FOR someone who doesn't love washing up and is rather pleased to have hooked a man who does, the news that "men who do the dishes have less sex" arrived like a cloud of gloom.
Rather naively, I had never considered there might be any relationship between how much sex you get and how much time you spend with your hands in the sink – or, as a new study asserts, how much you conform to your traditional gender role.
According to the report's author, Sabino Kornrich, men who avoid carrying out traditionally female household chores have sex 1.6 times more often than those who do all the housework.
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Or, put the other way – which none of the articles about the research did – women who wash all the dishes get sex 1.6 times more often than those who never do. Perhaps if I had known, I would have worked harder to cultivate my own home-making skills.
Reading the report I wondered why no-one had pitched it in this way. Where were the headlines declaring: "Women who wash up get more sex"? Why weren't there reproductions of 1950s adverts in which women's sexiness is equated with their domesticity? (One prime example depicts a doting guy with his feather duster-toting and aproned wife, saying: "The harder a wife works, the cuter she looks.")
The first reason is that no-one wants to wash dishes. Therefore no-one, regardless of gender, wants to hear that message – least of all me.
The second is that, in most households, women still do more housework than men – and research shows that's true even in households where the woman earns significantly more than the man. The third is an assumption that women are not as interested in sex.
Given all the research about the subject, we seem to be obsessed with the relationship between housework and sex. Perhaps it's not surprising, since those are the two realms in which man and woman work most commonly together as a team. In recent times, there has been an array of confusing and contradictory studies.
One actually suggested that couples who share the housework have more sex, prompting the headline: "Men: Want More Sex? Do the Laundry". Another study found that couples who share the housework are more likely to divorce.
But my favourite piece of bizarre lowbrow research comes from a Durex 2011 survey, in which 84% of women said they had sex in order to get their guy to do more around the house. This kind of statistic makes me feel I must be living in a parallel universe to the researched reality: an alien who hasn't yet cottoned on to the fact that women essentially don't really want to have sex but do it for diamonds or romantic meals.
WHAT is irritating about these surveys is not the figures they reveal, but the way in which people interpret them. Kornrich's study has been triumphantly incorporated into an evolutionary biology world view that says men and women have evolved to be a particular way and should stick with it. In other words, blokes are built to fix cars and sit in boardrooms, while ladies are wired to launder and scrub floors – and any divergence from this is such an act against nature that it will result in the worst possible human symptom of, shock, horror, "less sex". One-third less, to be precise.
Actually, Kornrich doesn't say men or women are wired differently. He says sex relies on what he calls "scripts": moves, routines, signals, ways of entering into the physical dance of sexual intercourse, and how we act out our gender is part of that. People who conform to traditional roles are playing out a long-known and well-understood routine. Those who don't are thrashing around blindly in the dark.
Even if Kornrich's analysis is right, it doesn't mean these so-called "scripts" are immutable. We can reinvent them and in a few decades see tasks becoming gender-neutral. Some already are. Cooking, for instance, is being increasingly masculinised. A bloke can throw together an unctuous casserole, wielding a few phallic kitchen utensils in the process, and still be a man.
A gal can put on lipstick, change a tyre and still be a girl. There's probably a long way to go before vacuuming gets to seem the ultimate in manliness, in spite of the fact it seems the indoor equivalent of that supreme testosterone-fuelled macho pursuit, lawn-mowing, but I can imagine the day.
Lovers of the caveman model might like society to rewind, to see more men do as my grandad boasted he once did, and drop a few dishes so that he would never be asked to wash up again. But that would be paddling against the current of the time.
It would also be missing a trick. What we really need to do is allow the scripts to slowly rewrite themselves. We need to stop reinforcing the old ones by simply saying "men who don't wash up get more sex" and implying it's just the way they're wired. We need scripts that are a little less Mad Men and a little more built for our times.
After all, a man who does the dishes can still be a bit of a dish.