How Does The Pill Affect Our Relationships?

Six recent studies remind us that the questions surrounding the pill aren't solely political.

by Rachel Friedman

It's been a heady 2012 for the birth-control pill. In the last few weeks alone, we've witnessed the vitriol-spewing Rush Limbaugh call health-care advocates "sluts" and "prostitutes," and the clueless Santorum donor Foster Friess suggest that women hold aspirin between their thighs for contraception. Classy stuff.

While we're all endlessly debating rights that every woman should already have, it's easy to overlook the fact that nearly four in ten women say they're not completely satisfied with their current birth-control method. Side effects, difficulty of use, worries about effectiveness, and reduced sexual pleasure are just some of the many reasons women give for their dissatisfaction. A March 2011 online survey of 2000 women in their twenties and thirties showed that more than two in three women using hormonal birth control have considered changing their current method, and one in three have considered doing so within the past year.

All this public bickering has distracted us from the more personal dialogue that would actually benefit women. And the reasons some of us are unhappy on the pill are very personal indeed: accumulating scientific studies reveal that the potent synthetic hormones more than ten-million women take every day (and which four out of five have taken at some point in our lives) have a big impact on our romantic relationships. Here's what we know so far.

1. The pill changes what women look for in men.

Source: "Relationship satisfaction and outcome in women who meet their partner while using oral contraception" (2011)

In plain English: Women taking the pill when they met their partners were more likely to remain in the relationship than those who weren't. Those who weren't on the pill tended to start relationships with partners who were better-looking and better in bed, but those relationships ended faster. (Insert cynical joke here.) In contrast, women on the pill sought partners who were less physically attractive, but more financially stable.

2. The pill may reduce frequency of sex and arousal.

Source: As-yet unpublished Indiana University study (2011)

In plain English: This study of 1100 women found that using hormonal birth control was associated with less frequent sex, and less frequent feelings of arousal and pleasure. "A great effort has been made to make condoms more pleasurable for men," said Nicole Smith, project coordinator at IU's Center for Sexual Health Promotion. "But you don't hear about this same effort going toward reducing the negative impact of contraception on women's sexual functioning. It's just not part of the discussion." (So don't worry about getting pregnant, because you won't want to have sex on the pill, anyway.)

3. The pill can alter the signals women send to men.

Source"Does the contraceptive pill alter mate choice in humans?" (2009)

In plain English: Throughout our menstrual cycles, hormonal fluctuation can alter our facial appearance, body odor, and vocal pitch. The changes we undergo during ovulation indicate our fertility. Men can actually sense those changes — and they prefer fertile ladies. The pill inhibits ovulation, so those who take it aren't emitting the same "yes, get over here and impregnate me" signals. Science writer Jena Pincott tells The Daily Beast that the problem's not just about men's subconscious perceptions; women's behavior changes too. "Around ovulation, we're more likely to dress provocatively and be more easily aroused. That's attractive to the opposite sex, and the pill diminishes some of that edge." (Maybe try going out with a group of girlfriends on higher doses of the pill, so that, by comparison, you'll seem the most fertile and attractive? Yes, that'll work.)

4. Women's pheromonal instincts are altered by the pill.

Paper: "MHC-correlated odour preferences in humans and the use of oral contraceptives" (2008)

In plain English: Scent matters. And what ladies learn when subtly sniffing our dates at the end of the night (what? you don't do that?) are important hints about compatibility. In particular, we uncover information about the guy's major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes. We prefer MHC genes different from ours. Evolutionarily speaking, this makes sense. After all, you don't want to marry a relative — not only because it's icky but also because your kids will have stronger immune systems if you don't. But it turns out women on the pill seem to like partners with similar genes. You may be in for some serious Greek tragedy shit.

5. The pill prevents you from going into sexual heat (which exists, incidentally).

Paper: "Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap dancers: economic evidence for human estrus?" (2007)

In plain English: Other mammals go into heat ("estrus," if you want to get technical), but humans don't, right? Wrong, according to this study. Over the course of 5,300 lap dances, strippers anonymously reported both their earnings and their menstrual status to the authors of this study. Women who were off the pill made significantly more money, especially when they were ovulating. Women on the pill made significantly less than those with a natural cycle, and had no peak-earning periods. So that moneymaker you're shaking so vigorously won't make you as much money if you're on the pill.

6. The pill raises levels of hormones that might not be very good for you.

Paper: "Impact of oral contraceptives on sex hormone-binding globulin and androgen levels: a retrospective study in women with sexual dysfunction" (2006)

In plain English: Women's sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) levels were tested after six months off the pill. Higher levels of SHBG may put women at increased risk for sexual problems. Those who had gone off the pill had levels nearly double those who had never taken the pill. Ladies still taking the pill had even higher levels. It's unclear whether the effects are eventually reversible.

 

So what's a responsible pregnancy-preventing lady to do? Some researchers suggest that if you met your partner while taking the pill, you should take him for an off-the-pill test drive. There's also the IUD, which is rising in popularity again. Or you can stick with condoms, or hold out hope for that male birth-control pill that seems forever on the horizon. Whatever women decide, though, should be about what's best for us — not what's best for politicians trying to climb the polls like strippers in estrus.

Got the whole birth-control thing sorted out? Then now's a good time to head for Nerve Dating.

Commentarium (38 Comments)

Mar 08 12 - 1:55am
meoww

took me 7 months to fully recover my libido after being on the pill for a mere 3 months... never ever again...

Mar 08 12 - 3:50pm
KH

Same here. But now my libido has come back with a vengeance, and my poor husband is, um, adjusting. ;)

Mar 08 12 - 7:53am
dr

Way to mention none of the positive side-effects: less uterine and ovarian cancer. Also: you don't need to worry about getting pregnant.
That said, I'd go with an IUD

Mar 08 12 - 6:58pm
Kitty-Maus

I do appreciate this response. Everyone forgets the POSITIVE about it. Less acne, no random bleeding & lighter flow, and it actually balances my hormones which is great for people with anxiety or various levels of depression. I was having periods 2 times a month and losing a TON of iron and taking the pill has really not changed my sexual desires nor has it changed what I seek in a man. I've been dating the same type of guy even before I started the pill. So while it might effect some you can NOT lump every single woman into what the pill does to her into one category. Medicine effects every person differently.

Mar 10 12 - 1:49am
cariboo

Meds definitely effect people differently, and because people are constantly changing, what worked six months ago might be totally different tomorrow or in five years. I've been looking for an article like this for ages... It seems to me that everyone forgets the NEGATIVE aspects about HBC. I've switched pills three times, and when I started the pill for the first time, nobody told me about the potential for anxiety problems, depression, nosediving libido etc. The combination of the above (plus, the fact that acne rediscovered my face after seven years!) has made me a not so happy camper. Somebody needs to come up with the HBC for guys or make some improvements to the pill, because I love my man, and we're both getting pretty sick of my newfound insanity and lack of libido.

Mar 08 12 - 8:50am
EAK

I wish studies like the ones cited above would specifiy if they apply to combined pills or the POP - I could be wrong, but I think there's a significant difference in the way that these two types of hormonal contraceptives work.

Mar 11 12 - 12:58am
ynm

I've only read one of the articles so far but they did specify what type of birth control they were testing. The article on changing mate preference looked only at combination birth control and the progestegon only pill users were excluded from the data. Scientific papers will always have to specify that sort of thing, I can't imagine it not being there.

Mar 08 12 - 12:13pm
Nicci

Fascinating!! I know of many women who've gone off the pill because of concerns about fertility, but this complicates things even further. And I'm assuming a male birth-control pill would have similar repercussions. Well researched, Rachel!

Mar 08 12 - 12:28pm
Johnson

My girlfriend has a low, and i mean low sex drive and i never once thought it had to with the pill and it has caused quite a bit of problems between us. Feelings ranging from questions of infidelity to issues with attractiveness, we have gone through the whole thing but i never quite thought it could be this?
Also i know in the past 2 years she has been developing (benign) cysts on her Fallopian tubes and she had never had any histories with things like this, so maybe all these things are intertwined?!

Mar 08 12 - 1:55pm
Sarah

After a pregnancy scare my boyfriend convinced me to go on the pill. I stayed on it for 2 months and it was the worst 2 months ever. My emotions were crazy and I would cry and get angry over the smallest things. Also I think I maybe had sex once the entire time I was on the pill. Yeah the pill prevents pregnancy because it takes away all desire to have sex, and makes you miserable. I will never go on it again.

Mar 08 12 - 4:44pm
OH

I've been on the pill for close to 13 years and I've never had a problem with it. I'm just as horny now as when I was a teenager.

Mar 13 12 - 10:40am
LV

Ditto! 8 years and counting

Mar 08 12 - 5:06pm
anon

This is a great article and Nerve should post more like it. Actually relevant, interesting journalism on an overlooked/under-appreciated aspect of a topic. Good work

Mar 09 12 - 5:08pm
N.

I was basically going to say the same thing! So instead, I'll just say: I heartily agree.

Mar 08 12 - 5:22pm
peregrina1

I have heard all of these stats a thousand times over, and they initially scared me from going on The Pill even though I needed to go on it for hormonal purposes. I eventually went on it, a monophasic one. I have found that people hit on me more, and I have a higher libido since taking it. Maybe this study didn't take into account how many of those strippers and other women had already been in long-term relationships when they started the pill, and perhaps were already sexually bored in their relationship. In the case of the strippers, maybe they felt a sexual allegiance to their partner and didn't feel turned on by their customers. Just a thought, and I know I'm in the minority but the minority still has a voice.

Mar 11 12 - 10:15pm
G

While I suppose it's suppose, that's a great deal of "maybe"s, and my guess is those factors were at least partially accounted for.

Mar 08 12 - 8:46pm
Laura

I love the pill. My skin is fantastic and glows, and I barely get periods. I've actually found that more men approach me or flirt with me since I've been on the pill more than before I was on it. And my sex drive is unaffected.

Mar 08 12 - 9:52pm
j

this article is sexist and makes it seem like women's whole existence/happiness is based on hunting down the right dude to fuck. ew.

Mar 09 12 - 3:59pm
Taelor

Most women, like most men, do consider finding a romantic partner to be one of the main goals of their lives. If you're going to do it, you want to do it right.

Mar 08 12 - 10:14pm
Nell

I have to say, I LOVE my HBC--it really solved a lot of (annoying but not life threatening) health issues I was having, gives me peace of mind and certainly doesn't seem to be messing with my libido. But I have an awesome doctor who worked with me to find the right brand and tried different ones until we found one that works--I know that HBC is just not right for some women, but people have to realize that there's a big range of hormone levels and other factors involved when you're choosing a BC. A birth control that makes one woman miserable could be a perfect fit for another--there's no one-size-fits-all solution.

Mar 08 12 - 10:49pm
jg

my life basically started when i got off the pill. and my sex life has been ever increasing in awesomeness since.
thanks for shedding light on this crucial subject.
awesome article.

Mar 08 12 - 11:21pm
Rj

Thanks for deleting my comment.

Mar 08 12 - 11:55pm
JCB

My doctor put me on the pill as a virginal 13-year-old (I know Rush, huge slutty hobag) to control dysmenorrhea. My periods were so unpleasant that I'd vomit up everything including water, went to the hospital more than once for dehydration, and would even occasionally go into false labour, uterine contractions and all.

The results were so bad that I went off it and rode out the dysmenorrhea until it calmed down years later. I'm talking angry, sluggish, permanently exhausted, zero libido or energy, and suicidally depressed on the "strong dose" days. And the patch was worse. I won't touch that shit to this day; my body seems to realize it's doing something weird and unnatural with my hormones.

Mar 09 12 - 12:59am
ibg

Very interesting article. have never used HBC (mainly never tried it because I've never been in a long-term relationship, but whenever I think about it I worry about the effects from the hormones.) This article has sort of cemented by plans to not try it. However, I worry a little about only using condoms. What are some ways to make condoms more reliable? Adding a diaphragm? Spermecide?

Mar 09 12 - 10:51am
Mila

I take the pill for several months in a row, so in that time I don´t menstruate, which increases my life quality very much. What do I care if I want less sex? Anyhow, if I´m really into someone, I can´t get enough of him and anyhow being horny is a form of being needy, which is never something desirable...

Mar 10 12 - 1:25am
Elle

I noticed zero change in anything since I went on the pill, except relief from pregnancy worries. However, I have talked to women who have experienced some pretty unpleasant side effects. Strange how this thing affects everyone so different. Mine's low estrogen, maybe that's the trick?

Mar 10 12 - 1:27am
Elle

*Differently. Ugh, spelling

Mar 10 12 - 10:05am
cns371

my wife has been on the pill for over 20 years now. About 10 years ago she noticed a lack of sex drive and sex had become painful and caused bleeding. She went to her OBGYN and was diagnosed with a thickening of the uterus wall. This was attributed to her taking the pill. She tried going off the pill for a few months, but her emotions were a train-wreck and her face was an acne battlefield. So she's back on the pill and just doesn't have sex anymore. The dangers are real

Mar 10 12 - 10:40am
Mr. Man

The comments here suggest a wide variety of physical/emotional responses to the pill. Seems to work great for some, badly for others. I'll assume there may even be differences among brands?

O/T, and in all seriousness, I'd like to note that my Captcha words are: "complete manPro". Hahaha awesome.

Mar 10 12 - 10:42am
BW

I've used FAM (Family Awareness Method) for 'birth control' for almost 5 years. Look it up. It has worked great, its natural, and you end up knowing a lot more about your body.

Mar 10 12 - 11:12am
Kerstin

Over twenty years ago I went on the pill to regulate my menstrual cycles. I had been spotting heavily between periods and wanted it to stop. The birth control part of it was an added bonus. The pill worked for the spotting, but I couldn't tolerate the side effects. I'm not sure how to describe it, but I didn't feel like myself when I was on the pill. I was irritable, bloated and had no sex drive. My breasts hurt all the time--they felt like two big bruises. I'm olive-skinned and developed severe melasma--dark pigmentation on my face--also known as a pregnancy mask. I also developed acne on my face, chest and back for the first time in my life. Broken blood vessels and spider veins appeared all over my legs. I stopped taking the pill after about eight months because I couldn't stand the side effects. I was told the dark stripe down my forehead and dark spots on my cheeks would go away. My sex drive came back, but at 43 I still have the melasma and acne. I know this isn't the end of the world, but it's amazing how chemicals can permanently affect how your body functions. I'm curious to see if the skin issues go away when I hit menopause. If you have oily, olive skin that tans easily, beware of Lo Ovral.

Mar 10 12 - 7:12pm
Ariel

Thanks for publishing this - women should know this stuff before making their birth control decisions. I took the pill for around a year, around ten years ago, and I credit it with both diminishing my libido and introducing me to the wonderful world of yeast infections. Before these stupid pills, I had very little trouble getting aroused, as well as apparently perfectly balanced vaginal flora/ph. Ever since my sex life has been hampered by arousal issues as well as annoying infections. I wish I had learned about the evils of hormonal birth control before I took them - I resisted going on the pill until I was in my twenties, but it appears that even after taking them for such a short time, the damage has been done. I'm married and pregnant now (completely planned), and will be using FAM from here on out.
The pill may help some women with specific health issues, but I have a feeling it screws things up one way or another for most of us.

Mar 10 12 - 7:59pm
KO

Wow, I guess I'm one of the lucky ones. Going on the pill made my life SO much better! My periods are much less crampy, lighter, shorter and more predictable, and they don't get in the way of my day-to-day life anymore. I also had some pretty bad emotional issues related to changing hormones that the pill corrected. My only side effect was nausea during the first month. For my particular bundle of issues, the pill was the answer, but obviously this won't be the case for everyone. It completely depends on the woman. I just wanted to add a pill success story so women who are thinking about it won't be completely scared away.

Mar 11 12 - 5:34pm
Concerned

this is a very dangerous article. posting one study per "possible side effect" of the pill is not conclusive evidence, but a 14 year old reading this article might think that. for example, the study listed as evidence for the final bullet point only looked at 124 women. please put more thought and research into a piece if you're going to write it about medicines or medical treatments.

Mar 11 12 - 6:51pm
JM

I got the birth control implant (Implanon) -- same hormones, different method of release. I like the peace of mind I get about not having to worry about getting pregnant for 3 years, and it's reduced my very heavy periods to light spotting.

The one downside is that my libido has decreased slightly. I used to go into what my boyfriend and I "pon farr" at least one week per month, and now I initiate sex a lot less. Luckily for me, my boyfriend is more than willing to pick up the slack, so we still have a very healthy sex life.

Jun 28 12 - 12:55am
Marie

Wow. It's so different for every woman. Starting the pill made my skin better looking and my boobs bigger. Before the pill, I could sometimes not go to school when I had my period, because it hurt so bad, it was awful. Now it doesn't hurt at all, it's regular, and 5 days instead of 10! I have never noticed any change in my libido, I still have a big sex drive. I'm actually worried that whenever I'll stop, I'll start haaving cramps again, and that my boobs will shrink.

Aug 03 12 - 1:39pm
tried it

For all the girls who said they get approached more now that they are on the pill and feel sexier than ever, i wonder if that has to do with your new found confidence with men because you are ready for anything, and you know that most men (who are ignorant of these effects) prefer women on the pill. Men go for confidence.

I know I had those feelings when I first went on the pill. I went off it after a year because I moved abroad and didn't have time to get my prescription moved etc.... I never realized how much it changed my personality until I came off it again. I was so static on the pill, now I am back to my normal rollercoaster self. Some people may not like that--personally I like the fact that even though I get down sometimes, I get really high on life too. And as much as I didn't think it affected my libido, there are days I get so incredibly horny and sex is way more exciting and emotional than it was on the pill. I actually get hyper again now and when I'm happy I'm really really happy.

Sep 05 12 - 8:26pm
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