Can the pill actually change your taste in partner?
The contraceptive pill has not been short of controversy since its inception over 50 years ago. While it has liberated millions of women sexually, finally giving them control over their own reproductive systems, it has also been blamed for causing problems including depression, blood clots, weight gain and loss of libido, to name but a few.
On top of that, a quick Google search yields headlines that tell you the pill can even change who you find attractive. Or can it? Since the early 2000s a new study comes out every two years or so, lambasting the pill for causing everything from a change in taste in sexual partner to outright divorce. But should we really be taking much notice?
A 2008 article on Scientific American opened with, “This year 2.25 million Americans will get married —and a million will get divorced. Could birth control be to blame for some of these breakups?” Another, on Medical Daily in 2014, read, “Women on the pill tend to choose men who are less attractive and worse in bed.” Aside from the fact that attractiveness is surely subjective and nigh on impossible to measure, such statements could work to actively put people off from taking a hormonal contraception. So what are these claims, and should we be taking them with a pinch of salt?
First things first — what about attracting, or choosing, a partner in the first place? Studies in mice, including a 1999 study from the University of Utah, have shown that they tend to sniff out mates who have different immunity genes to their own, thus insuring that their offspring will be healthy. When this study is recreated with humans however, women on the contraceptive pill chose men whose genes were actually similar to their own. On top of this, a 2004 study revealed that men sniffing the t-shirts of females rated sexual attractiveness highest when the women had worn the t-shirts at midcycle, that is around the time of ovulation. Women smelling the t-shirts of other women couldn’t seem to differentiate between different times of the cycle. Neither sex were able to rate attractiveness according to the cycle stage of the pill users.
So does this mean that women on the pill will not only choose men with similar immune systems to their own, but also that men aren’t attracted to pill users or women who are already taking the contraceptive pill when they meet? It’s unlikely, of course. For one, odour isn’t the only thing that comes into play when people seek out a potential partner. This is something that is particularly unique to humans, and a limitation of these studies that has been noted by biologists. Dr Diana Mansour, Vice President of the Faculty for Sexual and Reproductive Health, is skeptical about such studies. “Sexual attraction isn’t just based on smell,” she says, “and the actual science behind these studies is fairly thin. There isn’t very much evidence when it comes to studies trying to analyse smells and attractiveness.”
In the t-shirt smelling experiment, only eighty-two women wore t-shirts, and 31 male and 12 female raters were involved in smelling them — which probably isn’t really a big enough sample of people/ Given that some people have met their life-partners on a sweaty, smoky, boozy dance floor, smell is perhaps neither here nor there.
Adding to previous research, however, a 2009 study reviewed all the evidence suggesting that women who are ovulating prefer “manly” men to others — meaning that taking the oral contraceptive pill might alter mate choice by removing this mid-cycle change in preference.
Researchers deduced that in the previous decade more than 75 per cent of studies investigating partner preferences have shown that women do seek particular characteristics when fertility peaks. They also concluded that the pill may have a “non-negligible” impact when it comes to mating decisions. But again, is this something that is really a cause for concern? Using pill-takers and non-pill takers doesn’t take into account any difference in preference that the subjects had before either group started taking the pill. At this stage, the research can surely only be speculative.
Taste in sexual partner aside, what are the other side effects that studies have thrown up over the years? Loss of libido is one of them. A 2010 study analysed 1,046 medical students who used a single type of birth control and who had been sexually active during the previous four weeks. Those who scored highest on sexual function were those who used non-hormonal contraceptives. But, of course, the results show association but not causality and, as ever, researchers acknowledged that there was still much more research to be done.
“If you talk to women they do feel more sexually attractive around ovulation, but there is very little in the way of good quality research suggesting hormonal contraception affects sex and libido,” says Dr Mansour. “However, it can in individual women, of course. What we really need is to conduct studies when people don’t know what they’re taking, and measuring the effects then.”
In any case, a 2016 study emerged proclaiming exactly the opposite, and the headlines gladly shouted that no, the pill won’t actually kill your sexual desire. This research looked at three different types of contraception, a mixture of hormonal and non-hormonal, and studied their impact on the desire in heterosexual relationships of varying lengths of time. The results showed that there were large differences in the way that contraceptives affected women’s desire — both when they were alone and within their relationships. Interestingly, those on non-hormonal contraceptives reported higher desire on their own, whereas those taking hormonal contraceptives felt higher desire when they were with a partner. More interestingly still, when the results were adjusted to take into account the age of the participants and the length of relationships, the differences were no longer significant. The conclusion drawn in this study: “contextual factors”, and not contraception has the biggest impact on female sexual desire.
Overall, the evidence really isn’t strong enough to prove anything either way, so people shouldn’t go panicking they’ve fallen for the wrong-smelling partner quite yet. As Dr Mansour points out, the actual differences between people who take the contraceptive pill and people who don’t is incredibly small in all the studies. “Three and a half million people are taking the pill in the UK at the moment,” she says. “The numbers haven’t changed much over the years, and many women have actually found that being able to take the pill has revolutionised their lives. Some women feel much better on the pill.”
So should we worry about the studies? What if some feelings or symptoms we have been having do match up to what has supposedly be proven by a study?
“I think there are always idiosyncratic things that can happen to certain people,” says Dr Mansour. “But with most of the studies there has been no control — the women have known what they’re taking so it doesn’t really prove much.” According to Dr Mansour, there are always going to be a small number of women who find that the pill doesn’t suit them. “The key thing is for us to recognise that there needs to be a choice of methods available,” she adds. “For some women, the best type of contraceptive will be a non-hormonal one.”