Could the oral contraceptive pill be controlling who its users fall for?
Women have been given greater control over their fertility and future since the introduction of the oral contraceptive pill in the 1960’s. Today, 80% of women around the world have taken the Pill sometime during their lifespan. So it is to no one’s surprise that studies exploring this infamous pill are continuously being published. Many are, however, coming to the same, easy conclusion: the Pill affects women’s mate preferences and could ultimately affect the quality and outcome of long-term relationships. Should we be worried or are researchers jumping to conclusions?
Shifts in sexual attraction
Sexual attraction underlies the basic biological drive in human mate choice by raising one’s sexual desire for someone with particular physical and/or non-physical traits. When most fertile, around the time of ovulation, naturally cycling heterosexual women (ie. pill non-users) tend to be drawn to more assertive, masculine-looking men with a masculine voice. From an evolutionary perspective, a higher level of masculinity is thought to reflect better reproductive value. Hormonal oral contraceptives abolish these natural preferences.
The hormonal status of pill users is often described as mimicking that of pregnant women. The combined Pill contains both oestrogen and progestogen which smoothen out fluctuations in hormonal levels normally required for ovulation. Less masculine-looking men, who have lower testosterone levels, are thought to be more faithful to their partners and are supposedly the preferred choice of mate for pregnant women and for women in their low fertility phase of the menstrual cycle. It has therefore been suggested that pill users tend to pick less masculine-looking partners and may become less attracted to them if they stop taking the Pill, ultimately leading to relationship dissatisfaction.
Pill to blame?
Last month, a research team led by psychologist Dr Craig Roberts of the University of Stirling in Scotland recruited heterosexual women who were either taking or not taking the Pill when they met their current male partner. The authors found that the partners of pill users had less-masculine faces when compared to partners of non-users. In an earlier study consisting of online surveys, the same research team showed that pill users were less attracted to and less satisfied with their partners than non-users, but were more satisfied with non-sexual aspects of the relationship such as financial support and were more likely to stay with their partner. This altered sexual attraction is so strong that Dr Craig Roberts has even gone so far as to advise women to stop taking the Pill before committing long-term to a partner to ensure they are making the right decision.
It has even been proposed that the Pill is to blame for the shift in women’s taste from the very masculine-looking 1950’s and 1960’s icons such as Sean Connery and Kirk Douglas to the more feminine-looking stars of today like Zac Efron and Ryan Gosling. But this shift in society’s ideal man could just as likely be due to the vast improvements in gender equality. Perhaps metrosexuality is becoming the new masculinity.
So keep in mind, correlation does not = cause. The designs of these studies cannot show a causal link between oral contraceptive use and sexual attraction. Sexual attraction is a complex phenomenon which involves not only multiple hormones but also personal values, upbringing, environment and personality. Pill users have been shown to have more lifetime partners than others. Although it is unclear whether this is the cause or consequence of oral contraceptive use, it may be possible that pill users and non-users differ with regards to their willingness to engage in casual sex. Or perhaps they differ with regards to their socio-economic status.
The majority of studies have tried to overcome these confounding factors by implementing a within-subject design. This means that women’s mate preferences are recorded both before and after taking the Pill versus women who take a placebo. However, due to ethical reasons, the women cannot be blindly assigned to a group so they decide themselves which group they would like to be allocated to. Of course, this does not eliminate pill-related confounding factors such as mating strategy and personality.
Pro’s and cons
Studies surrounding this subject area need to be interpreted cautiously, but they are nonetheless interesting. And we must keep in mind the numerous benefits the invention of the Pill has brought us. These include women’s control of their own fertility, the facilitation of women’s long-term educational and career plans and also health benefits such as decreased risk of developing ovarian and endometrial cancer. It still needs to be elucidated whether the benefits outweigh the negatives, the latter of which include the reported altered sexual attraction, reduced libido, increased risk of developing breast cancer and, when combined with smoking, increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Taking oral contraceptives is a personal choice and, until more in depth studies are carried out, it is up to the individual whether the benefits override the negatives.
Photo: lookcatalog / Flickr
Little AC, Burriss RP, Petrie M, Jones BC, & Roberts SC (2013). Oral contraceptive use in women changes preferences for male facial masculinity and is associated with partner facial masculinity. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 38 (9), 1777-85 PMID: 23528282
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