If there are sexual problems that arise from women’s financial ascendancy, my interviews suggest that they may be more likely to emerge in existing relationships, when women find themselves outperforming partners in a way that puts men off or makes the women uncomfortable. Contrary to the idea that men are the ones who want sex, and think about sex, and have to have sex all the time, quite a few breadwomen confided that they were eager to have sex with their husbands and partners, but found to their dismay and confusion that their partners had become unwilling to have sex with them. This is one of the most painful problems female breadwinners face in their personal lives. Sometimes, men became uninterested after suffering job losses and setbacks that made them depressed and self-doubting; sometimes the men felt jealous and competitive.
Just as women are said to do, men in some cases withheld sex strategically as way of exerting what power they felt they still had. The problem for these women was not a surfeit of men who were willing to have sex with but not commit to them; the problem was men who had already committed and now didn’t want to have sex. For a woman, it is very hard to hear all the time about how sex-crazy and always ready men are, and to find that this is not at all the case in her own bedroom with her own partner.
This was the case for a woman named Felicity, a high-level executive at a major IT provider, where, thanks to salary and stock options, she amassed a substantial nest egg by her late thirties. Felicity didn’t want children, but she did want a mate and thought she had found the perfect one in a gregarious salesman who patiently wooed her. He made $75,000 a year; she made three or four times what he did; he was a recovering alcoholic; none of this was a problem for her. She loved him. They married. Golf was a joint passion. She paid for trips abroad to play the links in Europe. But even as her husband enjoyed the lifestyle her money could buy, he grew to resent it. He started working less and playing golf more, and when she came home stressed from her workday, he wasn’t supportive. She won a big contract and got a nice bonus and he wasn’t congratulatory. “He thought that was going to take me away from him even more. He got angry and distant when I was telling him about our win. It was a multimillion-dollar contract, but he wasn’t happy for me. He shut down.”
Worse, Felicity’s husband took to staying up at night watching TV instead of coming to bed with her, yet behaved with exaggerated charm toward other women. Felicity was no longer attractive to him, but apparently every other woman in the world was. “We couldn’t go into a restaurant without him gawking or flirting.” So in a way it was no surprise when she found the cache of pornography on his computer. She ended up going into therapy over his addiction to online porn. “The therapist said he’s doing that because he’s insecure—it makes him feel more manly. I am filling the traditional male role of the primary breadwinner, so he’s going to pornography, or flirting excessively with women—you know, searching the Internet, Facebook, too.”
I had a similar conversation with Jessica, a law student whose boyfriend celebrated—at first—when she scored higher than he did on the LSATs. He seemed less enthusiastic when she got into a more prestigious law school than he did, and made law review when he didn’t. As she continued surpassing him, he had a harder time handling it. “He was wincing as I got good news. Me beating him on getting onto the law journal was the thing that really hurt. He just had this ‘ouch’ look on his face. He was kind of cold and detached and didn’t want to talk about it,” said Jessica. After her law review triumph, her boyfriend went on a trip to South Africa, and there appeared on his Facebook page a photo of him kissing a woman he met there. He later took a trip to Moscow, and when he came back there were messages from another woman, whose photos showed her gauzy and sunlit in a field of flowers. “I was really surprised that he was having these pseudo-emotional flings,” said Jessica, who eventually ended the relationship. Her boyfriend wanted to move in together—he wanted to commit to her—but she had this uneasy feeling that even if part of him was attracted to a woman who was lawyerly and challenging, another part wasn’t. “He sought out these girls who massaged his ego.”
For some men—I would argue—it may be more appealing to have sex with a stranger on the street than with a woman you are close to who seems to be surpassing you. And in fact, a new study suggests this is the case, contributing to the idea that men may be the ones sexually disadvantaged by the new state of affairs. Lamar Pierce, the business professor at Washington University in St. Louis who is interested in the psychic fallout of salary comparison, teamed up with a Danish researcher, Michael Dahl of Aalborg University, to explore how such comparison affects intimate partners. In Denmark, the researchers were granted access to an anonymous social security database that can link a person’s salary to a list of medications prescribed to that person. Searching the records of married couples, they found that men whose wives earned more than they did were more likely to take medication for erectile dysfunction.
Like many raw findings, this data could be interpreted in a number of ways. It could be that the men earning less than their wives had an underlying health problem to begin with. To control for this—to make sure there was a causal relationship between a man’s relative earnings and his sexual potency—the authors refined their search, looking only at marriages where men earned slightly less than their wives, and at men who earned slightly more. That’s because populations to either side of a dividing line tend to have similar characteristics. They found the disparity still held true. Even men who earned slightly less appeared to have impotence issues, compared to men who earned slightly more. (Of course, it could also be that the men found their wife’s earnings so arousing that they wanted to have sex all the time, and sought an extra boost, but . . . well, let’s just table that idea.) Talking about the study in an interview, Pierce surmised that the men were comparing their salary numbers to those of their wives—an “unexpected shock”—and this was affecting them physiologically. His intuition is supported by the choice of words that the blogger Aaron Gouveia, writing on the Good Men Project website, used when describing his elation at landing a job that enabled him to outearn his wife. “I felt like walking into the kitchen, unzipping my pants and unfurling my manhood on the kitchen table next to my offer letter.” It’s affirmed by another blog post, this one by writer Gail Konop Baker, who wrote on The Huffington Post about how many women she knows are reveling in their success, emotionally and sexually, but find that men are put off. The “first man I dated after separating from my husband while initially thrilled that I wanted sex as much if not more than he did, wanted less as the relationship progressed,” she wrote. “Soon my daily drive outpaced his.”