Does the Pill Impact Attraction?
by Emily Macke
A new study calls into question how women’s attraction to men might be changed by the birth control pill.
LiveScience.com reported the findings from the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which published the study in November 2014. The study found that women who were taking hormonal birth control while dating their future husband became less satisfied with their marriages after they stopped taking the Pill.
The study had a relatively small sample: 48 couples were followed for four years of marriage, and 70 couples were followed for one year. Researchers asked the couples questions about their marital and sexual satisfaction. Third-party judges were asked to rate the attractiveness of the husbands’ faces based on photographs.
Women whose husbands were rated less attractive than average reported lower satisfaction when they were no longer taking hormonal birth control. Conversely, women whose husbands were considered more attractive reported being more satisfied after they stopped taking the Pill.
Michelle Russell, a graduate student in psychology at Florida State University and the study’s leader, said, “Given that women [tend to] prioritize attractiveness differently when they are on versus off [hormonal contraceptives], I thought that going on or off [hormonal contraceptives] should affect how happy they are with their partner.”
In a Health.com article about the same study, Russell explained that hormonal birth control appears to impact how much a woman values facial attractiveness. “Previous research has demonstrated that women’s mate preferences change across their ovulatory cycles,” she said. “Many forms of hormonal contraception weaken the hormonal processes that are associated with these shifts in preferences.”
The findings suggest that women who have natural menstrual cycles are more intrigued by good looks, said Russell. When women are no longer taking the birth control pill, they react more strongly (positively or negatively) to their husband’s looks.
The study suggests that hormonal birth control might mask the way women perceive men. Past studies have discovered similar results, including a 2013 study that found women on the Pill prefer less masculine-looking men.
Russell admits that the study’s design makes it difficult to prove conclusively that hormonal birth control caused changes in women’s satisfaction, though the researchers ruled out some major factors. “In particular, we were able to control for several other factors that might affect wives’ marital satisfaction, such as whether or not she was pregnant, whether or not she was trying to get pregnant and her husband’s marital satisfaction,” Russell said.
The long term nature of the study, according to Russell, boosts the researchers’ confidence in the accuracy of the findings.
The study has raised more questions for Russell to research in the future. She said she is interested in how different levels of estrogen, according to various brands of the Pill, might lead to different results. Russell also noted that starting hormonal birth control after a relationship had begun did not affect satisfaction – another question for researchers to explore.
Overall, Russell’s findings suggest that there is more to hormonal birth control than preventing pregnancy. Romantic relationships and marriage are impacted by the Pill in ways researchers are continuing to explore.
About the author
Emily Macke serves as Theology of the Body Education Coordinator at Ruah Woods in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her Master’s in Theological Studies at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, and her undergraduate degree in Theology and Journalism at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Emily shares the good news of the Catholic faith through writing, media appearances and speaking opportunities, which she has done on three continents. She and her husband Brad live in southeast Indiana.