Naughty little pills

// 20 August 2008

According to collaborative research carried out by the University of Liverpool and the University of Newcastle, the contraceptive pill can have a detrimental affect on a woman’s choice of a prospective partner.

Scientists asked a sample of women to smell six male body odour samples before and after they took the pill to determine which they found most compelling, and the before and after results were different.

This science behind this, from what I gather, is quite simple. This is because heterosexual women usually can’t get enough of the sweaty arm pits of men who are genetically dissimilar to themselves, whereas the pill distorts this inclination, meaning women on birth control are attracted to prospective partners with whom they share genetic likenesses.

The implications of this are as follows:

…the pill disrupts the selection process and as odour perception plays a significant role in maintaining attraction to partners, it could ultimately lead to the breakdown of relationships when women stop using the contraceptive pill…Lead researcher Dr. Craig Roberts says by passing on a wide-ranging set of immune system genes, couples increase their chances of having a healthy child that is not vulnerable to infection and partners with different genes are also less likely to experience fertility problems or miscarriages. The researchers say major histocompatability complex cluster of genes which helps build proteins involved in the body’s immune response is also known to influence smell signals called pheromones and this leads women to use their sense of smell in helping to choose partners.

Hmm…What to think about this? While it’s informative and interesting to an extent, the assumption underlying all of this research is that if a woman is taking the pill, it’s a temporary phase, because, of course, she is going to want children in the future. For a portion of the female population I am sure that this is true, it’s called family planning for a reason after all, but reports like this do nothing but incite anxiety and concern that if a woman is taking the pill, and then does decide to have a baby with a partner she has met ‘under the influence,’ then not only may she struggle to conceive, but when she does her newborn may have a number of genetic problems owing to the fact she had chosen to curb her womb’s creative urges for a limited amount of time.

Is this sort of research part of a much larger problem regarding reports on women’s fertility, designed firstly to make us panic, secondly to stop us taking any form of contraception, and thirdly to pressurise us to have children even if we do not want them because it’s what we are told we are supposed, nay have, to do? Conspiracy, maybe?

I don’t take the contraceptive pill as I don’t like the idea of chemically altering my body, but I have heard that it can have a lot of physical benefits beyond it’s primary objective, and if I was in a long-term relationship maybe I would consider otherwise. A pharmacist friend of mine, for example, told me that the pill can make a woman’s menstrual cycle a dream. A Dream. I am also discouraged by the fact I am so disorganised, so would end up taking packets upon packets one day of the month having realised I’d forgotten, which, from what a gather, is a big faux pas. Plus taking so many female hormones in one go could potentially result in me waking up with a face like a giant boob, and I’m not entirely sure how I’d feel about that.

But I don’t see a problem with other women choosing methods of birth control that are suitable for them, and think that until larger samples of the female population are analysed (there was no reference to the number of women questioned in this case, as far as I could find) and the results are more definitive, maybe media moguls should think about stopping regurgitating the same old supposed ‘women’s issues’ stuff, eh?

Comments From You

Denise // Posted 20 August 2008 at 12:34 pm

Her womb’s “creative urges”???!!!

Very scientific.

Shea // Posted 20 August 2008 at 12:38 pm

The glaring and obviously worrying point missing in this is that if you are sleeping with a new sexual partner for the first time the contraceptive pill won’t protect you from HIV so you NEED, NEED, NEED to be using condoms until you both produce HIV negative test results. Sorry but I think having HIV will be a lot worse for any potential offspring than picking the wrong partner.

lucy // Posted 20 August 2008 at 1:32 pm

“Is this sort of research part of a much larger problem regarding reports on women’s fertility…”

As far as i can see the problems start not with the research, which is interesting to biologists for biological reasons, but when it is reported by journalists who don’t read/understand the paper and it’s implications.

Did you even read it? It’s an open source article (probably because newcastle knew it would get publicity, they have a terrible habit of press-releasing this stuff ensuring weeks of crap science journalism that does them little good in the long run). Maybe this link works for you, if not try searching the journal (Proceedings of the royal society B) homepage.

For the record the sample size was 193. small, but not too small to find some significant trends in.

Clare // Posted 20 August 2008 at 1:56 pm

Oh no. I met my current, lovely, fella while not on the pill, then after a barrage of tests (being of Shea’s school of thought) I started taking it. Must rush home right now and let him know I don’t fancy him anymore……

Anywho, I think the research is quite interesting – however we dissect society the bottom line is that sex, and therefore sexual attration, is pretty darn likely to have originated in the need for procreation – it’s just taking evolution a while to catch up with the fact that it’s fun and we don’t all want to become a mommy.

I’d like to see the reverse research though – male reactions to the scent of women who are on the pill Vs those who aren’t – perhaps then they can share the blame for chosing the ‘wrong’ partner due to olfactory responses over which we (obviously) have no control!

Ruth Moss // Posted 20 August 2008 at 2:05 pm

Agree totally with Lucy – the problem is not usually the research itself but the fact many people (including journalists) struggle to interpret such research and of course – put their own slant on it.

I’d be really interested to read about all the effects – positive and negative – of various contraceptive pills, from a neutral point of view.

Personally I lothed the combined pill (microgynon) when I took it; it played havoc with my emotional state. I have one or two friends who experienced this too.

I gave up using the pill and trusted to condoms (until I started to try to conceive) and was lucky in that they never failed. Actually for the early months after my baby I trusted to lactational amenorrhea but didn’t tell my Health Visitor ;-)

I’d really love to read some non-biased information on contraceptive pill usage. And as Abbie rightly points out, this information should take into account the fact the pill is not a “temporary phase” for every woman.

lucy // Posted 20 August 2008 at 2:06 pm

actually, i take back my “significant trends” comment. i just had a look through it and find the paper to be mostly rambling nonsense… which is not so suprising since, on further investigation, the first authors turn out to be an evolutionary “biologists”. Gah, these people!

Sabre // Posted 20 August 2008 at 2:31 pm

I found this research worrying because the ever-so-subtle implication is that taking the pill is bad, it’s ruining relationships, befuddling women so they don’t really know what they want etc. Therefore women are doing something Bad.

Many women go on the pill after getting into a long-term relationship, so the matter of who she’s attracted to really isn’t influenced by that. I sniffed out my boyfriend long before going on the pill, and were I to come off it I assume there would be enough between us to keep the relationship going. The same is true for many couples where they met after the woman was already on the pill. Pheromones aren’t all that holds people together!

As for the pill being A Dream; for me it is. I know exactly when my period is coming and going so planning holidays is easy. It’s free on the NHS, my periods are lighter and shorter, and aside from initial weight gain (it increases appetite) it’s been pretty good. The way I see it is that the pill has given me control over my menstrual cycle and risk of pregnancy, which is, after all, what many of those feminists before us fought for.

I would love if there were a male contraceptive pill. Pharma industry thinks men are not willing to disrupt their bodies invasively for the mutual goal of birth control. However this contradicts the research somewhat:

Saranga // Posted 20 August 2008 at 2:35 pm

Have I understood this right?

Woman takes pill, sense of smell is altered. Woman gets in relationship with man, decides to have kids, stops taking pill.

Woman finds man smells less nice than before leading to breakdown of relationship. (wtf? aren’t there other factors which decide if a relationship is worthwhile?)

If the relationship survives the children could be inbred genetic freaks. (Ok I know i’m being an arse and paraphrasing here).

Huh? Is this all cos women’s smell preferences change?

Evil evil pill.

Izzo // Posted 20 August 2008 at 3:30 pm

Abby, I think you way miss the point of this study. I don’t think this research was “designed to make us panic” and certainly not to make women go off the pill. Medical research is necessary in order for us to understand all of the possible implications of taking the pill, or any other drug for that matter, and possibly create better ones. To become angry at the results of a scientific study seems to me like a knee-jerk paranoid reaction to any subject whatsoever that concerns women.

Flo // Posted 20 August 2008 at 3:51 pm

On the positive side, this research could open up a guilt-free exit from relationships: “I’m sorry darling, we’ve been through so much and shared so many happy moments. It breaks my heart to admit it but the truth is you just don’t smell like a wise reproductive choice for me, so for the sake of humanity I want to break up.”

More seriously, my initial reaction was not so much that they were trying to put women off taking the pill (hell, my doctors have always been all too keen to get me on it, as have certain men who thought they were too important to be inconvenienced by condoms for the sake of preserving my mental health – but that’s a different rant), but that they seemed to be (unintentionally) pushing the ‘woman is closer to nature’ line by reducing our complex relationship decisions down to some animal instinct. I don’t follow evolutionary biology enough to know if that’s a general trend, but historically it’s certainly been a major theme of the patriarchy.

Sian // Posted 20 August 2008 at 3:56 pm

I have to broadly agree with Izzo. I’m at Liverpool uni so I read the press release for this a few weeks ago, and nowhere was there anything suggesting that women change their lifestyles due to this study-but it’s a fair enough thing to do a research project on, hormones and their connection with behaviour is interesting. The part talking about then wanting to have a child after temporarily being on the Pill was more to do with the original reasons that the genes of the women taking part in the study causing their behaviour rather than a value judgement.

Sabre // Posted 20 August 2008 at 5:17 pm

Izzo, I think that the media coverage is somewhat designed to make people ‘panic’, but the researchers have certainly played up the effects to court publicity. Look at this from the BBC article, where it mentions the hormonal effects of coming off the pill are found comparable to women ending pregnancy (so completely natural) and then the lead researcher goes and tries to scare people:

“The researchers suspect that the results were related to the way the pill simulates a state of pregnancy in women. Once pregnant, the need for a compatible partner for children recedes, they believe.

But lead researcher Dr Craig Roberts warned such changes could lead to problems. “It could ultimately lead to the breakdown of relationships when women stop using the contraceptive pill, as odour perception plays a significant role in maintaining attraction to partners.”

Nevermind the fact that this effect happens once women have given birth anyway, and cuples still manage to stay together. SCARE-MONGERING!

George // Posted 21 August 2008 at 4:19 pm

“It could ultimately lead to the breakdown of relationships when women stop using the contraceptive pill, as odour perception plays a significant role in maintaining attraction to partners.”

Yep, that’s right. The main reason I stay with my long-term partner isn’t because he is a kind, sensitive, attractive, interesting individual. It’s because he smells right.

Because, of course, all of us just float in and out of relationships following our noses, rather than making (rational, emotional, difficult, whatever) choices about who we spend our lives with. And all of us are cis-women who only fancy men and all want long-term relationships.

I just can’t stand reductionist science, especially when it starts touching on subjects that are as complex as human relationships.

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