The Surprising Impact of Birth Control on Attraction and Relationships
Although my doctor said it wasn't necessary, I decided to take a break from the Pill after being on it for almost ten years. But after I went off birth control, I noticed a slow—but significant—shift in my attunement to the attractive people in the world, the change being that I began to notice them again.
A couple of months after going off the pill, a very muscular man wearing a shirt with an image of a big strong bear lifting weights (?) nearly took my breath away as he walked into the bank. The fantasy of us making love on the ATM machine took over, and I was called three times before I noticed it was my turn to speak to the teller. I had similar reactions to several attractive people over the next few months, a response I hadn’t had to strangers in years.
As human beings, we like to believe that our decisions result from careful and logical deduction. It makes us uncomfortable to think that biological forces beyond our conscious experience can impact how we think and feel. However, birth control affects the movement of a ton of hormones in our bodies. It only makes sense that it could lead to a shift in our desires, who we are attracted to, and our behavior.
How does birth control actually impact our desires?
Before we get into that, it is important to briefly explain how birth control works. Most people with vulvas go through a natural cycle, which very broadly involves two phases: the conception (follicular) phase and the implantation phase (luteal) phase.
During the conception phase, your body is particularly attuned to sexual cues in the environment, especially more traditionally masculine features. This is when the egg gets implanted, so on some level, you are on a quest for that high-quality sperm. Indeed, some research shows that women are more likely to be attracted to facial masculinity and masculine voice qualities during ovulation and are more likely to look for sex outside of their primary relationship.
During the implantation phase, on the other hand, your body is more attuned to more pregnancy related phenomena in a partner, such as stability and the ability to provide. Basically, the qualities you would want once you have scored solid sperm. Instead of naturally cycling between the phases, you're always in the implantation phase when you are on the pill. The pill tricks your body into thinking you're pregnant all the time, so you don't get pregnant. As a result, folks on the pill may never be attuned to sexiness in the way ovulating folks would be, because their bodies are always acting as if they are in the implantation phase.
Since priorities shift on the pill, it makes sense that our partners could differ, depending on if we're on or off the people when we choose them. Indeed, a study found that folks who chose their partner when they were on the pill were more likely to be satisfied with their partner's financial provisioning and intelligence (important things to care about once you get dat good sperm). However, folks who were off the pill were more sexually attracted to their partner, rated their partner's body as being more attractive, and felt more sexually adventurous in the relationship.
It seems we are more likely to end up with clever, educated, career-oriented people when we are on the pill, but when off the pill, we are more attuned with the raw sexuality of our partners. Neither attunement is wrong, per se, but perhaps being on the pill will make us less likely to bring home Jade from the gym, who eats raw steak and keeps forgetting your name. Actually, some research shows that folks who choose their partner when on the pill are less likely to get divorced than couples who met when off the pill. On the other hand, other research shows the sexual attunement that happens off the pill may result in women choosing a better genetic match (if making babies is in the cards). Ultimately, we deserve to better understand the effect that hormones from the Pill have on our bodies so that we can make more informed decisions in the long-run.
What happens when partnered women go off the pill?
Based on what we know, going off the pill should improve women's sexual relationships. Interestingly, this is only true for those who have sexy partners! Women with husbands rated as more masculine and generally attractive reported increased marital satisfaction when going off the pill. Conversely, women with husbands rated as less conventionally attractive reported decreased marital satisfaction when going off the pill. This makes sense because going off the pill makes us more attuned to sexiness. An increased focus on our partners' attraction can lead to excitement or disappointment, depending on their physical attributes.
It is essential to point out that birth control likely impacts folks of all identities, but perhaps as heterosexual folks are most likely to use the pill to prevent pregnancy, the research thus far has focused chiefly on women's attraction to men. This research in no way suggests that it is unnatural not to be straight. It simply shows that the hormones in birth control seem to impact straight women in this way.
So how do we decide if the pill is right for us?
There is not one correct choice when it comes to birth control. I wish that doctors explained the effect that the pill has on desire and attraction so that we could weigh its costs and benefits more clearly. For many, the benefits of not getting pregnant may be worth the adverse effects of the Pill. For others, losing attunement to the body's attraction signals may lead to adverse effects in the long run.
The issue is, for the most part, we are all going in blind at this point. Doctors rarely mention that the Pill could affect one’s sexuality, despite the growing evidence of a rather large impact. We need as much research and information as possible about the Pill so that each person can make an informed decision about what option is best for them.
To learn more about the impact that birth control can have on your sexuality, mood and your general health check out Your Brain on Birth Control.