Can the pill make you choose the wrong guy?

If only finding Mr. Right were as simple as sniffing a t-shirt...

I feel sorry for the pill; it’s always the scapegoat. Despite providing excellent protection from pregnancy when taken consistently, reducing cramping and bleeding with periods, and having a huge amount of evidence to prove its safety, the pill gets blamed for the strangest things… Today’s example: blaming the pill for choosing the wrong guy.

A new study attracting attention in the press does just that. The authors are interested in whether the pill affects mate choice in humans. Don’t get me wrong—communication between the sexes by non-verbal means, like body language and pheromones, is intriguing and well-studied. We definitely have preferences about the way our partners smell, and what smells attractive may be linked to genetics. But let’s face it: sniffing the t-shirts of various men, as women did in one study, is not how women decide who to date.

The theory that the pill prevents the release of an egg from a woman’s ovary (aka ovulation) and might therefore interfere with her fertility signals to the opposite sex and vice versa is interesting, but it’s also incredibly simplistic. If you’ve ever been in a relationship, you know how many factors are involved. How you met, what you noticed about the other person, the circumstances of both your lives at that time, who made the first phone call, how much flirting took place, what your friends said about it, and on and on… Whether or not a woman was taking the pill at the time seems like the smallest possible effect amid so many other factors!

Scientifically, here’s the bottom line. The pill is blamed for all kinds of “non-specific side effects,” which is medical speak for vague and uncertain problems occurring while taking a medication. It’s difficult to sort out what is actually a cause and effect relationship, what’s a coincidence, and what happens because of our expectations. Think about the studies of new medicines that show some people taking a fake placebo pill still report feeling better. If you expect to feel better, you are more likely to feel better. It works in the other direction to: if you expect to feel worse, you are more likely to feel worse.

So it’s super important to have a detailed and honest conversation with your doctor about what to expect from whatever method of birth control you use. Women who stop using a method often do so because of unexpected side effects. Side effects from the pill—like irregular bleeding—can be annoying. But most get better with time, or can be eliminated by switching pill type or by switching to a different method. Side effects from an unplanned pregnancy, on the other hand? Way worse!

And the bottom line on dating? Who you find attractive depends upon a huge array of factors. There is a lot more to women than just their menstrual cycles, and a lot more to men than how their sweaty t-shirts smell! And we can all be thankful for that.

Written by Maria Isabel Rodriguez, MD

Maria Isabel Rodriguez, MD, is an Obstetrician/Gynecologist and a clinical fellow in Family Planning at the University of California, San Francisco. She likes working with women of all ages and believes that reproductive health is critical to not just the health of women, but making healthy families and happy communities. She surfs badly, but likes it anyways. Dr. Rodriguez is a faculty member at UCSF. However, the views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Regents of the University of California, UCSF, UCSF Medical Center, or any entities or units thereof.

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