“Choreplay” is the latest neologism creeping out a number of my friends. It appears in a New York Times article which argues that men should “help out” more around the house because this is correlated with higher levels of sexual activity in some studies. This is part of a broader argument about the benefits to men of greater gender equality, including lower blood pressure amongst men heavily involved in their children’s lives, and other apparent cues for men to cast off outdated gender roles and embrace feminism. In their own interests. And that’s rather the problem
I’ll leave aside the issue – which most of my readers no doubt have a much stronger grasp on than I do – of the difference between correlation and causation. Are men who do these things better off because they do them, or are groups of men who do these things also better off? Will buying an outrageously expensive car suddenly make me a CEO, etc etc. Even if these are possible causations, I still don’t think it makes sense to tell men to share the household work more equally because it could lead to a better sex life for them. In fact, saying that seems to undermine the entire point of arguing for gender equality.
Women should not be treated equally because it is beneficial to men. They should be treated equally to men because it is right. In the discussion over the manifest injustice throughout our society, it is often pointed out that a society in which everyone contributed and received fairly would be a healthier, happier and better society. This is undeniable. And there are certainly strong arguments for communicating feminist ideas in ways which make sense to those not already signed up to those ideas and their implications. Otherwise feminist discourse would simply be a lot of agreeing with each other, and complaining that others didn’t agree. But there is something self-defeating about arguing that men should recognise the problem of women’s unpaid domestic labour, and do something about it, because women might then give them something they want.
Feminists who identified the ways in which women were defined as inherently caring, self-sacrificing and “house-proud” because this concealed their daily hours of labour under an idea of “female nature” did not do so because they thought it was an inefficient use of women’s free time. They revealed this ideological trap because it was used to exploit women for men’s benefit, aggrandising the work done by men whilst obscuring the work done by women which supported and made it possible. The problem with the “second shift” is not that it takes up time during which women should be sexually available.
This argument comes too close to implying that housework is exploiting women ineffectively, in ways which don’t really match up with what most heterosexual men want from their partners. It would no doubt be defended by the article’s author on the grounds that women who are less stressed, less overworked and less worried by domestic responsibilities will be freer to relax and express their sexuality. But that is not the way round it is phrased. After all, an individual woman might decide that this situation renders her freer to have a run, or a quiet read, or go out for a drink, and that she doesn’t particularly feel like expressing herself sexually at that moment. In terms of “choreplay”, this would be a drastic failure. But in terms of women’s freedom it would be an advance.
The basic problem with the “choreplay” argument is that it buys into the idea of women as the “sex class”, who are almost entirely imagined in terms of their sexual availability and sexual activity. The reason for interacting with them is to obtain sex, imagined as a service or a commodity rather than a shared activity. As I’ve written elsewhere, the fetishization of images of nurses, secretaries and maids suggests a disturbing blurring of the entire idea of women providing men with services and the entire idea of sex. “Choreplay” accepts far too much of this assumption, suggesting that the only reason men might want to take on their share of domestic work is in order to get the other thing women are for. It suggests that the rationale for treating a woman as an equal fellow human being is predicated upon her identity as a circumscribed member of the sex class.
This is an unfortunately familiar assumption in too much self-defined progressive writing directed towards men. The slogan “consent is sexy”, when addressed to men, comes too close to endorsing the idea that women are there to provide sexiness, and that the evaluative criterion for any action towards them is how sexy it will be for men. Blogs like Doctor Nerdlove have walked an uncomfortable line in the past, in implying that it is worth understanding women’s experience of the world because this will enable men to “score” with lots of them. It may be a good strategy in catching men’s attention, because it promises them power and sexual access to women, and doesn’t require them to think particularly differently about the women in their life.
More charitably, many of us are more willing to listen to a line of reasoning which promises to give us a self-interested excuse to do something we generally admit might be right. But the idea of “choreplay” accedes to all the toxic assumptions about women which help perpetuate men’s view of them as less than equal. I might suggest that many women, finding that their male partners have suddenly developed an interest in housework which displays a high correlation with expecting sexual activity immediately afterwards, might not feel relaxed and able to express themselves sexually. They might feel as if this was another example of a man expecting them to trade sex for being seen as worthwhile. They might feel distinctly unsexy as a result. But I won’t, because that would still be beside the point. It would be another argument by a man which framed women’s treatment as dependent upon their sexual activity. Men should treat women more equally because we might get an advantage out of it? That sentence barely makes sense.