Skewed Household Responsibilities Can Cause Lowered Sexual Desire In Women

New research indicates that sharing household responsibilities can spark up your sex life.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 15, 2023

A new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour discusses how an unequal division of labor in heterosexual relationships can lead to low sexual desire in women.

I recently spoke to Emily A. Harris (University of Melbourne) and Sari M. van Anders (Queen's University, Kingston, Canada), to understand the measures that couples can take to prevent things like these from coming in the way of their personal and sexual lives. Here's a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to focus on the factors associated with low sexual desire in women?

The emphasis on individual women's low sexual desire really places the blame on individual women as well as the onus to address or 'fix' their low sexual desire with things like medication, testosterone, stress-reduction, or mindfulness therapy. This can be unhelpful because it ignores bigger picture causes of issues with desire that include gender inequities.

We wanted to test some of our hypotheses about how gender inequities tied to being a woman partnered with a man might actually be leading to low desire – and our results strongly supported our hypotheses, and resonated with people everywhere, especially women.

Could you elaborate on the three factors, i.e, individual, interpersonal and societal, that are associated with low sexual desire in women?

Researchers tend to focus on three levels of factors that might influence desire:

  • Individual (especially biological factors like testosterone and psychological ones like stress)
  • Interpersonal (like relationship issues)
  • Societal factors, to a lesser extent (like access to information about sexuality)

Research on low desire in women partnered with men tends to focus largely on individual factors, especially androgens but also stress; this positions not only the causes of low desire but their fixes or "treatment" in individual women. And, it ignores research that shows that low testosterone does not cause low desire, and sometimes can even be linked with higher desire.

Research on interpersonal causes can miss the point as well; of course, relationship dynamics can influence sexual desire, but if many relationships between women and men are characterized by the same dynamics, it can make sense to look at cultural/societal-level phenomena.

This includes gender inequities tied to assumptions that women and men should partner with each other only, and take gender-specific roles that limit everyone but pose more burden for women.

What would be your top three pieces of advice for women who are struggling to juggle chores and their personal life/sexual life?

We don't think there is an easy solution to inequities in the division of household labor, in part because they are individual, interpersonal, relational, and societal.

On one hand, it's simple: people in relationships should share household labor fairly. But this takes work and our culture can teach men to be resistant and women to avoid asking.

Still, our first piece of advice could be to talk to partners about the division of household labor. Men can check in with women partners about the division of labor, and even monitor it themselves to keep track of where inequities lie. Women can do the same, or let men partners know. It's important to remember that women aren't asking for "help", they're asking for a fair(er) distribution of work in the home. Of course, many women have already done this without effect, because research shows that people who benefit from inequities are the least likely to want to redress it.

And, initiating these conversations reflects additional labor for women. With unresponsive partners or worry about how to proceed, seeking out professional relationship counseling, if possible, could be useful to help communicate about what can be a difficult issue.

And, remember, this has impacts on everyone that reach far beyond household labor and into sexual desire and sexual relationships. Everyone benefits – including possibly sexually – with fair(er) distributions of labor.

What are the things that men can do to ease the situation for women and ultimately increase the spark in their relationships so that both partners experience satisfaction in the relationship?

  • Men might be curious and open in their approach to the division of labor, considering where inequities lie and how to make change.
  • We are not relationship or sexual counselors or therapists, but open communication is generally understood to be key to healthy relationships – and that includes sex lives. Talking is a great first step.
  • Finally, the critical step is taking action. Our culture – and interpersonal relationships – typically expect women to be the unpaid project managers of the household even though they did not choose this role in most situations and the burden or cost this carries for them and their relationships and sex lives. It is always worthwhile to take equal responsibility in relationships and for household labor, and now we know that's true, also, for sexual desire.

What was the methodology of your study?

We conducted two cross-sectional online surveys. We asked over 1,000 women to tell us about their sexual desire for their partners, the division of household labor in their relationships and their feelings about it, and their perceptions around their partners as dependents or not. We developed and validated new measures to test these questions online.

Conducting this research online has a number of benefits, including allowing participants to feel confident in their anonymity and reach busy participants with young children.

We then conducted statistical analyses to see if our hypotheses were supported or not; results showed very large effects of gender inequities on sexual desire in women partnered with men.

The study was conceptualized around three hypotheses. Could you tell us in detail about your findings with respect to the three hypotheses of the study?

We found support for each of our three hypotheses.

  • Consistent with our first hypothesis, we found that women who did a larger proportion of the household labor relative to their partners felt lower sexual desire for their partners. Our measure of household labor was comprehensive, and covered things people normally imagine, like laundry or making meals, but also those that women often report as key inequities, like who is responsible for parenting logistics or planning social events.
  • Consistent with our second and third hypotheses, women who did more household labor were more likely to perceive this to be unfair and to perceive their partners as dependent on them, both of which in turn were associated with lower sexual desire. This was true across two studies with over 1,000 women.