When a comic about “mental burden” went viral in 2017, it sparked conversations about the invisible workload women carry.
Even when women work in a paid job, they remember their mother-in-law’s birthday, know what’s in the pantry and organize the plumber. This mental load often goes unnoticed.
Women also continue to do more housework and childcare than their male partners.
This burden has been exacerbated by the recent pandemic (everybody is homeschooling), leaving women feeling exhausted, anxious and resentful.
As sex researchers we wondered, do women have any energy left for sex with all this extra work?
We decided to explore how mental load affects close 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 our journal Journal of Sex StudiesIt shows that in equal relationships (in terms of housework and mental load), women are more satisfied with their relationships and, on the contrary, feel more sexual desire than in unequal relationships.
How do we define low desire?
Low desire is hard to discover. Women describe sexual desire as a state of being and a need for intimacy rather than just a motivation to have sex.
Adding to this complexity is the fluctuating 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 the most important 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 of addressing the complexity of female desire, a recent theory has proposed two different types of desire: dual desire is the sexual desire of one for the other, while solo desire is related to individual feelings.
Not surprisingly, dual desire is intertwined with the dynamics of the relationship, while lone desire is more amorphous and involves feeling good about yourself as a sexual being (feeling sexy) without needing another’s approval.
Evaluation of the connection
Our research explored how justice in relationships can affect desire, recognizing the nuances of women’s desire and its strong link with relationship quality.
The research involved asking 299 Australian women aged 18 to 39 about desire and relationships.
These questions included assessments of housework, mental burden – such as who organizes social activities and makes financial arrangements – and who has more free time.
We compared three groups:
- Relationships in which women perceive work as equally shared (“equal work” group)
- when the woman feels that she is doing more work (“women’s work” group)
- when women feel that their partner contributes more (the “partner’s job” group).
We then explored how these differences in relationship equality affected female sexual desire.
what we found
The findings were stark. Women who rated their relationships equally reported greater relationship satisfaction and higher dual desire (integrated with relationship dynamics) than the other women in the study.
Unfortunately (and perhaps meaningfully), the partner’s study group was too small to draw any significant conclusions.
However, it was clear that their dual aspirations for the women’s study group were waning. This group was also generally less satisfied with their relationships.
As we turned our attention to women’s solo desire, we found something interesting. While it may seem plausible that relationship inequalities can affect all aspects of female sexuality, our results showed that fairness did not significantly affect the desire for solitude.
This shows that women’s low desire is not an internal sexual problem to be treated with mindfulness practices and jade eggs, but rather an issue that requires effort from both partners.
Other relationship factors are involved. We found that children increase women’s workload, which leads to lower relationship equality and therefore lower sexual desire.
Relationship length also played a role. Research shows that long-term relationships are associated with a diminished desire for women, and this is often attributed to the weariness of over-familiarity (think bored, sexless wives in ’90s sitcoms).
However, our research shows that with increasing inequality throughout a relationship, relationship boredom is often not the cause of women’s lack of interest in sex.
The longer some relationships last, the more unfair they become and lessen women’s desire. This may be because women take charge of managing their partner’s relationships as well as their own (“Now it’s time to invite your best friend to dinner”).
Although domestic chores begin by being shared equally, over time women tend to do more housework.
What about same-sex couples?
Same-sex couples have fairer relationships.
However, we found the same link between equality and desire for women in same-sex relationships, although much stronger for heteronormative couples.
A sense of justice in a relationship is essential to the satisfaction and sexual desire of all women.
What happens next?
Our findings suggest that one response to low desire in women may be to address the amount of work women have to undertake in relationships.
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 repercussions on their desires for their partners.
To translate our results into clinical practice, we can conduct trials to confirm whether reducing women’s mental load results in greater sexual desire.
For a sample of women reporting low sexual desire, we could apply a “ban on housework and mental burden” and record any changes in reported desire levels.
Or maybe women’s sexual partners can wash 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 has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.