WEDNESDAY, Jan. 30, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- If you're one of those husbands who thinks taking over some of your wife's household chores will translate into having sex more often, maybe you should think again.
A new study suggests the opposite may be true.
Married men who spend more time doing what many consider traditionally feminine household tasks -- such as grocery shopping, cleaning and cooking -- reported having less frequent sex than do husbands who stick to more traditionally masculine jobs, like gardening or home repair.
When it comes to chores, equality between the sexes doesn't necessarily turn on either the man or the woman, said study author Julie Brines, an associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of Washington, in Seattle.
So it's not sexy to watch your husband folding socks or unpacking the groceries? "While wives tend to be more satisfied with the marriage [when there aren't issues about housework], it doesn't translate to sex if the men help," Brines said. "For women in traditional arrangements, the wives' sexual satisfaction is greater. The wives are benefitting too."
In other words, even though women may say they like having their husband help around the house, his well-intentioned efforts may end up turning him into a helpmate rather than an object of desire.
The researchers' interest in the topic was sparked by media coverage of a report from the Council on Contemporary Families in 2008, Brines explained. "The headline was that men who did more housework got more sex," she said. "My colleagues and I saw that and didn't see the evidence."
But Brines admitted that such thinking is understandable. "From Grecian times, the women who were unhappy with their men decided to withhold sex," she said, referring to the Greek play Lysistrata. She said it would make perfect sense if there was a sort of exchange of favors in marriage, and that if wives were happier, sex lives would benefit.
"Our research is counterintuitive," Brines said.
The study, published in the February issue of the journal American Sociological Review, tapped information on roughly 4,500 married U.S. couples who participated in the National Survey of Families and Households.
The nationally representative data, collected between 1992 and 1994, is considered the most recent large-scale information measuring sexual frequency in married couples. The average age of survey participants was 46 for the husbands and 44 for the wives, and the marriages were all heterosexual.
Together, the couples spent about 34 hours a week on traditionally female chores, plus an additional 17 hours a week on tasks typically considered men's work. Husbands did about one-fifth of so-called traditional female chores and a little more than half of the male tasks, suggesting that wives helped out with the men's chores more often than husbands took on the wives'.
The researchers accounted for differences in self-reported happiness in the marriage, how recently the couples were married, family structure, each spouse's time spent in paid work, the wife's share of income, education and self-rated health, among other factors.
Men and women reported having sex an average of about five times a month. For those couples in which the wife does all the traditionally female housework, husbands and wives reported having sex 1.6 times more a month than those where the husband does a larger share of those chores.
Does the data still apply now, 20 years after the survey was done? Brines said that although a lot has changed in marriage since the 1960s -- especially with women increasingly taking on jobs outside the home and men having a greater role in child rearing -- research shows relatively little change in household assignment of tasks since the 1990s.
"I'm skeptical that the relationship between housework and sex changed a lot because housework responsibilities haven't changed much," she said.
For her part, Markie Blumer, an assistant professor in the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the age of the data is a big weakness in the study. "The economic crash definitely changed a lot of the household dynamics," she said, adding that many of those who became unemployed were men who started doing most of the housework.
Lead study author Sabino Kornrich said it's possible that when both spouses work outside the home, sheer fatigue could reduce the frequency of sex.
"I suspect that in cases where people are too tired to do any chores, they just don't have sex," said Kornrich, a researcher at the Juan March Institute in Madrid, Spain. "Our research and earlier studies find that couples who do more housework overall have more sex, suggesting that those who have more energy to do housework also have more energy for sex."
Kornrich added that although same-sex couples were not the focus of this study, research suggests that the division of household labor among gay, lesbian and cohabitating couples is influenced by gender. "But differences remain in how these couples divide household labor compared to heterosexual couples, so we cannot say from our results," he noted.
Brines suggested married couples consider having direct conversations or negotiations about the division of household labor and about their sex lives. "Put it up for renegotiation at any time," she said. "If you want a different arrangement, talk about it rather than letting inertia take hold."
For more about sexual health, see the U.S. National Library of Medicine.