When a comic about “mental workload” went viral in 2017, it sparked conversations about the invisible workload women carry.
Even when women are in paid work, they remember their mother-in-law’s birthday, know what’s in the pantry and organize the plumbing. This mental load often goes unnoticed.
Women also continue to do more housework and childcare than their male partners.
This burden has been exacerbated during the recent pandemic (homeschooling anyone?), leaving women feeling exhausted, anxious, and unsatisfied.
As sexuality researchers, we wonder, with all this extra work, do women have any energy left for sex?
We decided to explore how mental workload affects intimate relationships. We focused on women’s sexual desire, as “low desire” affects more than 50 percent of women and is difficult to treat.
Our study, published in Journal of Sex Researchshows that women in equal relationships (in terms of housework and mental load) are more satisfied with their relationships and, in turn, feel more sexual desire than those in unequal relationships.
How do we define low desire?
Low desire is tricky to explore. More than just the motivation to have sex, women describe sexual desire as a state of being and a need for closeness.
Adding to this complexity is the fluctuating nature of female desire that changes in response to life experiences and relationship quality.
Relationships are especially important for female desire: relationship dissatisfaction is a major risk factor for low desire in women, even more so than the physiological influences of age and menopause. Clearly, relationship factors are critical to understanding women’s sexual desire.
As a way to address the complexity of female desire, a recent theory proposed two different types of desire: dyadic desire is the sexual desire one feels for another, while solo desire is about individual feelings.
Not surprisingly, dyadic desire is intertwined with relationship dynamics, while solo desire is more amorphous and involves feeling good about yourself as a sexual being (feeling sex), without needing validation from another.
Our research acknowledged the nuances of women’s desire and its strong connection to relationship quality by exploring how fairness in relationships can influence desire.
The research asked 299 Australian women aged 18 to 39 questions about desire and relationships.
These questions included assessments of household chores, mental workload – such as who organized social activities and financial arrangements – and who had more free time.
We compared three groups:
- relationships where women perceived work as shared equals (“equal work” group)
- when the woman felt she did more work (“women’s work” group)
- when women thought their partner contributed more (“partner’s work” group).
We then explored how these differences in relationship equality affected women’s sexual desire.
What we found
The findings were grim. Women who rated their relationships as equal also reported greater relationship satisfaction and higher dyadic desire (combined with relationship dynamics) than other women in the study.
Unfortunately (and perhaps tellingly), the partner work group was too small to draw any substantive conclusions.
However, for the women’s work group it was clear that their dyadic desire had diminished. This group was also less satisfied in their relationships overall.
We found something interesting when we turned our attention to women’s solo desire. While it seems logical that inequity in relationships could affect all aspects of women’s sexuality, our results showed that fairness did not significantly affect single desire.
This suggests that women’s low desire is not an internal sexual problem to be treated with applications of mindfulness and jade eggs, but a problem that requires effort from both partners.
Other relationship factors are involved. We found that children increased the workload for women, leading to lower relationship equality and thus lower sexual desire.
The length of the relationship also played a role. Research shows that long-term relationships are associated with decreased desire for women, and this is often attributed to over-acquaintance fatigue (think bored, sexless women on 90s sitcoms).
However, our research shows that boredom in the relationship is not the reason, with increasing inequality over the course of a relationship often the cause of women’s lack of interest in sex.
The longer some relationships continue, the more unfair they become, reducing women’s desire. This may be because women take it upon themselves to manage their partner’s relationships as well as their own (“It’s time to have your best friend over for dinner”).
And while housework may start out as evenly divided, over time, women tend to do more housework.
What about same-sex couples?
Same-sex couples have fairer relationships.
However, we found the same relationship between equality and desire for women in same-sex relationships, although it was much stronger for heteronormative couples.
A sense of fairness within a relationship is essential to all women’s sexual satisfaction and desire.
What happens next?
Our findings suggest that one response to low desire in women may be to address the amount of work women must take into the relationship.
The link between relationship satisfaction and female sexual desire has been firmly established in previous research, but our findings explain how this dynamic works: women’s sense of justice within a relationship predicts their satisfaction, which has consequences for desire their for their partner.
To translate our results into clinical practice, we can conduct trials to confirm whether reducing women’s mental workload results in greater sexual desire.
We can have a “housework and mental load ban” on a sample of women who report low sexual desire and record whether there are changes in their reported levels of desire.
Or maybe the women’s sexual partners can do the dishes tonight and see what happens.
Simone Buzwell, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Swinburne University of Technology and Eva Johansen, PhD Candidate, Swinburne University of Technology
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.