Safe Sex, Sex Ed

Free Birth Control Doesn’t Make Women Promiscuous

March 19, 2014 by Justin Lehmiller


For years, we have heard claims on many political talk and news shows that reducing birth control costs and/or making contraception more widely available will increase female promiscuity. For example, remember when Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a “slut” after Fluke testified in a Congressional hearing about why we need to increase contraceptive access for women? Or how about the parade of horribles we’ve heard time and again from “experts” on Fox News about what will happen if birth control becomes more freely available? Case in point, consider this quote by Sandy Rios, Vice President of the Family PAC Federal, during a 2011 interview:

“Why in the world would you encourage your daughters, and your granddaughters, and whoever else comes behind you to have unrestricted, unlimited sex anytime, anywhere and that, somehow if you prevent pregnancy, that somehow you’ve helped them. I would submit to you that uncontrolled sexual behavior is what is harming our girls, not our lack of birth control.”

So is there any truth to what has been said? Will increasing access to contraception actually “encourage” women to have “unlimited” sexual partners and/or engage in riskier sexual behavior? According to a new study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology, the answer is a resounding no.

In this research, 9,256 adolescent and adult women aged 14-45 participated in a three year longitudinal contraceptive study. All participants lived in the St. Louis Missouri area and were recruited through abortion clinics and targeted advertisements. The sample was diverse with respect to race (most participants were non-White), education, and level of economic attainment. As a group, these women were at high risk for unwanted pregnancy, with the majority of them having had at least one previous unintended pregnancy.

All participants were provided with contraceptive counseling to help them choose the method that would work best for them. In addition, each participant received their choice of contraceptive for free. Most women opted for an intrauterine device (IUD) or subdermal implant, both of which were emphasized in counseling due to the fact that they are highly effective and long-lasting (effectiveness rates for these and other common contraceptives can be found here).

So what did they find? First, the percentage of women who reported having more than one sexual partner in the previous month actually decreased after women were given free birth control. At the initial assessment, 5.1% of women reported having multiple partners in the past 30 days, but this dropped to 3.5% after six months and 3.3% after one year.

Moreover, for the vast majority of women studied (70-71%), there was no change in number of partners one way or another over the course of time. The remainder was about evenly split between those who reported having fewer partners and those who reported having more partners. Among those women who reported having more partners, 80% went from having no partners to having just one partner.

Although the number of partners did not change overall, frequency of sex did, such that women reported having 50% more sex on average after starting birth control. Specifically, the median number of sex acts in the last month at the start of the study was 4, and this increased to 6 over the course of the following year.

It is also important to note that rates of sexually transmitted infections did not change over time for the women in this study.

Overall, these results tell us that while free birth control may increase the frequency with which women have sex, it does not change the number of partners they have nor does it seem to put them at greater risk for contracting STIs. It is also worth noting that this same team of researchers published a paper last year reporting that free access to contraception does not increase rates of unintended pregnancy or abortion either–in fact, it appears to do just the opposite!

Hopefully these findings will finally put to rest the offensive and inaccurate claims that giving birth control to women somehow makes them “sluts” and is bad for their sexual health. The reality is that increased access to contraception appears to be far more helpful than it is harmful.

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[1] Dunn, M. E., & Trost, J. E. (1989). Male multiple orgasms: a descriptive study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 18, 377-387.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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