Safe Sex, Sex Ed

Can Changing Your Birth Control Routine Affect The Quality Of Your Sex Life?

May 28, 2014 by Justin Lehmiller

A growing amount of research suggests that what heterosexual women find attractive in men changes across the menstrual cycle. Specifically, women tend to report greater attraction to masculine-looking and -acting guys when they’re ovulating, supposedly because these traits are signs of better genes and, therefore, a greater chance of fathering babies who will survive. Because these ovulatory shifts in mating preferences are wiped out when women take hormonal contraceptives, scientists have begun to wonder what implications this might have for women’s sex lives and relationships. In particular, what happens if a woman starts a relationship with a guy she met while she was on the pill and later decides to go off the pill? Are the subsequent hormonal changes she experiences linked to any changes in her relationship? According to a new study published in Psychological Science, the answer appears to be yes.

In this study, researchers recruited 365 heterosexual couples in the United Kingdom. On average, the women were 34-years-old and the men were 36. All participants completed a survey inquiring about their current levels of sexual and non-sexual relationship satisfaction. In addition, the women were asked whether they were using hormonal birth control when they met their partner, and also whether they were currently using hormonal birth control. On the basis of these questions about contraceptive use, women were categorized as either congruent (i.e., using or not using hormonal birth control at both times) or noncongruent (i.e., using hormonal birth control at one time, but not the other).

The results revealed that birth control congruency was related to women’s current levels of sexual satisfaction. The nature of this effect was such that women in the congruent group were significantly more sexually satisfied than women in the noncongruent group. In other words, women who were consistent in their approach to birth control (i.e., those who consistently used or consistently did not use hormonal birth control) were more sexually satisfied than women who changed birth control methods after meeting their partner.

However, further analyses revealed that one type of noncongruence was more important than the other. Specifically, stopping birth control use after meeting one’s partner was associated with lower sexual satisfaction scores; in contrast, starting birth control use after meeting one’s partner was not linked to any statistical difference in sexual satisfaction.

It is important to note that birth control congruency was unrelated to women’s non-sexual satisfaction. In addition, it was unrelated to their male partners’ sexual and nonsexual satisfaction.

These results suggest that changing birth control routines (specifically by stopping hormonal contraceptives after entering a relationship) is associated with decreased sexual satisfaction, perhaps because hormonal contraception changes the type of men women are attracted to.

However, there are a few important caveats to this conclusion. First, although birth control noncongruence was linked to lower sexual satisfaction, the effect was pretty small and the noncongruent women still reported being highly sexually satisfied. Specifically, congruent women scored about an 8 on the sexual satisfaction scale (which ranged from 1-9), while noncongruent women scored about 7.5. That half-point difference is hardly evidence that changing birth control routines destroys women’s sex lives; rather, noncongruent women are reporting sex that’s only slightly less satisfying.

In addition, because these are correlational data, other explanations are possible. For instance, it might not be the case that contraceptive use is changing women’s sexual functioning; instead, perhaps there are other health conditions that cause changes in terms of both women’s sexual functioning and contraceptive use.

In short, while these data do provide some provocative evidence that changes in birth control routines are related to changes in women’s sexual satisfaction, more research is needed to understand what’s going on here and what the long term implications are for women’s relationships.

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To learn more about this research, see: Roberts, S. C., Little, A. C., Burriss, R. P., Cobey, K. D., Klapilová, K., Havlíček, J., … & Petrie, M. (in press). Partner Choice, Relationship Satisfaction, and Oral Contraception The Congruency Hypothesis. Psychological Science.

Image Source: iStockphoto

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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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