Birth Control Pills May Alter Choice of Partners

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

A new study raises the question of whether the use of oral contraceptives is interfering with a woman’s ability to choose, compete for and retain a partner.

The paper, published by Cell Press in the October issue of the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, reviews emerging evidence that contraceptive methods which alter a woman’s natural hormonal cycle may have an impact on how both women and men choose their partners.

The theory is based on many scientific studies establishing that partner preferences of both women and men vary significantly according to hormonal fluctuations associated with the natural menstrual cycle.

For instance, ovulating women seem to prefer more masculine males who show dominance and man-to-man competitiveness and to be genetically dissimilar to themselves. This latter point is significant because genetic similarity in couples has been linked to infertility.

If the theory is correct, it could explain the shift in women’s taste for the macho leading men of the 50’s adn 60’s such as Kirk Douglas and Sean Connery – a time just after the introduction of the pill – to the more boyish and androgynous starts of today, such as Johnny Depp and Russell Brand.

Dr Alexandra Alvergne, of the University of Sheffield, lead author the article, says the Pill could also be altering the way women pick their mates and could have long-term implications for society.

‘There are many obvious benefits of the Pill for women, but there is also the possibility that the Pill has psychological side-effects that we are only just discovering,’ she said.

Other studies suggest that men detect women’s fertility status, preferring ovulating women in situations where they can compare the attractiveness of different women.

However, oral contraceptives alter these hormonal fluctuations and essentially mimic the more steady hormonal conditions associated with pregnancy. This makes a woman less attractive to a male and makes her less able to compete with normally cycling women for a mate.

“The ultimate outstanding evolutionary question concerns whether the use of oral contraceptives when making mating decisions can have long-term consequences on the ability of couples to reproduce,” suggests Dr. Virti Lummaa, a colleague of Dr. Alvergne.

Taken together, an increasing number of studies suggest that the pill is likely to have an impact on human mating decisions and subsequent reproduction. “If this is the case, pill use will have implications for both current and future generations, and we hope that our review will stimulate further research on this question,” concludes Dr. Lummaa.

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