychologists, behavioural scientists – all the people the government tend to turn to are more comfortable thinking of people as individuals motivated by individual desires. What the pandemic has shown, which has been of no surprise to anthropologists, is that we can’t understand why people do the things they do without thinking about the groups they’re a part of and the contexts they live in.  

And speaking of groups and connection, I look forward to chatting to anyone who comes by the blog or the Facebook page. I’d love to hear your ideas and thoughts, or experiences you’ve had and can feed this into my own research. As before my posts will come sporadically but hopefully not too infrequently and I hope you find them worthwhile. I’m going to start by thinking less about our kids and more about our relationships with our partners.