Did You Or Your Hormonal Birth Control Choose Your Boyfriend?

Many women are well aware of how hormonal birth control affects them, and most of the time, those reactions aren’t pretty.

By Gwen Farrell4 min read
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The majority of women take hormonal birth control for contraceptive purposes or even for acne treatment – but those artificial hormones can change a whole lot more than just our libido or our skin. At this point in time, even as we still continue to celebrate what the pill has supposedly accomplished for generations of women, we’re also being forced to confront the fact that hormonal birth control is not good for us.

If you think you’re operating 100% by your own agency while on the pill, think again. Now we not only know that hormonal birth control changes who we’re attracted to, but our sense of smell as well.

Do We Actually Pick Who We’re Attracted To?

I remember exactly where I was the first (of many) times I read Dr. Sarah E. Hill’s book This is Your Brain on Birth Control: The Surprising Science of Women, Hormones, and the Law of Unintended Consequences. Dr. Hill is a behavioral and evolutionary psychologist at Texas Christian University, specializing in women’s health. She’s appeared on podcasts and in other media, in numerous academic publications, and even in a TedTalk. When I first picked up her book three years ago after a breakup with a long-term boyfriend and discovered her research, I was absolutely floored by what I read, so much so that I had to tell almost every other woman in my life about it.

Dr. Hill’s investigation into how the birth control pill specifically alters women’s brains yielded a huge conclusion: The pill essentially picks our partners for us. If you’re on the birth control pill and in a relationship, the boyfriend or husband you picked would likely not be the one you’d choose if you were off the pill.

Why? As Dr. Hill explains, “Naturally cycling women – at least near ovulation, when fertility is high and estrogen is dominant – have a keen eye (and ear) for certain cues to masculinity. In particular, this research finds that women at high fertility find masculine male faces, deeper, more masculine male voices, and socially dominant, confident men more attractive than they do at non-fertile points in the cycle. Given that pill-taking women don’t ovulate and are kept in a perpetual state of low estrogen, the pill may decrease the emphasis that women place on these sorts of traits, leading to development of a relationship that is less about sex and more about other qualities.”

The pill decreases the emphasis women place on masculine traits.

Numerous studies corroborate this. Artificially-cycling women, or women on the pill in the throes of subjugation to artificial hormones and false cycles, don’t appear to choose mates with traditional markers of masculinity, i.e., strong jawlines, deep voices, height, facial hair, etc. Not only that, but naturally-cycling women were "more sexually aroused, more sexually adventurous, more attracted to their partners” than their pill-taking counterparts were. Rather than enjoying a healthy sex life and attraction to their partner, the pill-taking population was more concerned with their mate’s intelligence and earning capabilities.

The exact biology behind this is actually pretty simple. Naturally-cycling women experience just that – a cycle, where their hormones plateau, peak, and bottom out according to where they are at any stage during a given month. Natural estrogen is most drawn to testosterone, leading them to pick mates with more traditionally masculine physicality. For a woman on the pill, every day is the same hormonally. There’s no peak, plateau, or other variation in her hormones from the day-to-day, and she never experiences a rush of estrogen dominance and high, peak fertility at ovulation that her naturally-cycling counterparts do. Therefore, her hormones (or lack thereof) motivate her to pick someone biologically similar to herself and manipulate the exact qualities she looks for in a mate.

The Pill Alters Your Sense of Smell

Aside from essentially picking our partners for us, hormonal birth control alters our sense of smell. This isn’t exactly new information – one article divulging the connection between the two dates back to 2001, over 20 years ago. But for younger generations of women who have recently discovered sex and contraception, it’s new to us.

The sense of smell issue mirrors the same effect birth control has when we go about choosing a mate. Biologically, our genetics will motivate us to choose the mate who is most dissimilar from us for optimal genetic compatibility. This is crucial for a wide variety of reasons, the most important being that a genetically compatible (i.e. a genetically dissimilar couple) has the best chance of producing healthy offspring. 

This exact quality is known as the major histocompatibility complex, a gene attached to interpreting how we smell and how those around us smell, which is pretty important when it comes to choosing who you’re going to marry. 

But you might have already guessed that being on hormonal birth control inhibits our ability to pick the most genetically compatible mate, meaning that whoever we pick probably stinks…both in the literal and figurative sense. One study found that women on the pill were more likely “to find the scent of a genetically similar man ‘sexy.’” This might be great for us in the moment, but not when we come off the pill to potentially start a family and find that our partner is not the best match for us, genetically or otherwise.

Science has found that for naturally-cycling women, our sense of smell is highest when we’re at our most fertile, at ovulation, enabling us to “sniff out” a good genetic mate for us and our children. But women on the birth control pill don’t experience that peak, meaning that they’re going in blind when it comes to choosing a mate.

Hormonal Birth Control Takes Everything and Gives You Nothing

Science aside, think about the social ramifications this means for us as women. Not only is our birth control not actually doing anything good for our body (in fact, if we got on it to take care of pesky PMS or other period symptoms, it might be masking a deeper issue), but it’s potentially ruining our lives.

Perhaps that comes off as hyperbolic, but bear with me. Think of one of your friends, or even yourself. You were prescribed the pill at 17 to supposedly “jumpstart” your menstrual cycle after never having a period, and you stay on it for six years. While you’re on the pill, you go to college and start dating someone. Though your friends and family aren’t as convinced as you are, you’re sure this is the person you’re meant to marry and have children with.

But when you inevitably come off the pill, after years of mood swings, weight gain, depression, and suicidal ideation, something changes. All of a sudden, with your depression gone and your natural cycle back to where it needs to be, your romantic situation doesn’t look so great. So, after several years together, you go through a horrible breakup. You just can’t put your finger on it. Everything has changed.

Not only is our birth control not doing anything good for our body, but it’s potentially ruining our lives.

Think about how you might have stayed on the pill even longer. You were going to marry this person! Months post-breakup, you start to notice that your “type” has changed…you’re more attracted to taller, bigger men, with facial hair and deeper voices, earning capability be damned. The person you end up marrying and starting a family with couldn’t be more different from the guy you started dating on the pill (and who didn’t want you to stop taking it, for the record).

If this sounds personal, it’s because it is. This was my life on hormonal birth control, and if I’d stayed on it, it would have altered the course of my future.

And therein lies the problem. Not only are there terrible physical, mental, and emotional effects as a consequence of artificial hormones, but as Dr. Hill surmises, these hormones could be the linchpin in the success of our marriages, whether or not we get divorced, or are able to start families. So if birth control isn’t working as advertised, what exactly is it doing other than creating more problems than it solves?

Closing Thoughts

Birth control is one of our culture's most sacrosanct innovations with one of the most committed and dedicated groups of devotees. To criticize it in any way means that we also denigrate what it’s apparently bestowed on generations of women. This essentially follows the premise that the entire feminist movement is fortified by a pill that’s making women sick.

How can that be? How can we be so obsessed with defending what is inhibiting our bodies from living as their truest, most natural forms? 

More and more women are coming to the realization that they didn’t receive what they were sold. Validating those many experiences and encouraging the most natural aspects of our biology to reign over our lives, instead of suppressing them, should be the entire goal of a movement that claims to want women to thrive as their highest, most healthy selves.

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