Are Birth Control Pills Changing the Mating Game?

By Eliza Strickland | October 7, 2009 6:02 pm

birth-control-pillsTwo researchers have reviewed the body of research on the effects of birth control pills on both women and men’s perceptions of attractiveness, and have come to some provocative conclusions. Women on the pill are less attracted to hyper-masculine men, they found, and don’t show the typical propensity towards men who are genetically dissimilar from themselves. In addition, women on the pill may lack the attractiveness edge that’s associated with ovulation, the study found.

An alarmist, tabloid-esque summary of the findings might read like this: Pill-taking women aren’t hotties, and they pick girlie men who are likely to give them ugly babies. But of course, there’s a lot more complexity to the findings. The contraceptive pill alters monthly fluctuations in hormones associated with the menstrual cycle, mimicking the more stable hormonal conditions associated with pregnancy [New Scientist]. While mounting evidence suggests that having one’s hormonal levels smoothed out in this way alters some of the laws of attraction between men and women, scientists hasten to add that hormones aren’t everything.

The new study (pdf), published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, looked first at research that’s been conducted on women’s preferences for men. Women who aren’t on the pill have shown a preference for certain types of men while they’re ovulating: they prefer men with more traditionally masculine facial features, and have also been shown to prefer the smell of men who are genetically dissimilar (which in humanity’s earlier days, when inbreeding was a danger, would have been an advantage). Women on the pill don’t show these same preferences. But many would argue that personality is a far better way to choose a life partner than what they smell like. One recent study involving speed-dating experiments suggested that although women might say they prefer the scent of men with dissimilar immune systems, this doesn’t correspond with the men they actually chose to go out with [New Scientist].

William Hurd, a reproductive endocrinologist, notes that female preference isn’t the same as mate selection for a long-term relationship. “If you don’t take into account society maybe we’re all animals, but in social situations I don’t think there are many women who change who they would mate with at different times of the month. It might change desires or perceptions but, gee whiz, that’s a long stretch to changing who you would date, or even who you would go to dinner with” [HealthDay News], he says.

Then there’s the idea that women who are on the pill lack an attractiveness edge. The theory goes like this: Over the course of a menstrual cycle, hormonal fluctuation slightly alters woman’s facial appearance, her vocal pitch, even body odor. And during ovulation, those changes increase a woman’s attractiveness because they indicate fertility. While such cues are admittedly subtle, they do get noticed: a study investigating tip earnings by lap dancers showed that earnings varied across menstrual cycles, with ovulating women as the highest earners [Newsweek].

But these findings shouldn’t be too depressing for women on the pill–in the case of the lap-dancing study, researchers found that dancers on the pill earned similar tips to those with normal cycles during the non-fertile periods of their menstrual cycle, suggesting that men found them equally attractive [New Scientist].

The review opens an interesting window into the hormonal basis of our romantic and sexual impulses, but study coauthor insists she doesn’t want her study interpreted as a critique of birth control. “The pill has been fantastic for women in terms of social mobility, choosing whether they want to reproduce,” she says. “That’s really good; we just don’t want to be blind. We want to know of the possible side effects, so then women can make the choice” [Newsweek].

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Image: flickr / nateOne

  • Brian

    Here’s another tabloid-esque summary: The Pill Changed the Mating Game A Long Time Ago Already!

  • John

    I love the recommendation in the study that drug companies marketing the pill be encouraged to conduct studies to prove that these effects exist!!! It’s hard to imagine ANY manager being that dumb! No doubt they’ll keep their heads down and let SOMEONE ELSE prove that women shouldn’t take the things and fight the whinges of the feminists claiming (correctly) that the wicked investigators want to send them all back to the kitchen. Meanwhile, they’ll flog as many as they can, loudly proclaiming their support of women’s rights, and raising the price to pay for the inevitable flock of lawsuits about how I never would have married that bastard if it wasn’t for your damned pill.

  • AJ


    “An alarmist, tabloid-esque summary of the findings might read like this: Pill-taking women aren’t hotties, and they pick girlie men who are likely to give them ugly babies.”

    Then why even bother saying it? You’re only giving them ammo. When did legitimate science magazines start encouraging scientific ignorance like this? That’s a gross oversimplification.

  • Q:How do you make a hormone?

    I buy it. We are so much more biologically driven than some people realize. Younger women look for tough volatile guys. The tough guy could fight off challengers and predators, while providing the most vigorous offspring.

    Cougars on the other hand look for Stable nurturing mates. Mature, grounded men made better providers, while being around to provide a nurturing presence to growing children.

    Dating today is almost a contact sport. The more information you have, the greater chance of getting ahead in.

  • Em

    This is a really interesting study. I used to be on the pill (of course that means I’m not now) and honestly I did prefer “pretty” guys. However I don’t know that wasn’t just a coincidence with my tastes at the time. As I’ve matured I’ve been drawn more toward the more masculine men. I didn’t stop taking the pill though until after I was with such a man. I’m still with him and loving him more every day, so it may then just be a coincidence that I’m finding him more and more attractive as well and not on the pill now. As far as smells go, I used to not like his smell, but that hasn’t been the case since I stopped taking the pill. So I buy what they’re saying.

  • Ian

    A farmer already knows this. Just watch the Bulls and Cows at play.

    The Catholic Church already knows this – Humanae Vitae told everyone this back in 1968, but no one listened.

  • Zachary

    If the game changes, change your game.

  • Andres

    Birth control pills, how will they affect the human evolution in a couple thousand of years. The pill “tells” the female body to slow the menstrual cycle. With time, evolution will kick in, and later on, the female gene will say, “ok, we don’t need the hormones to ovulate anymore,” so the reproductive system will be greatly affected.

    I’m talking about the future, of course non of this could be true; it’s just food for thought.

  • A: Pay her

    The human clitoris is the only organ in nature that doesn’t provide a survival function. The clitoris’ sole purpose is pleasure. Our brain case is so big, that birthing a baby used to be potentially deadly! The clitoris evolved to encourage women to have sex.

    My point is that women on the pill are getting something for nothing, and it isn’t fair. Women on birth control should at least have to carry a brick around with them, or wear an itchy bra.

  • Em

    Getting something for nothing? Yeah I guess we get to have sex without getting pregnant. But I’m sure there are many guys who go around having one night stands and get chicks pregnant and never have to pay for the baby. That’s really fair.
    If we want to be on the pill we have to pay for it, or at least I did. And it’s not exactly cheap.

  • megan

    that research mentioned in newsweek was idiotic. menstruating lap dancers earned less than the ovulating ones because it’s hard to dance sexily with a piece of wadded cotton up your vagina.

  • Helene

    I’m with Em: Better to be on the pill and able to resist ‘Uber-Masculine Badass’ than be saddled with looking after his baby by yourself. –And I take exception to ‘girly-man’: isn’t it more likely that these less masculine guys would be more nurturing of resulting offspring than someone your hormones picked for you, purely to satisfy your own baser instincts? While I’m at it, where did the ugly baby conclusion come from?

  • Em

    I’m guessing some people think that you need a very feminine woman and a very masculine man to produce attractive offspring. Or maybe they’re just saying that if the father is girlie a male child will be girlie and therefore be “ugly”. If that is the case then if you have a daughter, people might say she is more feminine yet she looks like her father… Actually that last notion is pretty funny.

  • Ed Foster

    Scent has a lot to do with it, both obvious and pheromonal. Consider.

    Most of a woman’s pheromone transmission is from the scalp. The lady tucks her head into the gentleman’s shoulder and thinks how comfortable she is in his arms. The message her scalp is sending to him is “Mount me, breed me, and die for me”.

    A man’s pheromone transmitters are divided between his armpits (fresh sweat, before microbes change it into something stinky) and his saliva. Catholic girls, remember when Sister Mary Brutal told you French kissing could get you pregnant? She was on to something.

    It has been argued that we are pre-wired for adultery, and are only able to avoid it by accepting the fact and consiously struggling with it. Go back to the small village group virtually all human beings lived in for almost all of human history. It is hardly new information that a woman’s sex drive peaks during her fertile period and wanes closer to her “time of the month”.

    Pre pill, most women had their menstruation at around the time of the full moon. I suspect that had something to do with the origin of the term lunatic. Also, non pill using women sharing most of the day together syncronise their menstrual cycles, the so-called Dorm Effect.

    Why the full moon? What happens two weeks, half a menstrual cycle, after the full moon?

    The new moon. The darkest time of the month. The dominant male in the group has much greater access to the ladies in the group, all or most of whom are fertile, while their hormonal urges are peaking. Given the close degree of kinship within a small group, physical appearance wouldn’t matter appreciably in the offspring.

    Access, the period of darkness, and a greater chance of the women’s mates being out hunting or feuding after the harvest, all increase during winter. Hypothesis?

    Perhaps nature’s way of making up for hunting and battlefield deaths among young men. Individuals compete for mates, and the competition produces better individuals. Or at least fewer maladapted ones for the culture they live in.

    Cultures also compete, but the competition has a real cost to the gene pool that has to be made good.

    What does all this anthropology have to do with us today? Don’t we have options available to us our ancestors didn’t?

    I suspect the use of birth control increases at least arithmetically with the increase in income and education. Put another way, more “accidents” the farther down the social ladder you go. Natural selection for the most aggresive male at the bottom, none at all at the top. Remember, half the people in the world are subnormal.

    After two or three generations of pill usage, we end up with a middle and upper class containing a much greater proportion of sensitive, rather feminized men, depending on law enforcement to protect them from the increasingly macho and aggressive males at the bottom of society.

    Add in cultural values that reenforce the genetic changes happening in society. The protectivist, collectivist form of government is most attractive to women and feminized men.

    In North America, Europe or Asia, the socialist or quasi-socialist parties gather a majority of their votes from women. The only female subset in the United States that consistently votes majority Republican is married women with children, presumably because they see a strong national defense and a program heavy in law and order as protective of their children. All other female groups vote strongly Democrat.

    Middle and upper class urban life puts a premium on moderate, considerate behavior and compromise. Is it an accident that all combat units in the U.S. military are 100% male, 99% white, and drawn overwhelmingly from rural areas of the deep south and rocky mountain west?

    Virtually the only group outside those areas that enlists in serious numbers in combat arms are blue collar Irish Catholics. A fighting army of cowboys, crackers, and cops, supported by a noncombattant supply train drawn from the ghettoes and barrios.

    Other than African-American truck drivers and supply clerks, everybody in the military votes Republican, a fact the Democratic party has attempted to use to it’s favor in numerous elections, by trying to disqualify as many votes as possible in majority military districts.

    Google up a Federal election results map of the United States by county and you will quickly see we are two very seperate and different peoples. The Democratic party exists as a viable force only in major urban areas, predominantly along the coasts and Great Lakes.

    I wonder how much of the difference is genetic, and given the disparity in birth rates in those same urban areas, I wonder how fast that difference is accelerating?

  • Hi Gene!

    Yeah Em, you’re right. Men can have sex without responsibilities. Babies, HPV, and 30 plus years of “wadded cotton up your vagina”..Its like you are carrying a brick already. I dated a girl once who had bacterial vaginitis (shudder). I had to break up with her when my pee stream got cloudy and clumpy. I got an infected ingrown hair on my taint too. When I finally popped it, the revolting odor made me puke in the sink. I felt like I gave birth to a premie thru my taint. An evil, rancid, greenish premie.

  • fuggy

    My husband notices when I ovulate. I throw out hormones, apparently, at night. Or I smell attractive. I notice when I ovulate. I have erotic dreams and am, very attractively for my husband, randier than usual.
    My point is that ovulation is an important part of my marriage.
    It is hard to believe that women and men deny themselves this instinctual, sexy part of their lives by taking the pill.

    I can see a “sensible” dual career couple marrying, the wife steadily on the pill, and the husband feeling something is missing. Duh.

    And the $25,000 a cycle trips to the fertility clinic and breast cancer treatment…not sure why men put up with that. Not even the second income from the conception-proof woman is worth that. JMHO.

  • Angie

    No offence intended, but the birth control pill is only one of many items, that can be used for the achievement of birth control (but surely, you can still receive HIV from your loving husband/fiance/boyfriend, if you only take the birth control pill… there are more women, than you might think, who ended up like that…). Ever heard of condoms?! I still think that´s the best (and a hundred percent Aids and Hepatitis C free!) solution!

  • Tyson Pelt

    dude! Youre not human, you a god!

  • Jo

    Is there a pill on the market thats doesn’t block pheromones?

  • RedReb

    What about the fact that for many cultures and many centuries women didn’t pick their husbands. Their families did. And, adultry hasn’t always been an option. How did social customs change the mating game? Did mom or dad smell the potential mate?

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  • Martin

    “What about the fact that for many cultures and many centuries women didn’t pick their husbands. Their families did. And, adultry hasn’t always been an option. How did social customs change the mating game? Did mom or dad smell the potential mate?”

    If this had proven relevant to our genome and biological development, we wouldn’t have pheromones. Your example obviously hasn’t changed anything.

  • david

    I don’t care what the study found, there is no possible way you can measure or even notice the phenotypical effects ovulation has on a woman or measure men’s attraction during different time periods of her ovulation.

    So if Charlize Theron were on the pill, the study is saying they can empirically measure the variations of how attractive she is to men? Please.

    This is junk science.


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