Sunday, November 25, 2018

Unintended consequences

Oral contraceptives suppress not only ovulation but also concurrent behavioral and attitudinal changes, including the desire to look more attractive. Has "the pill" changed our culture?

The oral contraceptive pill prevents pregnancy by suppressing ovulation—in short, by fooling a woman's body into thinking it is already pregnant. In addition to medical side effects, "the pill" also seems to modify behavior and attitude, often subtly. Whereas women are more likely to initiate sexual behavior at ovulation, this effect is suppressed in women on the pill (Adams et al. 1978). The latter also prefer men whose faces are less masculine (Little et al. 2002) and lighter-skinned (Frost 1994).

Among non-pill-users, ovulation coincides with greater use of cosmetics and increased time spent putting on cosmetics (Guéguen 2012). This behavioral effect seems to be likewise suppressed by pill use:

We photographed a sample of women (N = 36) who self-reported whether or not they use the contraceptive pill, as well as their cosmetic habits. A separate sample of participants (N = 143) rated how much makeup these target women appeared to be wearing. We found that women not using the contraceptive pill (i.e., naturally cycling women) reported spending more time applying cosmetics for an outing than did women who use the contraceptive pill. We also found that the faces of these naturally cycling women were rated as wearing more cosmetics than the faces of the women using the contraceptive pill. (Batres et al. 2018)

These findings are consistent with the results of a study on professional lap dancers. The participants made $335 in tips per 5 hour shift during ovulation, but only $260 per shift during the luteal phase and $185 per shift during menstruation. Lap dancers on contraceptive pills showed no change in earnings over the menstrual cycle (Miller et al. 2007). It's unclear what sort of visual or behavioral cues were suppressed by pill use:

[...] our study did not identify the precise proximal mechanisms that influence tip earnings. These might include the previously documented shifts in body scent, facial attractiveness, soft-tissue body symmetry, waist-to-hip ratio, and verbal creativity and fluency—or they might include shifts in other phenotypic cues that have not yet been studied. We can, however, exclude some possible mediators based on previous exotic dancer research. Tip earnings are unlikely to be influenced by cycle shifts in stage-dance moves, clothing, or initial conversational content because these cues just do not vary much for professional dancers (Miller et al. 2007)

Do women naturally have a more attractive physical appearance at ovulation?


The past half-century has seen a trend toward androgyny among women. This trend is usually attributed to feminism and pop culture, but perhaps the latter have in turn been influenced by something else.

Today, "the pill" is used by approximately 100 million women worldwide, particularly in developed countries. Has this widespread use played a role in changing our cultural and ideological environment? 

I'm not suggesting that women look less feminine today simply because more of them are on the pill and thus are hormonally altered. Rather, if a larger proportion of women are in that kind of hormonal state, it will be easier for anti-feminine fashions and ideologies to achieve a critical mass and take off among all women, including those not on the pill.


Adams, D.B., A.R. Gold, and A.D. Burt. (1978). Rise in female-initiated sexual activity at ovulation and its suppression by oral contraceptives. New England Journal of Medicine 299: 1145-1150.

Batres, C., A. Porcheron, G. Kaminski, S. Courrèges, F. Morizot, and R. Russell. (2018). Evidence that the hormonal contraceptive pill is associated with cosmetic habits? Frontiers in Psychology 9: 1459

Frost, P. (1994b). Preference for darker faces in photographs at different phases of the menstrual cycle: Preliminary assessment of evidence for a hormonal relationship. Perceptual and Motor Skills 79(1): 507-14.

Guéguen, N. (2012). Makeup and menstrual cycle: near ovulation, women use more cosmetics. The Psychological Record 62: 541-548. 

Little, A.C., B.C. Jones, I.S. Penton-Voak, D.M. Burt, and D.I. Perrett. (2002). Partnership status and the temporal context of relationships influence human female preferences for sexual dimorphism in male face shape. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 269: 1095-1100. 

Miller, G., J.M. Tybur, and B.D. Jordan. (2007). Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap dancers: economic evidence for human estrus? Evolution and Human Behavior 28: 375-381.


Sean said...

The majority of women taking the pill are being regularly exposed to semen, which may have mood elevating effects (Does Semen Have Antidepressant Properties?). I suppose contraceptive pills' effect on women may be being masked by the opposite effect of semen. "The contraceptive pill can reduce the general well-being of healthy women, a study has claimed ... Last year, a particularly large study suggested a link between women who take the pill and an increased risk of developing depression."

Truth Seeker said...

Peter, do you know why today's women don't panic about their biological clocks? It's been years since I read anything in the media about biological clocks. Are women really freezing their eggs en masse? When I was young, I often heard the claim from others that "women start panicking when they hit their 30s and don't have kids yet." I ask because I'm a 39-yr-old bachelor and I get zero attention from 35-40-yr-old women (early millennials) on dating sites, but they are a large group numerically, and the vast majority are never-married-no-kids.

Wanda said...

Very interesting post! Thought provoking.
It may turn out that oral contraceptives are in very many ways quite pernicious and it would have been better if they had never been made available, except on a limited basis for medical health reasons.
Here's another way oral contraceptives may be influencing female behavior and thus affecting society in negative ways:
Oral contraceptive pill use is associated with localized decreases in cortical thickness
From the abstract:
"Oral contraceptive use was associated with significantly lower cortical thickness measurements in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex. These regions are believed to be important for responding to rewards and evaluating internal states/incoming stimuli."

Sean said...

"DURING the programme, Dr Cynthia Graham said there’s been “shockingly little research” into how the pill affects sex drive, despite many women reporting this anecdotally.

She explained that studies in men have linked high levels to testosterone to high sex drive, and we know that levels of testosterone can be four times lower for women who take the pill compared to women who do not. Therefore, it’s completely feasible that the pill could lower sex drives for some women."

john said...

Also the pill is the primary source of androgens in the environment as it passes unaltered through the human system down the toilet and through sewerage works into the rivers , to be drunk by both men and wormen.
Forget Phthalates and BPA. This is the biggie and not a soul will try and stop the sale of the pill as toooo much money is involved.

Peter Frost said...


The pill mimics the hormonal state of pregnancy … over a very prolonged length of time. Researchers have looked for undesirable medical while ignoring behavioral effects.

Truth Seeker,

Single men outnumber single women at all ages between 20 and 40. The "operational sex ratio" is even more lopsided if we look only at childless singles. Finally, hypergamy causes many women to ignore men who are their equals in terms of physical/social desirability. As a result, most single women are in a sellers market, especially among average men, and they will tend to postpone marriage indefinitely. See:


Is there an evolutionary explanation? In other words, are women confronted with fewer cognitive demands during pregnancy? Or is this simply a dysfunctional effect? (extended pseudo-pregnancy is not a natural state).


It's not just the pill. Female urine seems to be a major source of estrogen in the environment, and ultimately in drinking water. see:

Anonymous said...

Peter, do you think there may be similar unintended consequences to the hair loss drug Propecia, aka Finasteride? Besides the known side effects that affect some of its users.

Anonymous said...

Single men outnumber single women at all ages between 20 and 40. The "operational sex ratio" is even more lopsided if we look only at childless singles. Finally, hypergamy causes many women to ignore men who are their equals in terms of physical/social desirability. As a result, most single women are in a sellers market, especially among average men, and they will tend to postpone marriage indefinitely.

The primary factor behind all this is women's economic independence, right? Women today are expected and encouraged to work and be independent. Having a personal income stream coupled with norms making divorce and serial relationships acceptable enable women to play the mating market over an extended period.

Sean said...

It makes sense that the pregnancy state would have profound mental effects. I wonder if there also political effects through voting patterns.

Peter Frost said...


Finasteride has systemic effects because it's administered as a systemic (oral) medication. Those systemic effects could be reduced by administering it in a topical form, but I'm not the manufacturer.


We see a similar sex ratio imbalance developing in East Asia and eastern Europe, where feminism is nonetheless much less developed. There are three main problems:

- infant mortality has been greatly reduced, with the result that the male-biased sex ratio at birth has been extended to older age groups, currently people in their fifties.

- deregulation of marriage, i.e., easier divorce, which enables older men to ditch their wives and marry younger women.

- reduction in cultural constraints on female hypergamy. It is socially more acceptable now for women to engage in polyamory and spend their most fertile years chasing after the sexiest men


Indirectly. There is a greater proportion of women, especially among culture creators, who reject their gender identity either for ideological reasons or because they are less femininized for various biological reasons.