When a “mental workload” comic 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 plumber. This mental strain often goes unnoticed.
In addition, women 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 resentful.
As sexuality researchers, we wondered, with all this extra work, do women have any energy left for sex?
We decided to study how mental stress affects intimate relationships. We focused on female sexual desire because “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 workload) are more satisfied with their relationships and in turn experience greater sexual desire than those in unequal relationships.
How do we define low desire?
Low desire is difficult to research. More than just the motivation for sex, women describe sexual desire as a state of being and a need for intimacy.
Adding to this complexity is the variable nature of female desire, which changes in response to life experiences and the quality of relationships.
Relationships are particularly important to women’s desire: relationship dissatisfaction is a major risk factor for low desire in women, even more so than the physiological effects of age and menopause. Clearly, relationship factors are critical to understanding female sexual desire.
As a way to deal with the complexity of female desire, a recent theory proposed two different kinds of desire: dyadic desire is the sexual desire one feels for another, while solo desire is related to individual feelings.
Not surprisingly, dyadic desire is intertwined with relationship dynamics, while solo desire is more amorphous and involves feeling good as a sexual being (feeling sexy) without needing validation from another.
Evaluating the relationship
Our research acknowledges the nuances of women’s desire and its strong relationship to relationship quality by examining how fairness in relationships can influence desire.
The research involved asking 299 Australian women aged 18 to 39 about their desires and relationships.
These questions include assessments of housework, mental workload – such as who organizes social activities and makes financial arrangements – and who has more free time.
We compared three groups:
- relationships where women perceive work as equal and equal (the “equal work” group)
- when the woman feels that she is doing more work (the “women’s work” group)
- when women felt that their partner contributed more (the partner’s work group).
We then examined how these differences in relationship equity affect women’s sexual desire.
What we found
The findings were obvious. Women who rated their relationships as equal also reported greater relationship satisfaction and higher dyadic desire (intertwined with relationship dynamics) than other women in the study.
Unfortunately (and perhaps tellingly), the partner task force was too small to draw any meaningful conclusions.
However, it was clear for the female task force that their dyadic desire had decreased. This group is also less satisfied with their relationships in general.
We found something interesting when we turned our attention to women’s solo desire. Although it seems logical that inequity in relationships could influence all aspects of female sexuality, our results showed that equity did not significantly influence the desire for single women.
This suggests that women’s low desire is not an internal sexual problem to be treated with mindfulness apps and jade eggs, but rather one that requires effort from both partners.
Other relationship factors are also involved. We found that children increase the burden on women, leading to lower equality in relationships and therefore lower sexual desire.
The duration of the relationship also plays a role. Research shows that long-term relationships are associated with a decrease in desire for women, and this is often attributed to the boredom of being too familiar (think bored, sexless soap opera wives from the 90s).
However, our research shows that boredom in the relationship is not the cause, with increasing inequality in the course of the relationship often being the reason for women’s lack of interest in sex.
The longer some relationships go on, the more dishonest they become, reducing women’s desire. This may be because women take charge of their partner’s relationships as well as their own (“It’s time to invite your best friend to dinner”).
And while housework may start out as equal, over time women tend to do more housework.
What about same-sex couples?
Same-sex couples have a fairer relationship.
However, we found the same relationship between fairness and desire for women in same-sex relationships, although it was much stronger for heteronormative couples.
A sense of fairness in a relationship is fundamental to the satisfaction and sexual desire of all women.
What happens next?
Our findings suggest that one response to women’s low desire may be to address the amount of work women must take on in relationships.
The link between relationship satisfaction and women’s sexual desire has been firmly established in previous research, but our findings explain how this dynamic works: women’s sense of fairness within a relationship predicts their satisfaction, which has implications for their desire for their partner.
To translate our results into clinical practice, we could conduct trials to confirm whether reducing women’s mental workload leads to greater sexual desire.
We can have a “no housework and mental load” for a sample of women reporting low sexual desire and record whether there are changes in their reported levels of desire.
Or maybe the women’s sexual partners can wash the dishes tonight and see what happens.
Simone Buzzwell, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Swinburne University of Technology and Eva Johansen, PhD Student, Swinburne University of Technology
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.