A year after the 50th anniversary of the Pill, it thrills me that the news of women’s progress keeps coming. As of 2008, 57% of college graduates are women, and 26% of wives now out-earn their husbands. It’s not farfetched to say the Pill has been instrumental in making it possible for women today to head major corporations, run the world’s #1 university, and lead its fourth-largest economic power.
But have the overwhelming benefits of the Pill also harbored a subtle downside, especially when it comes to women’s love lives?
One of the central tenets of Taoist philosophy is the complementarity of opposites. The principle manifests itself everywhere from elementary particle physics to human relations. Electrons balance protons. Sunlight creates shade. Yin balances yang. To every positive trait, there is a shadow. No coin can have only one side.
In short, there is no unalloyed boon in the world. And the Pill may have been secretly messing with the love lives of smart, successful women for 50 years in at least three ways:
1) The Pill may make you pick guys you normally wouldn’t be attracted to.
In a 2003 paper, researcher Tony Little of St Andrew’s University and colleagues found that taking the Pill may be encouraging women to ‘have relationships with inappropriate men.’
Are we talking about men who eat their steak with a salad fork or maybe something more serious?
Let me explain. Women on the pill were rating macho-looking men as more attractive than ones with softer, more feminized features. So right off the bat, they’re discounting Mr Nice Guy, who may make a better husband or father than Biff (the archetypal bad boy from The Tao of Dating) whom they’re selecting instead.
Your own anecdotal evidence may corroborate this finding. Erica, a 31-year old counselor, recounts, “I was on the Pill age 17-24, and remember that the kind of men I dated distinctly shifted. I used to be attracted to more artistic, sensitive types, but now I was going for these guys were more macho. I’ve been noticeably less attracted to the macho guys since I’ve been off the Pill.”
But wait! A review by Alexandra Alvergne and Virpi Luumaa from the University of Sheffield says that the exact opposite happens: women on the pill, not having that hormonal peak around ovulation, will go for the more feminine-looking guys.
Whichever story is true, here’s the real issue of what happens when a woman on the Pill decides to start a family. According to Dr Little, “Where a woman chooses her partner while she is on the Pill, and then comes off it to have a child, she may find she is married to the wrong man.”
This has potentially cataclysmic implications. If you or someone you know was bananas for someone before marriage, but then after marriage and going off the Pill said something like “I still like him, but the chemistry’s gone for some reason,” she may not be speaking in mere metaphor. The good chemistry is literally gone, replaced by incompatible chemistry. Bringing us to…
2) When on the Pill, you may be selecting guys who are chemically incompatible with you.
Other lines of evidence show that oral contraceptives alter the hormonal balance of a woman in such a way that she becomes attracted to the wrong kind of male pheromones.
Here’s how scientists think this works. A lot of male-female attraction is mediated by smell, and study after study shows that women are attracted to the scent of a man with an immune system complementary to her own. In other words, the more different his immune system is from hers, the more attractive she finds his scent.
Now the Pill tricks women’s bodies into a psuedo-pregnancy. And when a woman’s pregnant, she tends to find the scent of kin more attractive than that of strangers.
So while she’s on the pill, the scent of the man she’s attracted to is going to be the opposite of what she’s normally attracted to when pill-free. And she may not find that out until they’re cozy enough in the relationship to want to have kids. Could this be contributing to the 50%+ divorce rates in the US?
Divorce aside, there’s a more important issue. The chemical incompatibility occurs at the level of the immune markers of cells – the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). Evidence shows that women who are MHC-mismatched with a man tend to miscarry more often.
Scientists are only beginning to fathom the further health implications of subverting the evolutionary process of attraction and having kids with chemically incompatible partners. Not to mention that the macho bad boys may not make very good husbands in the first place.
3) The Pill blunts a woman’s maximum mojo.
Has there ever been a time when you felt like you held the world in the palm of your hand? When you walked down the street, and a wave of heads would turn to follow you? When the sheer, dazzling radiance of your sexiness could scorch a flowerbed?
You know what I’m talking about. And in all likelihood, this period of unstoppability happened right around the time you were ovulating.
It’s true: women are sexier when they’re ovulating. Study after study shows that when that egg drops, women tend wear shorter skirts, move more suggestively and engage in more sexually risky behavior.
And, through some mysterious psychic means, men seem to catch on to this. Psychology professor David Buss, who may very well have the coolest job in the world, conducted the now-infamous strip club experiment in 2007. He found that strippers who were menstruating averaged $35 in tips per hour, while those who were neither ovulating nor menstruating made $50 per hour. But those who were ovulating made $70 an hour.
If you accept that a man votes most honestly with his wallet, there was something about the ovulating strippers that made them twice as attractive as the ones on their period and 40% more attractive than the rest.
Although Prof Buss did not include a category of women on the pill in his analysis, they would at best fall in the ‘neither menstruating nor ovulating’ category. This means that the pill takes away at least 40% of your peak sexual mojo, if not more.
Translated into guy terms, it’s as if he chooses to walk on his knees. Even if he starts out pretty tall, he’s putting himself at a big disadvantage by willfully losing that much height.
This is a bigger deal than it may seem. Evolution has designed you, a woman, to be absolutely irresistible to men the three days of the month around your ovulation. That’s the time when you basically own the guys without knowing why. The Pill unceremoniously takes that power away from you.
Now this wouldn’t be a problem if other women were also on the Pill – the playing field would be level. But less than 10% of women are taking oral contraceptives in the US at any given time. Since Homo sapiens females (and males) are competing for mates, women who are on the Pill may be putting themselves at a big disadvantage in courtship.
The Pill is a sensitive and emotional issue, and it has deeply integrated itself into the lives of modern women. It may be the panacea for you that has gotten rid of 10 days a month of debilitating cramps, poor complexion, irregular bleeding and other nuisances. And, as a bonus, it keeps you from getting knocked up, too!
However, taking any systemic drug chronically is going to have unwanted side effects whether you like it or not. For the Pill, one of them may be a serious compromise of your love life.
So don’t take anyone’s word for it. Instead, use the Buddhist principle of ehi passiko – go see for yourself. If you replace the Pill with barrier contraception for a few months and your love life takes a dramatic upswing, you may have just discovered something useful.
Grammer, K., Fink, B., and Neave, N. (2004) Human pheromones and sexual attraction. Eur J Ob Gyn Reproductive Biol 118: 135-142
Ober, C. et al. (1993) MHC class II compatibility in aborted fetuses and term infants of couples with recurrent spontaneous abortion. J Reproductive Immunol 25: 195-207
Wedekind, C. et al. (1995) MHC-Dependent Mate Preferences in Humans. Proc Biol Sci 260: 245-249
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