Most women know all too well that being on birth control means having to put up with a few side effects, including potential weight gain, nausea, and mood changes. However, fewer women are probably aware of the fact that the pill might also be affecting their sex lives. For instance, research suggests that the pill may alter the types of guys women find attractive. Perhaps even more important, some recent media reports have claimed that women on the pill are doomed to a lifetime of bad sex. Could this really be true? Is the pill putting a damper on women’s sexual fulfillment?
Before we address that, let’s review some basic female physiology. A woman’s ability to conceive children is highest when she’s ovulating (i.e., when one of her ovaries releases an egg). During ovulation, women undergo a series of hormonal changes that prepare their bodies internally for possible pregnancy and modify their observable mating behaviors in several ways. Because birth control pills work to prevent ovulation, women who are on the pill do not experience these same hormonal and behavioral shifts. This is why the sexual and romantic lives of women on the pill are different from those of "naturally cycling" women (i.e., women who refrain from using the pill and other birth control methods that alter their hormone levels).
Let’s talk first about the pill’s implications for the types of guys that heterosexual women are attracted to. Naturally cycling women find different types of men sexy depending upon where they are in their cycle; when they are ovulating, they report greater attraction to “manly” men (i.e., guys with deep voices and chiseled faces).1 In other words, ovulating women are likely to find George Clooney and James Bond-type men especially hot. Evolutionary psychologists reason that it was adaptive for women to swoon for masculine dudes when they are most fertile because these guys are likely to provide the best genetic material for baby-making. However, these guys aren’t necessarily the most reliable partners in the long-run (you know how every Bond movie turns out, right?), so during the other parts of their cycle, women tend to search for less macho-looking men who are perceived to be a bit more dependable. Thus, when they aren’t ovulating, women tend to be more attracted to the Zac Efrons of the world (i.e., guys with more rounded and feminine faces).
In contrast, the mate preferences of women on the pill remain pretty stable and they do not show that same cyclical preferences for masculinity. The result of this is that women on the pill ultimately seem to pick partners who are more reliable and their relationships tend to last longer than those of naturally cycling women.2 Score one for the pill.
Research has found sexual downsides to oral contraceptives, however, and one is that the pill may lead women to select male partners who are less physically attractive and/or less able to meet their sexual needs. In fact, women on the pill report less attraction to their partners as well as less sexual satisfaction compared to naturally cycling women.2 This is not to say that women on the pill are necessarily having “bad” sex, as several media outlets have erroneously reported (see here or here for incorrect characterizations of this research). Women on the pill are, on balance, more satisfied than unsatisfied—they just do not report having sex that is quite as good as naturally cycling women. Of importance, there is no difference in frequency of orgasm during sex regardless of whether women are taking the pill. Thus, although it may make sex a little less satisfying than usual, the pill does not seem to take all of the fun out of making love.
As you can see, birth control pills may have effects that reach much further than many of us ever thought possible. But how far do they go? Check out our article discussing the pill’s effects on the amount of money a woman can earn from a night of dancing in a gentlemen's club...
1Gangestad, S. W., Thornhill, R., & Garver-Apgar, C. E. (2005). Adaptations to ovulation: Implications for sexual and social behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 312-316.
2Roberts, C. S., Klapilova, K., Little, A. C., Burriss, R. P., Jones, B. C., DeBruine, L. M., Petrie, M., & Havlicek, J. (in press). Relationship satisfaction and outcome in women who meet their partner while using oral contraception. Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lehmiller's research program focuses on how secrecy and stigmatization impact relationship quality and physical and psychological health. He also conducts research on commitment, sexuality, and safer-sex practices.