Response to “Sex and the Working Mom”

Late last week Herminia Ibarra published “Sex and the Working Mom” on the Harvard Business Review and aptly pointed out that in the ongoing debate about work-life balance one topic is often ignored: “A less discussable set of issues — sex, intimacy, the role that partners play in helping each other grow and develop, personally and professionally.”

Ibarra notices that when career-loving mothers discuss “the juggle,” they rarely mention how it can detrimentally affect their sex lives. She shares an anecdote from her company’s history in which a senior female employee responds to a question about the lack of diversity in high-ranking positions that require a lot of international travel with this: “Let me tell you what diversity means to me. My husband told me ‘there will be sex in this house at least once a week, whether you are here or not.'”

What I find most disturbing about this discussion is the implication that women/wives are “in charge” of a relationship’s sexual health. This assumption follows us from puberty to adulthood. Our culture teaches teenage girls that they are responsible for boys’ sexual behavior, and then, years later, tells married women that they are responsible for the abundance or lack of sex in their marriage. We assume that men and boys can’t control themselves, and so the burden of maintaining a “normal” sex life falls to the female. We peg young girls as temptresses who must be held accountable for boys’ sexual advances and married women as frigid careerists who must accommodate their husband’s needs. (And, for the record, I’m not arguing that Ibarra agrees with this assumption, but it seems like the women she quotes tacitly do.)

But there’s one universal truth about sex: it’s a joint venture. And it’s ridiculous to conclude that 50% of the participants have no part in determining its frequency. If a career-loving mother is too exhausted for intimacy, then she and her career-loving husband should work together to address the root of the issue. Why is she so exhausted? Can everyday tasks be redistributed so she feels less stressed? Are her partner’s demands reasonable to begin with? Is there a larger underlying issue? Both partners should be equally responsible for exploring these questions. But instead we frame her lack of sex drive as something that she must “fix.” From adolescence to middle-age sex — too much, not enough — is our problem.

As we continue the important debate of how working mothers and fathers can healthfully share the responsibilities of raising children while pursuing their passions, we need to reject this antiquated idea that men are uncontrollable animals that women must monitor. It’s a disservice to women and men of all ages.