Debunking the Myth of the Sex-Starved Father

The frustrated dad is a stock figure in pop culture, but a hard dude to find in the real world.

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Dads can’t get laid. It’s a trope. It’s a meme. It’s Christina Applegate and Will Arnett in Up All Night sneaking off to a hotel just to sleep. It’s Rob Huebel telling Josh Duhamel in Life As We Know It that even gay dads have to kiss their sex lives goodbye. It’s comedian Rob Delaney calling sexual rainchecks “abusive.” Though there are certain scientific phenomena that lend the cliche credence–perhaps the same low testosterone that makes new fathers less likely to cheat drives them to dress in contraceptively bad outfits–it’s mostly just a stereotype. Dads mount nothing but shelves. Everyone gets it and many fathers internalize it even though there’s little reason to believe it’s true and an increasing number of reasons to believe it’s nonsense.

At least one new study suggests fathers may be getting more action than screenwriters let on. And world-famous sex educator Dr. Laura Berman told Fatherly that it’s possible that some new parents are having more sex than childless couples, specifically to avoid embodying a cliche that may have been based on nothing in the first place. It’s a phenomenon we’ll call the “Parent Advantage” that occurs when making a child sets off a virtuous sexual cycle.

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According to Berman, parents are making sex a bigger priority in their relationships because they no longer think about physical intimacy in purely procreative or even recreational terms. “People are realizing that sex is about a lot more than getting your rocks off,” she says.“Many of them came from divorced families and are taking the commitment more seriously.”

Debby Herbenick, author of Sex Made Easy, agrees, adding that the very act of becoming a parent can make intimacy feel more natural. “Many parents feel more intimate and close, emotionally, as they experience the joys of being parents together and watching their baby grow,” she says.

“It’s not all bad,” she adds, because it still feels necessary to say that.

But that’s just a (very reassuring) narrative. What about the data? Most of the data on the topic is tangential to the inquiry at hand. For instance, scientists tell a curious, horny expecting dad that have a child will lower his testosterone while breastfeeding will lead to his wife experiencing vaginal dryness. And if there’s sleep deprivation, that’s a libido killer. It’s a perfect storm (or drought, rather). Yet, even as research suggests the odds are stacked against parents, actual data may indicate that parents are still pulling out aces.

Ryne Sherman of Florida Atlantic University has some of the first robust evidence—beyond anecdotal reports from Dr. Laura—that the parent advantage is real.  In a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Sherman and colleagues found that U.S. adults are having less sex in general. Since Sherman had already gone to the trouble of surveying the sexual habits of 26,620 adults (9,776 of them parents), Fatherly asked him to take a special look at how moms and dads compare to everyone else. Sherman, a new father himself, reran the numbers and found that parents were, in fact, having more sex than non-parents—married or not. There was a clear parent advantage.

Married parents with infants had the most sex overall at 83.08 times a year, compared to childless married couples who had sex only 60.03 times a year. Single people without kids saw the least action, with a mere 44.43 sexual escapades per year. Although the gap tightened as kids got older, parents of toddlers, preteens, and teenagers all had more sex than non-parents. And despite a handful of caveats—the original study wasn’t built to analyze how much sex parents were having, our analysis comes from raw data that’s not controlled for age, and men are notorious liars when it comes to self-reporting their sex lives—the findings are compelling.

“This is certainly contrary to what I think the popular opinion would be,” Sherman says.

Brooke Wells, also a coauthor on the study, had a few theories as to why parents seem to be getting some. First, couples with young children are often limited to activities within the home and confined to early bedtimes, resulting in more “concentrated time alone together.” Given that parent advantage was the most pronounced among parents of young kids, Wells also suspects that the higher rates could be due to parents trying to conceive more children.

Echoing Dr. Laura, Wells also raises the possibility that modern moms and dads are getting it on mainly to kick back against myth that new parents never have sex. In that case, she advises that it would be in parents’ best interests to keep the lie alive. “That misconception may be fostering more intentional sexual intimacy among parenting couples,” she says. Call it a happy accident.

“There is some truth that couples with children have less sex than couples without, but not as much as our culture perpetuates,” concurs Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a psychologist and marriage counselor, who was not involved in the study. Fisher adds that, just because a new parent’s body seems poorly outfitted for sex doesn’t mean his or her physiology is turned off. Indeed, the sleep deprivation and low testosterone that should be killing parents’ sex lives can, at least in rare cases, bring it to the fore. “Sleep deprivation can induce hypomania symptoms for those who have that genetic predisposition and that could increase their sex drive,” he says.

Berman raises a much more flattering theory as to why parent advantage exists, despite outdated assumptions—Dads are getting better at their jobs. Research shows that more equitable parenting arrangements are becoming the norm. Studies also suggest that men who embrace this over outdated gender roles have more sex and generally better relationships. “Women are in many ways the sexual gatekeepers,” Berman says. “If he takes the time to help her clean the kitchen, she’ll feel supported.”

For Berman, the stickier myth–the one that came before the idea of the celibate parent and will be harder to blow up–is that a good relationship and sex life don’t take work. Both do, and parents have at least one major additional reason to put the time in.

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