It is surprising that for as long as we've had birth control available to women there is still so much we don't know about it impacts our body, our relationships, and our overall life. In this guest post by Dr. Sarah Hill, she explains how birth control can affect who you're attracted to, along with other ways birth control may be affecting society as a whole.
While birth control has been revolutionary in so many ways to women's lives, it has also become a medical intervention that is considered too taboo to question. In fact, some have even gone so far as to say it is “anti-woman” to question birth control. And yet, from my perspective as a naturopathic physician and Dr. Hill's as a leading authority on evolutionary approaches to psychology, health, and relationships, we disagree.
Women should be provided with the information they need to make an informed decision about a medical intervention. While we can be grateful for the benefits birth control has brought, we can also be curious and question its larger and lesser known impacts.
I hope this guest post from Dr. Sarah Hill is informative and serves you in understanding the role of birth control in our relationships and our lives. – Dr. Jolene Brighten
Dr. Sarah Hill is a leading researcher in the dynamic and rapidly expanding field of evolutionary psychology. She is a professor at Texas Christian University (TCU) and has more than sixty scientific publications and multiple prestigious research grants to her credit.
The birth control pill and the law of unintended consequences.
Most women go on the birth control pill as a means of achieving some sort of targeted objective, like pregnancy prevention, “period regulation*”, or to clear up their skin. Unfortunately, sex hormones can’t work that way.
*Which we all know is made-up bulls**t. You don’t actually have a period on the pill. You have a pseudo-period that is caused by the sudden hormonal crash that occurs when you transition from your active pills to the sugar pills.
Why Birth Control Affects More Than Your Ovaries
When sex hormones are released into the body (or when artificial sex hormones are taken in the form of the birth control pill), they get released into the bloodstream and travel throughout the entire body like a broadcast message over a loudspeaker. They are then able to get picked up by each of the cells in the body that have receptors for those hormones, making the effects of the hormones in the birth control just about as non-targeted as a person could possibly get.
So, taking the pill as a means of avoiding pregnancy or clearing your skin will get you the effects that you are looking for… but it’s also going to get you a whole bunch of other effects, too. It’s going to change the activities of all of the cells in the body with sex hormone receptors, echoing throughout your body from head to toe.
Especially in the brain.
Birth Control Works by Changing Brain Function
Although there are sex hormone receptors on cells throughout the human body, there are few organs in the body that have more receptors for sex hormones than the brain.
Your brain – that super-important CEO of everything that makes you, you – is flush with receptors for sex hormones. There, they play a role in influencing attraction, sexual motivation, stress, hunger, eating patterns, emotion regulation, friendships, aggression, mood, learning, and more. This means that being on the birth control pill makes women a different version of themselves than when they are off of it.
Birth Control and Your Relationship
For instance, as I write about in This is Your Brain on Birth Control, research finds that the birth control pill might influence the types of men that women are attracted to and who they choose as marriage partners.
For instance, in one study, researchers found that starting the birth control pill significantly decreased women’s preferences for male facial masculinity. A follow-up study that looked at the facial masculinity of men who were actually chosen as partners by women who were either on or off of the birth control pill, found that the men who were chosen by women who were on the pill had significantly more feminine faces than than those men who were chosen by women who were not on the pill.
And there is good reason that this might be happening.
Why Might Birth Control Affect Who You’re Attracted To?
Much research (for example, this) finds that women’s levels of the sex hormone estrogen predicts their preference for masculine-looking male faces. Since the birth control pill suppresses women’s mid-cycle estrogen surge, it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to predict that not-pill-takers – whose estrogen surge is fully intact – would prefer and choose partners with more masculine faces than those preferred by the women on the birth control pill.
Crazy right? I am guessing that you have never seen “may impact your choice of sex and dating partners” listed as a possible side-effect on the informational insert that came along with your pack of birth control pills.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Birth Control May Influence Relationship Satisfaction & The Likelihood You'll Get Divorced
But what happens, then, to women’s mate preferences when they’re on the pill? Since (a) pill-taking women don’t ovulate and (b) the artificial hormones in the pill fake out the brain by making it think that it’s in the progesterone-dominant luteal phase of the cycle (or some approximation of this, anyway), this raises the possibility that birth control pills might have the ability to influence the types of men that women choose as their partners.
Now researchers have started to explore this possibility. And although this research is still in its infancy, the results are fascinating. They suggest that the birth control pill might influence everything ranging from who you pick as your partner to the likelihood that you’ll get divorced.
The Pill & Your Stress Levels
The pill – by changing the activities of women’s sex hormones – has the ability to impact women’s stress response, their their moods, their desire for sex, their sexual response, their ability to learn and remember things, their feelings of sexiness and vibrancy, their attunement to art, music, and dance, and pretty much everything else you can imagine. For example, research finds that women on the pill have a messed up cortisol response to stress… and it’s not just a little messed up. It’s way messed. Up.
When comparing pill-taking women to naturally cycling women, sometimes the researchers find that pill-taking women have a blunted cortisol response to stress, sometimes pill-takers have no cortisol response to stress, and sometimes—as was found in one recent study—levels of cortisol actually decreased in response to stress, which doesn’t make any sense at all.
And the research shows that this isn’t just a matter of pill-takers being more poised under pressure in the context of the TSST. Pill-takers also don’t exhibit much of an HPA-axis response to the stress-inducing drug naltrexone or strenuous exercise, both of which regularly elicit a strong HPA-axis response in most healthy adults.
The Pill Has Changed the World
By changing what women’s brains do, the pill changes women. And by changing what women do, the pill has changed the world.
And it has.
The world is a different place because of the birth control pill. Think for a minute how different the world would be if the pill never came on the scene. The pill has changed the way that women think about the consequences of sex. And as a result, we have all been able to dream a little bigger.
Granting women the ability to have sex without having to worry about rushing into marriage or parenthood, has allowed them to focus on educating themselves and building careers before starting families. And this has been hugely important in terms of allowing women the opportunity to achieve their goals.
But perhaps even more importantly than that, the pill has allowed women – for the very first time in history –to plan.
The Pill Has Allowed Women to Plan
Knowing that the odds of an unplanned pregnancy are effectively zero has removed from women’s dreams about their future a powerful storm cloud that was perpetually present for our college-bound grandmothers and great-grandmothers. For them, there was always the very real possibility that any plans they made would be laid to dust by an unplanned pregnancy.
Removing this storm cloud has been particularly important in terms of getting women’s faces and voices represented in fields requiring an advanced degree. Most people won’t take on a huge, costly project without feeling fairly confident that they’re going to cross the finish line. And there are few projects that are as costly – both in terms of having to take out loans and defer almost all forms of gratification – as getting an advanced degree.
Many advanced degrees require people to stay in school until they’re close to 30. I went to graduate school immediately after completing my undergraduate degree, and I still didn’t complete my Ph.D. until I was just shy of 29. And I was one the lucky ones who finished “quickly”.
For women going into fields like medicine and the physical sciences, this timeline can be stretched out well into a woman’s thirties. Without reliable birth control, women choosing to go into these fields would have to be okay with the very real possibility that their investment of time and financial resources would go to waste because an unexpected pregnancy would interrupt their training. The pill changed the game for women by allowing them to feel confident that their training wouldn’t be cut short by an unexpected pregnancy. And their response to this change was overwhelming.
Before 1970, almost no women were going into careers requiring a post-graduate education. All of that changed, however, precisely at the time in our nation’s history when the pill became legally available to single women (the late 60s and early 70s). As soon as women felt in control of their fertility – and knew that they wouldn’t get benched mid-education due to pregnancy –their applications to post-graduate degree programs skyrocketed. Although the surge of women in these fields was also helped by decreasing sexism in the admissions process, the biggest driver of these effects was actually the huge surge in the number of female applicants.
When it is possible for women, they do.
The Pill Has Resulted in More Educated Women
Women responded to the freedom granted to them by the pill not by becoming more irresponsible and reckless in their lives (which is what a lot of the abstinence-only types might want you to believe), but by becoming more educated and being more inclined to contribute to fields like law, medicine, science, government, and business. And even though you and I take this sort of thing for granted, it hasn’t always been easy for women to dream this big.
Some of the most brilliant scientists I know – scientists who are doing things like discovering new ways to treat cancer and help prevent diseases of aging – are women. And just 50 years ago, many of these brilliant women probably would have been sidelined because the demands of childbearing would have made their extensive education and training nearly impossible. The pill has opened up a huge new pool of talent to help solve some of the world’s most vexing problems.
And if vexing problems aren’t your thing, think for a moment about all of the amazing women who have touched your own life. Maybe it was a teacher or a professor who was meaningful in shaping your career goals. Or maybe it was a doctor or nurse who made you feel comforted when you're sick or afraid.
Think about all of the amazing, brilliant, funny, empathetic women whose voices would have been quieted and whose contributions we would be without if they didn’t have a reliable means of pregnancy prevention.
We should all be thankful to be at a place in time where we all get to benefit from these women’s ambitions. The world would be a much different, less brilliant place if these women weren’t able to restrict their fertility in a reliable way.
So, the pill has changed the world by making women more present in the educational sphere and workplace. And there are probably a countless number of specific achievements – technologies developed, cures discovered, people helped – that we owe to the birth control pill. And the world has changed as a result.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are probably countless ways that the pill has changed the world that we haven’t even yet begun to fathom.
For example, when you have a growing number of later- and never-married men and women (which is another change that has occurred in response to the birth control pill), this might increase the demand for housing (two single people usually take up two houses; whereas two people in a couple usually take up one), as well as the demand for all of the things that go into houses (refrigerators, ovens, and the like). This could have an impact on the types of jobs that are available (are there more refrigerator manufacturers and house builders than there used to be??) and the types of services that are valued. For example, maybe increasing numbers of later- and never-marrieds means a greater demand for things like cool museum exhibits and meal delivery services, but decrease demand for divorce lawyers.
This all might sound trivial and obvious, but it’s remarkable, really. When you think about the possibility that a medication can have as a side effect “cool museum exhibits in a city near you”, it really highlights that is that there’s no such thing as a small or targeted change when it comes to women’s hormones or the changing consequences of women’s sexual behavior.
Everything in your body is interconnected in ways that you’d probably never dreame possible, and so are all of the people the world. So, although it may sound absurd, the pill could be that which has already initiated a sequence of events that will eventually culminate in our ability to send a woman to the moon, initiate world peace, and price all but the wealthiest of the world’s citizens out of zucchinis. And you know what? The effects are probably going to be larger, vaster, and more surprising than this. Some of these effects will be positive. But some of them will also be negative. The good news is that – because the pill has made it possible for a record number of women to go into the sciences – we are now in a better position than ever before to understand its reach. And although we have only barely nicked the surface in terms of understanding the ways that the pill has changed the world, one thing is clear: it will never be the same.
For better and for worse.
In her knew book, This is Your Brain on Birth Control, leading researcher in the dynamic and rapidly expanding field of evolutionary psychology, Dr. Sarah Hill provides a detailed exploration of what is known and what has yet to be explored about the far reaching impact of birth control.
This paradigm-shattering book provides an even-handed, science-based understanding of who women are, both on and off the pill. It will change the way that women think about their hormones and how they view themselves. It also serves as a rallying cry for women to demand more information from science about how their bodies and brains work and to advocate for better research. This book will help women make more informed decisions about their health, whether they're on the pill or off of it.