By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | July 13, 2011 |
By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | July 13, 2011 |
If there’s one thing the media loves more than a sex-science related story that appears to support gender stereotypes, it’s one that appears to refute gender stereotypes. The latest being a study on relationship satisfaction in middle aged couples. The two points that are being relayed from this study are that men are more satisfied in relationships when there’s a lot of cuddling going on, while women are more satisfied when there’s lots of sex. Naturally, the truth is a little more complicated than the news reports would have it. Saletan over at Slate has already taken on this study, but since he did so through his usual highly gendered lens, I’m gonna throw in my two cents as well.
The study looked at 1009 couples from 5 countries - Brazil, German, Japan, Spain, and the U.S. (200 couples per country). Men between the ages of 40 and 70 (mean age 55) who were currently in relationships were recruited and they and their female partners (mean age 52) were surveyed about their relationship happiness, general demographics, and levels of intimacy. The couples were asked to rate the frequency and their satisfaction with several types of intimacy over a four-week period - specifically, how often they had sex, were sexually caressed by their partner, or kissed and cuddled with their partner. They were also asked to rate the importance of their own and their partner’s orgasm. The questions unrelated to intimacy included the participants’ health, level of education, duration of the relationship, and number of lifetime sexual partners. The researchers then looked at the relationship between these variables and overall relationship satisfaction as well as sexual satisfaction. The results are presented as “odds ratios,” or the, “factor change in the odds of a happy relationship compared to an unhappy relationship.” In plain English, a ratio of 1.00 means essentially no effect, higher than 1.00 means a positive effect (for example, 2.00 would mean a positive answer to the question roughly correlates with a 2-fold increase in the likelihood of reporting the relationship as happy), and less than 1.00 means a negative effect.
They found that health had a slight improvement in relationship happiness - odds ratio 1.67 for men, 1.41 for women. (The researchers only seem to consider this ratio to be significant for men, even though the numbers aren’t all that different for men and women). Importance of partner orgasm was also a predictor of a happy relationship though not by much - 1.17 for men and 1.08 for women (again, only the men’s number is considered significant by the researchers, although I probably wouldn’t interpret it that way). The most dramatic effect, and the reason for all those breathless reports about men being secret cuddlers, is for the questions about kissing and cuddling and sexual caresses. In those categories, the odds ratios were 3.00 and 3.11, respectively, for men but only 1.59 and 1.25 for women. In other words, happy couples were more likely to engage in physical intimacy of both a sexual and nonsexual nature. What the survey doesn’t address is whether this correlation means that the men (and women, albeit to a lesser extent) are happier because they get more physical affection, or that the happier couples are more likely to express themselves with such affection. The assumption in the media has largely been the former, and while it may be true it’s not something that can be concluded from this particular data set (completely anecdotal data: all my bfs have been snugglers). Interestingly, the data also showed that frequency of sex within the past four weeks was correlated with women’s relationship satisfaction (odds ratio 1.24) but negatively correlated with men’s (odds ratio 0.87). Again, the cause/effect relationship isn’t clear. It could be that women frequent sex leads to greater relationship satisfaction for women, but it could also be the other way around. (And as with all things, the actual relationship between the factors may well be muddied by individual preference. I’m happier if I’m getting more, but another woman may well give more when she’s happier, and this kind of survey wouldn’t distinguish between us.)
With respect to the sexual satisfaction, men were slightly more likely to be satisfied if they rated their partner’s orgasm as important (odds ratio 1.19). Both men and women were more likely to be sexually satisfied if they were cuddlers (odds ratios 1.93 and 2.03), but men had higher odds ratios for frequent caresses - 3.23 versus women’s 1.51, which would seem to give the lie to the idea that women enjoy foreplay but men don’t. Or maybe men are more satisfied when they feel their partner is fully engaged with their body rather than just acquiescing to sex. Or maybe it’s, you know, complicated because people are not statistics and trends don’t necessarily tell you much about individual behavior. Both men and women reported higher satisfaction with more frequent sex, and sexual function (as measured by things like premature ejaculation for men and lubrication for women) also correlated with sexual satisfaction (1.37 for men, 2.34 for women).
The final big findings of the study is that women’s sexual satisfaction in relationship starts off low but increases with relationship duration, and that women report less relationship satisfaction in the first 15 years together, with satisfaction increasing in relationship lasting 20-50 years while men show a steady increase in relationship satisfaction over time. Most people are interpreting this to overlay with childbearing years/women’s age, but the data is somewhat misleading in this regard. The researchers were not tracking couples throughout their relationships but comparing couples in the same age group with different relationships. A fifty year old couple who have been together for one year can’t stand in for a couple of twenty year olds for a number of reasons. Life experience, the presence of children, etc, will all have an impact. Not to mention the fact that couples who have made it into middle age intact were likely happier couples to begin with. Many of the miserable ones have already excluded themselves from the study by breaking up.
I love that this study looked at more than one culture, although I would have liked more analysis of cultural impact on relationships and sexuality than is given in the current paper, but the data is mostly broad correlations. Any interpretation has to be careful to keep in mind the golden rule of statistics: Correlation does not equal causation. A more thorough (and admittedly, difficult) analysis of people’s experiences is necessary to really understand the data.