The now-infamous Breitbart headline “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” is often circulated as an example of how unhinged the alt-right “news” site is. It’s extreme, it’s ridiculous, but it’s actually not so far off from what more reputable sources have been telling us about birth control for years. It’s commonly accepted that the pill causes weight gain, mood changes and a decreased libido. So, birth control makes women fat, crazy and sexless. Great. But is any of it true?
A new study has seemingly disproved one of the most persistent myths: that birth control kills your sex drive. But that probably won’t be enough to convince people, as all of these negative associations have stuck around without scientific support pretty much since the origin of the pill.
The connection between hormonal birth control and weight gain is purely anecdotal, and even a medical news site that lists weight gain as a “common side effect” of birth control clarifies, “Clinical studies have found no consistent association between the use of birth control pills and weight fluctuations.” At most, the pill may cause some water retention around the breasts and hips.
Claims that the pill causes mood changes may have some more credibility to them, though in many cases those changes are positive, as birth control regulates hormones and can help manage the mood swings and depression that sometimes accompany PMS.
And then we have the commonly accepted wisdom that the pill will kill your sex drive—though the evidence for that only got as conclusive as “possible, but not likely,” according to WebMD. The explanation for this was speculative hormonal birth control works by suppressing the ovaries, which usually produce estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, but birth control only replaces the estrogen and progesterone. Without enough testosterone, the logic goes, your sex drive will be suppressed.
There has been research on the issue, but it failed to take into account the effect of long-term relationships on the libido (like the fact that your lack of desire might be end of the honeymoon phase, and have nothing to do with your birth control), or the effects of other types of birth control. A 2012 review of the existing research concluded that “the sexual side effects of hormonal contraceptives are not well studied, particularly with regard to impact on libido.”
“There appears to be mixed effects on libido,” the report continues, “with a small percentage of women experiencing an increase or a decrease, and the majority being unaffected.”
Hoping to settle the debate once and for all, researchers from University of Kentucky and Indiana University had more than 900 study participants fill out a survey called the Sexual Desire Inventory. Unlike previous studies on the matter, this study took into account the lengths of the sexual relationships these women were in, and differentiated between “solitary” and “didactic” desire—meaning desire experienced on their own vs. with their partners. They also recorded what kind of birth control subjects were using, to test the possible differences between the pill and other types of hormonal birth control, and non-hormonal methods like condoms and diaphragms.
Their results, published in a paper in The Journal of Sexual Medicine in the fall of 2016, showed that women on hormonal contraceptives did in fact have lower solitary sexual desire, and that women on the pill had higher levels of desire with their partners than women on other forms of hormonal birth control. But when researchers accounted for how long women had been with their partners, the differences in desire between different forms of birth control were no longer significant. This means that “contextual factors,” like relationship status, age, and length of relationship have a bigger impact on desire than birth control does, and that, in fact, the pill is not killing your sex drive.
Top photo by GabiSanda
Lilly Dancyger is Deputy Editor of Narratively, and a freelance journalist based in New York City.