For many women on birth control, it’s pretty obvious that it has effects beyond simply preventing pregnancy. After all, birth control side effects are common, and some are more obvious than others. On the less obvious front is the possible effect of birth control on mutual attraction. That’s right: hormonal birth control can actually change who you’re attracted to—and who’s attracted to you.
Now, before we unpack that mind-blowing assertion, I’m going to tell you a joke.
What did the boy monkey say to his three favorite girl monkeys?
Nothing; because his three favorite girl monkeys were injected with Depo-Provera.
Okay, not much of a joke…I suppose it’s more of a cautionary tale.
What monkeys on synthetic hormones have to show us about birth control and mutual attraction
In his book, The Decline of Males, Dr. Lionel Tiger, PhD (who at the time of the book’s publication was the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University) recounts how the Depo-Provera shot affected the sexual behaviors of a tribe of macaque monkeys who were colonized on a small island. While free from human interference, the alpha male monkey, named “Austin” by the researchers, selected three favorite females to be his exclusive sexual partners.
During the experiment, two groups of female monkeys were injected with Depo-Provera at different times. When Austin’s favorite sexual partners were injected, he stopped having sex with them and actually replaced them with non-injected females. When his replacement mates were injected, and the medication wore off his original partners, he switched back. Once the second group of shots had worn off, all the female monkeys were injected. Not good for Austin—or for his female companions.
“He (Austin) began to attempt rape, masturbate, and behave in a turbulent and confused manner,” Dr. Tiger explains, adding that Austin “hovered anxiously. But no matter what he did, there was never the usual episode of intercourse” .
This research was done in 1972, before the Depo shot was legal in the United States. Dr. Tiger equates Austin’s response to the fact that hormonal contraception creates a “chemical pregnancy” and eliminates the primal desire to procreate. In other words, the injected female monkey’s pheromones persuaded Austin against sexual relations with them.
Other primate studies have shown similar effects on males’ attraction to females when hormonal birth control is introduced into the equation. In her 2019 book This is Your Brain on Birth Control, evolutionary psychologist Dr. Sarah E. Hill details how studies have shown that in both rhesus macaques and chimpanzees, females injected with hormonal birth control are less likely to be approached for sex, or to receive “spontaneous mounting attempts” than females not on birth control . She also discusses a study on cynomolgus monkeys, where the frequency with which males had sex with females on birth control was no different from the frequency with which they had sex with females not on birth control—but there was one key difference in their sexual activity: When having sex with females on birth control, the male monkeys never ejaculated. It was as if the pheromones put out by the injected females signaled to their sexual partners that they were a “reproductive dead end,” as Dr. Hill describes it.
What does birth control do to your pheromones, and what does it mean for mutual attraction?
Obviously, there are many more factors that go into a human’s sexual choices than another person’s pheromone profile. But just because the consequences of Depo-Provera and other hormonal contraceptives may not be as extreme in humans as they are in lesser primates, that doesn’t mean the findings aren’t relevant.
After all, pheromones do play an important role in our subconscious attraction to a potential or chosen mate. There are numerous studies that tell us that men find women more attractive when they are fertile, for instance . Biologists Astrid Juette and Professor Karl Grammer illustrate this well with an experiment that exposed a group of men to female pheromones while having them rate pictures of females for attractiveness . While unknowingly being exposed to vaginal pheromones, the men rated the same females as being more attractive than they had when not exposed to the pheromones. Grammer presented his findings at a 1998 conference for the British Psychological Society, and warned that hormonal contraceptives could not only inhibit a woman’s production of these important pheromones, but also make it harder for her to detect a genetically compatible mate (more on this last point later!).
Your fertility makes you sexier—and it makes your partner feel sexier, too
Only a handful of studies have been done to show the real-world effects of hormonal contraceptives on female attractiveness. Geoffrey Miller, professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, found that lap dancers who were using hormonal contraceptives made about $80 dollars less a shift than non-contracepting dancers . In fact, while fertile, regularly cycling lap dancers made about $20 more per hour (and about $35 more an hour than when menstruating)! This supports what we know about how the human olfactory system picks up on pheromones and subconsciously uses them to interpret attractiveness.
Additionally, a study led by S. Craig Roberts, a professor of social psychology at the University of Stirling, Scotland, went a step further to investigate if men reported their female partners to be less attractive while using hormonal birth control. Surveys were given to both the male and female partners at various stages: while fertile, non-fertile, and while using hormonal contraceptives. As predicted, men rated their partners as being more attractive while fertile than while contracepting . Another interesting outcome was that men also rated themselves as less attractive while their partner was on hormonal birth control, even less so than when she was in a non-fertile phase of a regular cycle. In a similar vein, a 2017 study indicated that men whose wives were on birth control were less likely to exhibit “mate guarding” behaviors than men whose wives were not on birth control .
Your birth control could be affecting your taste in men
Unfortunately, the effects of birth control on attraction don’t seem to stop there; we are talking about “mutual” attraction after all, and women’s mating preferences seem to change as significantly as men’s once hormonal contraception is introduced. For example, women who are contracepting choose men with similar immunity genes to themselves, as opposed to naturally cycling women, who choose men with different immunity genes (and mating with an individual with different immunity genes is evolutionarily beneficial). One study even proposed that this phenomenon could have downstream effects on the health of future children .
Additionally, while on the Pill, women select men with less masculine voices, facial features and traits as being more attractive than more typically “masculine” men . There is speculation that contracepting women are drawn toward a more nurturing (dare I say, feminine?) appearance since the Pill mimics pregnancy, and, in a primal sense, pregnant women depend on the care of relatives (which also explains the tendency of contracepting women to favor those men with similar genes to their own). This theory is supported by a study which shows partner preferences in pregnant women to be similar to those of women using hormonal contraceptives . Perhaps this is why one study found that women who chose their partner while on hormonal birth control “scored lower on measures of sexual satisfaction and partner attraction, experienced increasing sexual dissatisfaction during the relationship, and were more likely to be the one to initiate an eventual separation if it occurred” .
Interestingly, the same study also found that women who were using birth control when they met their partner were more satisfied with their partner’s earnings and intelligence than women who chose their partner will cycling naturally, suggesting that birth control reorients what women prioritize in mate selection. As Dr. Sarah E. Hill puts it: “This [study] suggests that, in choosing these faithful, resource-investing men as partners (and at the expense of sexiness), pill-taking women may be putting themselves at risk for becoming dissatisfied with their relationship due to a lack of attraction and sexual satisfaction if they ever go off of [the pill].”
Birth control, hormones, and the big picture
While more research is needed to understand the extent to which hormonal birth control affects mutual attraction, testing your attraction to your partner off of birth control might not be a bad idea—especially if you’re thinking this could be “the one.” And if you got married and then started using birth control, and are now wondering if you might have married the wrong man—it might be your birth control talking!
No matter the extent of the effect, we know that birth control has at least some effect on women’s attraction to men, men’s attraction to women, and also how men feel about themselves as a sexual partner. I won’t presume to know exactly how all of the changes to mutual attraction caused by hormonal birth control affects relationships, families, or our societies—but I know that it isn’t benign. (To learn about some of these theories, check Lisa Welling’s report from the journal Evolutionary Psychology, where she speculates that couples with similar immunity genes may take longer to conceive, their pregnancies may have a higher risk of pre-eclampsia, and that offspring may also have troubles reproducing and experience impaired immune function .)
The effects of hormonal contraceptives like the birth control pill apparently extend past their basic intended purpose of obstructing conception and reach far beyond, into the most precious and sensitive areas of our lives. Combined with the known medical and emotional risks, the mounting evidence of birth control’s influence over mate selection and attraction should give one additional pause when considering family planning methods. Fortunately, Fertility Awareness Methods (FAM) are effective and natural birth control alternatives that don’t interfere with one’s hormonal profile—or the mutual attraction between men and women. We owe it to our health, our relationships, our families, and our society to consider the wide-ranging effects of contraceptive drugs, and reclaim responsibility and control over our fertility.
 Tiger L. The Decline Of Males. New York: St. Marin’s Griffin; 2000:39.
 Hill S. This Is Your Brain On Birth Control. Penguin Publishing Group; 2019.
 Kuukasjarvi S. Attractiveness of women’s body odors over the menstrual cycle: the role of oral contraceptives and receiver sex. Behavioral Ecology. 2004;15(4):579-584. doi:10.1093/beheco/arh050
 BBC News | HEALTH | The magic of sexual attraction. News.bbc.co.uk. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/236046.stm. Published 2020. Accessed December 9, 2020.
 Miller G, Tybur J, Jordan B. Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap dancers: economic evidence for human estrus?. Evolution and Human Behavior. 2007;28(6):375-381. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2007.06.002
 Cobey K, Buunk A, Pollet T, Klipping C, Roberts S. Men perceive their female partners, and themselves, as more attractive around ovulation. Biol Psychol. 2013;94(3):513-516. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2013.09.011
 French J, Meltzer A, Maner J. Men’s perceived partner commitment and mate guarding: The moderating role of partner’s hormonal contraceptive use. Evol Behav Sci. 2017;11(2):173-186. doi:10.1037/ebs0000087
 Birnbaum S, Birnbaum G, Ein-Dor T. Can Contraceptive Pill Affect Future Offspring’s Health? The Implications of Using Hormonal Birth Control for Human Evolution. Evol Psychol Sci. 2016;3(2):89-96. doi:10.1007/s40806-016-0074-4
 Little A, Burriss R, Petrie M, Jones B, Roberts S. Oral contraceptive use in women changes preferences for male facial masculinity and is associated with partner facial masculinity. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2013;38(9):1777-1785. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2013.02.014
 Cobey K, Havlíček J, Klapilová K, Roberts S. Hormonal Contraceptive Use During Relationship Formation and Sexual Desire During Pregnancy. Arch Sex Behav. 2015;45(8):2117-2122. doi:10.1007/s10508-015-0662-6
 Roberts S, Klapilová K, Little A et al. Relationship satisfaction and outcome in women who meet their partner while using oral contraception. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 2011;279(1732):1430-1436. doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.1647
 Welling L. Psychobehavioral Effects of Hormonal Contraceptive Use. Evolutionary Psychology. 2013;11(3):147470491301100. doi:10.1177/147470491301100315
When this article refers to fertility awareness methods (FAM), or natural family planning (NFP), we are referring to Fertility Awareness-Based Methods, evidence-based methods of cycle charting which can be used as effective forms of natural birth control when learned by a certified instructor.
This article was originally published on November 4, 2017 as written by Kathleen Taylor. It has since been updated by Natural Womanhood to offer more resources. Last updated December 10, 2020.