Women’s ability to choose undermined by the pill

Or more specifically, a recent review article raises the question whether

the use of oral contraceptives is interfering with a woman’s ability to choose, compete for and retain her preferred mate

Because, as it turns out, contrary to women who take the pill,

Ovulating women exhibit a preference for more masculine male features, are particularly attracted to men showing dominance and male-male competitiveness and prefer partners that are genetically dissimilar to themselves.

Well, that might be not so bad then? However, higher genetical similarity is associated with infertility and weaker offspring.

The researchers do underline in their article that there is not much known about how this cyclic change in female preference affects actual mate choice, but I just fear that this will be picked up by some groups as another excuse to fulminate against oral contraception, because  “oohz noz! they are messing up the human race!”.

[Update] What I couldn’t put my finger on earlier but got enlightened on in transport is that it speaks of “a woman’s ability to choose” rather than saying “it affects her choice”.  I am probably nitpicking, but I find it somewhat loaded to put it this way.

21 thoughts on “Women’s ability to choose undermined by the pill

  1. I read a book once that recommended you go off the pill for a few months before marrying your guy to make sure you really do have the hots for him. It’s a bit of a scary thought, but I must admit it seems more like fear-mongering to me than anything.

  2. I found the article rather off-putting.

    The loss of “ability to choose,” rather than a change in choice, indicates to me that any partner(s) a ciswoman is attracted to while on hormonal birth control are somehow inferior to those she would choose were she not on HBC. She is unable to act on an attraction to a “preferred mate,” and instead has to settle for a lesser quality. The title of the article, “Unnatural Selection,” seems to support this, placing the choice of a less masculine partner (as the article suggests women on birth control do) as “unnatural” or as a perversion of the natural way of being.

    From the article: [C]ontraceptive methods which alter a woman’s natural hormonal cycles may have an underappreciated impact on choice of partners…

    In a society where hormonal contraceptives are available, there are going to be a lot of other mitigating factors affecting hormones. Beyond standard hormonal variance in women, diets high in soy and/or dairy, for instance, have been known to change ovulation cycles dramatically. Diet and other factors could vary the findings of the study, making the focus on the contraceptives as limiting choice of partner a strange one, to my mind. As I haven’t read the paper the article is discussing, this may be addressed in the original source.

    The article also seemed to emphasize heteronormativity and masculinity. While homosexuals and bisexuals are (according to the last statistics I saw) approximately 10% of the population, that seems like a large enough portion to warrant discussion (but I’m not in any way a statistician). The omission of homosexuality makes some sense, as reproduction is typically not a factor of homosexual relationships, but bisexuals are, in fact, often involved in heterosexual relationships. The article also seemed to rely on an assumed biological determinism for gender (the emphasis on masculinity I mentioned earlier), which I find problematic.

  3. Whilst I am sympathetic to the proposition that we don’t entirely know all the side effects of hormonal contraception, some of the language in that article did disturb me. (one thing to think about is that a lot of hormonal contraception supresses ovulation by mimicking early pregnancy, a consideration that seems to support the argument in the article – that it makes women seek men that might make better fathers).

    One question you could raise is, is it necessarily the case that men who look ‘more masculine’ make worse fathers?

    From what I read of the article, a lot of it seems to be speculative work, that hasn’t been researched yet.

  4. I take the pill and I prefer masculine men. Just do. Craggy and masculine — and they have to have very large rib cages, as I also have a preference for that. They have to look like they’ve experienced the world, and have taken it seriously — not like they’re just going along for a joyride. Those are the kind of men who interest me, exclusively. Yet, for about one day, when I have the “gap” between taking the pill, and when my hormonal consitution changes, I swing towards women. That is when I am in pain. And then it changes back again.

    So anecdotally, the indications are that taking the pill turns me towards masculine men, but not taking it turns me towards women.

  5. I do philosophical analyses of immunological research, and I think there is some reason to be concerned about oral contraception and possible immune-mediation of sexual attraction. (And, oral contraception and immune function in women in general.) Very little work has been done immune functions specific to women (there are more being uncovered now that women are on the immunological radar!) and even less work on how oral contraceptives affect immune-mediated fertility and reproduction. It is unfortunate that such concerns may be exploited by anti-choice and anti-contraception advocates; however, I think most women would want to know if they were at risk of choosing genetically or immunologically incompatible males because a drug was affecting their immune system. How many women are struggling with infertility are doing so because of the pill? Maybe none. But it would be nice to know for sure!

  6. Also, a problem with the current framing of MHC research by the evolutionary anthropologists/psychologists is that the pill affects some purported nerd/”manly man” dichotomy. If there is MHC mediated mate choice, it probably could only distinguish a reproductive or immunological compatibility–a nuts and bolts biological compatibility independent of evaluations of “masculinity.” (In any case, the assumption that uncaring males are more masculine is a bit ridiculous.)

  7. The premise of the argument confuses me. I would think that if I’m determined to pick a certain kind of mate by my hormones, then I am not free to choose. If I am able to escape this determination by taking a drug, then I have more choice. Is the idea that if my ovaries cause me to choose a certain kind of mate that is freedom? Weird.

  8. The language does seem bad, but following on what Moira has said, It might be good to stress that they are talking about “ability to choose her preferred mate,” which suggests they mean “ability to make a/the right choice.”
    The premise, then, could be understood as saying that taking the pill causes a loss of a kind of motivationally weighted information. Behind this is the familiar thought that we have ‘natural’ tendencies to pick things that are good for us in some circumstances; for example, in general our tastes stear us toward nutritionally dense food. (Clearly not such an advantage in industrialized societies with McDonalds, etc.)
    So the claim is that we women have a natural taste for manly men when we are not pregnant, that that taste stears us toward genetic diversity, and that the pill interfers with that.
    If that’s the right understanding, the problem may be that it is unbelievable that each of us will find genetic diversity only in manly men. It would make much more sense if we were inclined to experience genetically diverse men as particularly manly. So I’m wondering if the politics of the interpretation is showing up in the conviction that manliness, like beauty, is supposed to turn out to be completely objective. I.e., being manly can’t be a matter of how women see men, just as male appreciation of female beauty cannot be socially conditioned. Hmmmmmmm
    Maybe the claim they want is that in prehistoric times only manly men survived to reproduce. But if a philosopher can thus close the gap in the empirical tale so easily, we might be suspicious of the enterprise.

  9. So, if compelling longitudinal studies were to show that women who enter heterosexual relationships while on the pill are at significantly greater risk of divorce and/or having children with health problems: would it not then be appropriate to say that women on the pill who are seeking long-term relationships and/or wanting to have as healthy as possible children are indeed at risk of their ability to choose being, as the article puts it, interfered with by the pill?

  10. Rob, I have a bit of a problem with that, even given your wording. The worry I have is really semantic, and it might not be get at what is alarming others. The bottom line is that I don’t want to say that one’s ability to choose is somehow impaired in general. Rather, one’s ability to choose the better thing in some circumstances is affected, because one doesn’t get all the input one needs.

  11. And as a childfree person (though not the nasty kind), I’d like to point out that using the term “better” in the sense of “more immunocompatible” implies that partners are always being chosen for reproduction, which is not necessarily the case.

  12. Yes, that’s why I leave open the idea that were those compelling longitudinal studies to appear, it might more clearly not be appropriate to say of hetereosexual women on the pill who are seeking short-term relationships, and don’t want to be biological parents, that their ability to choose was being interfered with.

  13. I like fat, scruffy guys with facial hair. Preferably light brown/dirty blondish. Always have, whether on or off the pill. I just like a plump, comfortable tummy and a scratchy beard.

  14. J-bro, I take your point about what we choose for, but I was trying not to make the mistake you mention. That is, I think we can talk about the better choice without implying that’s the basis on which you choose. For example, if a young person is debating over a hot red mini or a hot red BMW, I might well think the mini is the better choice because of the person’s finances, but not think that was the deciding factor at all.

    The biology case is really more interesting and more complex. Also, it’s an area I’m working in. So at the risk of being boring and/or obvious, let me say that there seem to be two factors: the taste we have and why we have it. The story is, I infer from what is said, that we women have a natural taste for manly men and we have it because in exercising it we get what we really need – genetic diversity in a mate.

    This then get complicated when you have to think about what makes choices based on natural taste good and what you lose when you fail to act on natural taste. The concern in the article is NOT that women end up with wimps and not manly men. The concern is rather that we end up without healthy genetic diversity.

    So what makes natural taste indicative of a good choice is genetic diversity, but the end the individual is after may be this manliness.

  15. HEB, Ashley Wilkes or Rhett Butler struck me in early adolescence as the ur-choice. Since then things have gotten much less clear, pill or no pill. However, the evolutionary psychologists seem to have the adolescent choice in mind. Can’t think why.

    Wait! I just got it! They think women have adolescent brains. But why? Because they have adolescent brains?

  16. I, for one, am really glad to get this information. How else would I have learned that I prefer “men showing dominance and male-male competitiveness”? I have been failing to choose my preferred mates for my entire life! I hope science can someday invent and market a drug to help women like me.

    JJ, I’m confused about how manliness in a male partner can possibly be a proxy for genetic diversity. Genetic diversity depends on both partners, so if I am a woman with uber-manly genes (whatever those are), then ceteris paribus, I am more genetically different from non-manly men than from manly men. I think it’s possible to work out a formal model in which manly people have more male offspring, and non-manly people have more female offspring, so that if you don’t know whether a woman is of manly stock or not, and you want to pair her with somebody genetically different from her, you should pair her with a manly man. But even in that model, there will be women whose best match from a diversity standpoint is a non-manly man. And besides, the model relies on some really wacky speculative premises.

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