Recently, the birth control pill celebrated its fiftieth birthday. Today, it’s estimated that more than one hundred million women around the world use an oral contraceptive. For many women, it’s the little pink pill that launched a thousand (relation)ships. For many scientists, it’s the little pink pill that launched a thousand studies.
“Good Genes” or Bad Idea Jeans?
Maybe it’s not exactly a thousand studies, but in the past ten years, over a dozen studies have been done by evolutionary psychologists on the shifts in a woman’s mate preferences over the stages of her cycle. When women are ovulating (when their pump is primed for baby-making, so to speak), they tend to be attracted to more “manly” men—men who exhibit traits that indicate strength and dominance, such as a deep voice or a square chin. They also tend to be attracted to men with genetic makeups different from their own. Evolutionarily speaking, this is advantageous because their offspring would be healthier. Scientists call this the “good gene” theory.
But what happens when the Pill is brought into the mix? The birth control pill works by suppressing key hormones involved in ovulation, keeping you from releasing eggs. This begs the question: no ovulation, no wildly irrational attraction to the Old Spice guy mid-month? A 2009 study at a British university suggests just that. The study’s authors found that the Pill affected women’s mate preferences. Unlike their ovulating counterparts, women on oral contraceptives were more likely to choose men with less pronouncedly masculine traits and more genetic similarity.
Women aren’t the only ones whose choice of horizontal dance partner is affected by the Pill, however. Studies have also shown that men are more attracted to women who are ovulating. (One study even showed that lap dancers received higher tips when ovulating.) Men subconsciously pick up on this peak fertility through pheromones and other subtle physical and behavioral clues, such as a higher pitched voice and better grooming. (Ovulating women are more likely to primp and preen—all the better to catch that strapping stud.) Which means, at least biologically speaking, the Pill makes its non-ovulating, hormonally steady takers less attractive to members of the opposite sex.
The Pill’s effects aren’t permanent. When a woman stops taking it, her hormones return to their natural cycle and she starts to ovulate again. This might explain why the woman who married the IT guy who looks like her brother suddenly finds herself fantasizing about burly Argentinean lumberjacks.
There’s Still the Marrying Kind
So could the Pill that I’ve been on since I was eighteen explain away the string of failed relationships I’ve had since roughly that same time? Does Yaz spell the downfall of the human race? Not quite. Luckily, we are far more complex creatures than our hormones dictate. “Physical traits (‘good genes’) are only one of a triad of characteristics assessed by both men and women in a prospective partner,” according to Dr. David Barash, an evolutionary psychologist and coauthor, with his wife, psychiatrist Judith Eve Lipton, of the books The Myth of Monogamy, Strange Bedfellows, and Making Sense of Sex. The above studies on male and female attraction during the fertility cycle focused on short-term, not necessarily long-term, mate selection. The other characteristics we look for in prospective mates are less shortsighted: good resources and good behavior, which Barish says “especially in the 21st century, might actually result in ‘better’ choices!”
There are many men who would prefer a partner in control of her own (and consequentially his) reproductive future. And there are many women who would deny their animal attractions to invest in a mate who offers fidelity, financial stability, and kindness. They’re not the only ones. Another study at Florida State found that while single men were more attracted to a woman while she was ovulating, men already in romantic relationships actually rated her as less attractive, the theory being that the fertile woman was subconsciously perceived as a threat to their long-term relationships. And the married woman who goes off the Pill and is suddenly less amorously inclined toward her boyish husband? That dip in mate attraction will likely wreak far less havoc than if she had avoided the Pill, married that hunky bartender, and spit out kids like the Duggars.
For all its scientifically supported effects on my mating decisions, I can confidently thank the Pill for keeping the genes, “good” or not “good,” of a few ex-boyfriends out of the evolutionary mix. Hopefully that means “good” things for the human race in the long run. It definitely means good things for me. Now excuse me while I go google photos of Joseph Gordon-Levitt.