The News Story – The overhyped rise of stay-at-home dads

“Every so often,” writes Jordan Weissmann on TheAtlantic.com, “a trend piece comes along that heralds the rise of the stay-at-home dad.”  That “trend,” Weissmann believes, is not so powerful as the media may like us to believe.

While it is true that the number of stay-at-home dads has more than doubled in the past 8 years — from 76,000 in 1994 to 189,000 in 2012—that number is still only 0.8 percent of families with children under 15.  Even these small numbers don’t tell the whole story, Weissmann says.  Rising rates of single parenthood mean more and more women are raising children alone, and “even among two-parent households where women work, the percentage of men acting as the primary caregiver has actually declined slightly since the early 1990s.”

The stay-at-home dad “trend” may make “a nice story,” but doesn’t reflect reality.  And with research indicating that traditional gender roles seem to benefit a couple’s marriage, we might ask if this is such a problem as Weissmann seems to indicate.

The New Research – More traditional gender roles, more sex

In this age of increased egalitarianism in work and domestic roles, many researchers have sought to discover how changing roles influence one component of the glue that binds married couples together—sex.  Much media attention has been given to a handful of studies that demonstrate that husbands who do more housework get more sex, as their happy wives are more inclined to acquiesce to their husbands’ needs.  Researchers from the Juan March Institute and the University of Washington, however, suspect that the reverse is true.  According to their hypothesis, husbands and wives who do more gender-related tasks tend to experience greater sexual frequency.

The researchers begin with the assumption that “greater sexual frequency is generally a desired good: conflict may exist over the timing and frequency of sex . . . but more frequent sex is linked to higher sexual and marital satisfaction for both men and women.”  The belief that couples in more egalitarian marriages tend to be intimate more often is widely popular, say the researchers, but also based on “little empirical support.”  Instead, the researchers highlight “the gendered nature of sexual scripts” and suggest that men who do more traditionally male tasks and women who do more traditionally female tasks will have greater sexual frequency in their marriages.

Using a large, nationally representative data set that reports on both sexual frequency and participation in household tasks, the authors study both “core” and “noncore” household labor.  Core household labor is that typically described as feminine—childcare, laundry, cooking, shopping, and washing.  Noncore household labor is more likely to be masculine—outdoor tasks, auto repair, driving, and finances. 

The data overwhelmingly suggest that “sexual frequency is highest in households with traditionally gendered divisions of labor” and that “households in which men do more female-typed (core) tasks report lower sexual frequency.”  These results “are statistically significant and substantively large.” 

The authors are also aware that increased marital happiness would likely increase sexual frequency and so tested to discover whether that link accounts for the housework/frequency link.  They report that although happy couples do indeed report greater sexual frequency, this “does not reduce the effect of men’s share of these two types of housework to nonsignificance.”

The data is clear.  Traditional gender scripts seem to have something to do with how ready both wives and husbands are for sexual intimacy, while more egalitarian views tend to lead to roommate-like behavior.

(Source: Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King, “New Research,” The Family in America, Summer 2013, Vol. 27 Number 3. Study: Sabino Kornrich, Julie Brines, and Katrina Leupp, “Egalitarianism, Housework, and Sexual Frequency in Marriage,”American Sociological Review 78.1 [2013]: 26-50.)

This article has been republished with permission from The Family in America, a publication of The Howard Center. The Howard Center is a MercatorNet partner site.

Nicole M. King is the Managing Editor of The Howard Center’s quarterly journal, The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy, the United States’ leading journal of family-policy research....