You Are More Than The Sum Of Your Facial Features And Pheremones

Photo courtesy LyndaSanchez

Photo courtesy LyndaSanchez

Hi again, lovely readers, and welcome back to my one-woman (though I’ve recently discovered I’m not the only one – SQUEE!) crusade to correct the lies and misinformation being spread about by 1Flesh.

In this episode, we’ll be talking about how hormonal contraception DOESN’T ruin romantic relationships (or lead to incest – that’s relevant, I promise). I probably would have skipped over this topic, had Marc not decided to post a new “video” of the words in this post. That bumped it up to the top of their blog, and, well, once I saw that masterpiece I just knew I had to respond.

As always, paragraphs in italics are taken directly from 1Flesh’s site. Enjoy! 

Contraception and Romantic Relationships

It’s common knowledge that hormonal contraception is detrimental to a woman’s physical health,

You mean that preventing endometrial cancer, reducing the risk of colo-rectal cancer, providing a modest reduction in the risk of benign breast disease (which can potentially progress to cancer), decreasing symptoms of: dysmenorrhea, anemia, acne, hirsutism, ectopic pregnancy, ovarian cysts, and pelvic inflammatory disease; preventing osteopenia and osteoporosis; and improving dyslipidemia by improving serum lipoprotein levels by increasing HDL and decreasing LDL are all detrimental to a woman’s physical health?

Those horrible, horrible birth control pills.

Please, do go on.

Photo courtesy Lady/Bird

Photo courtesy Lady/Bird

but there’s little discussion regarding how the same drugs affect the health of her romantic relationships.

Hormonal contraception changes a woman’s romantic chemistry. How? First, by suppressing ovulation. While this is obviously the intended end for a woman seeking to avoid pregnancy, the suppression of ovulation unintentionally suppresses the wonderful changes a woman’s body goes through that indicate her fertility to men, and help her to attract a mate.

I’m just…I mean…..are we seriously presuming that women are incapable of attracting a partner unless their hormone levels are fluctuating?

These changes are still being discovered and compiled by researchers, but we know that fertility generally makes a woman more beautiful. According to findings published in Royal Society Biology Letters, fertile women’s lips become bigger and brighter, her pupils dilate, and her ears, fingers, breasts and other soft tissue areas become more symmetrical, to the point that men and women rated fertile women to be more beautiful than infertile women approximately 51-59 percent of the time.

Would you care to provide a cite for this? Because I’m thinking that y’all “borrowed” this information from this Physicians for Life page (without attribution, I might add), but then failed to actually go read the study that was referenced. It appears that you also have…shall we say…embellished the story a bit.

First, just so we’re all on the same page, here’s the studyreferenced in the Physicians for Life post, and to which I believe 1Flesh is referring.

Researchers here did NOT find that “fertile women’s lips become bigger and brighter, her pupils dilate, and her ears, fingers, breast and other soft tissue areas become more symmetrical.” At all.

What these researchers ACTUALLY did was take photos of women without makeup during the follicular phase (prior to ovulation) and the luteal phase (after ovulation) in Prague and Newcastle. They then asked male and female respondents to choose the photo of each woman they liked the best. They also repeated the study using computer-masked images, wherein the women’s hair and ears were obscured.

So what did the researchers find in this experiment? That in Prague, both men and women preferred photos of masked and unmasked women in the follicular phase, 54 – 59% of the time (p <.001). In Newcastle, however, while women preferred the unmasked photos 55% of the time  (p <.001) and men preferred masked photos 53% of the time (p<.02 ), the differences in the rate at which women preferred masked photos and men preferred unmasked photos was not significant.

Can you tell which is which?

The authors then SUGGESTED that candidate cues might include things like variation in lip color and size, pupil dilation, and skin color and tone, but stated explicitly that more work needed to be done to confirm these theories.

There, now was that so hard?

How does she ever expect to find a man with those asymmetrical thumbs?

In terms of soft tissue symmetry related to ovulation, I believe y’all are referring to this study, wherein the researchers discovered that the soft tissues of the ears and digits became more symmetrical in the 3 days leading up to ovulation, with the least asymmetry happening on the day of ovulation itself (which, coincidentally is the least probable day for conception of any of the days they measured).

In terms of breast tissue symmetry, I believe you’re probably referring to this study, wherein researchers discovered that clinical asymmetry was highest at the beginning and end of a woman’s cycle, and lowest during ovulation, with a slight increase prior to ovulation. Given the proliferation of molded cup bras, and the fact that women generally wear shirts, however, I’m at a loss to see how breast symmetry would generally be noticeable to the average man on the street

Similarly, scientists at the University of Texas found that women’s “waists shrank by about half an inch, giving them a more curvaceous and shapely silhouette.”

Okay. First, this is a news article. From the Daily Mail. Second, this “research” was conducted by students and never published, except as an interview in New Scientist (ergo, it is not peer reviewed). Third, the sample size of this study was 27, and it was entirely based on self-reporting. And fourth, behavioral psychologist Dr. Craig Roberts (whom you cite below), in reference to this research, has stated, ‘These signals are probably more effective at coordinating sexual behavior within long-term partnerships than in attracting a new mate.”

Fertile women also develop what is colloquially referred to as “gaydar”. A study by psychologists at the University of Toronto and Tufts University showed women pictures of 80 men, 40 self-proclaimed as homosexual, 40 self-proclaimed as heterosexual. The nearer women were to peak ovulation, the more accurate they were at judging each man’s sexual orientation. During her fertile period, a woman becomes brilliant at discriminating between men who are a good match for her and men who aren’t.

First, here’s the actual study (seriously – y’all have access to libraries, how hard would it be to provide primary sources for people? I DON’T have access to a library right now, and I’ve still been able to do it for almost every single article you or I have referenced. I know my googlefu is awesomesauce, but really?)

Second, I’d say this makes women good at discriminating between men who are a potential sexual partner for her, and those who aren’t.  As for matching, well…yeah, no. This study doesn’t go that far.

Fertile women have increased sex drives.

Cite, please? I do know that I’ve already debunked your theory that oral contraceptives lower women’s libido.

and more attractive voices.

Once again, the full study.

(1) The gist of this article is that there was a difference in perceived attractiveness of women’s voices the more at risk they were of conceiving. On a 100 point scale, the ratings between a 0.25% chance of conceiving and a 7.8% chance of conceiving changed by approximately 6 points, from ~42 to ~48 (p<.001).

(2) I was originally impressed that the authors of this study thought to do a comparison between contraceptive users and non-contraceptive users.  But then I saw this statement: “obviously females who were taken hormonal contraceptives would not be subject to changes in conception risk, but for purposes of comparison their data were organized according to their cycle phase as though they were normally cycling.” [emphasis mine]

Um, no. just no. If someone has a consistent conception risk, then you should use that risk, not arbitrarily assign a risk. FFS.

Also, I thought people might be interested in this incredibly recent study (from about two weeks ago)  about a similar topic. These researchers evaluated different factors of speech using acoustical analysis and perceptual analysis. Interestingly, acoustic analysis of voices showed NO statistical difference in voice based on cycle day. However, perceptual analysis showed a slight (but statistically significant) difference. Apparently the human ear and brain are better at detecting differences than machines. Pretty awesome, right?

They smell better,

First, actual study.

These studies are interesting, though the sample sizes are VERY small, making me question their methodology. I’m also intrigued by the fact that their “control” t-shirt was a t-shirt worn by no one. I think adding t-shirts worn by hormonal contraceptive using women would have added a lot to the study results.

and dress sexier.

Care to point out where exactly in this study you got THAT from? Because this study was all about women’s self-esteem at various points in a “normal” menstrual cycle, and determined that women had a drop in self-esteem near the time of ovulation. However, the researchers noted that, “It is important to emphasize that although we found evidence for a negative relationship between self-esteem and fertility across the menstrual cycle, this relationship is not necessarily a causal one.”

Further, the researchers also asked test subjects about their willingness to spend money on certain items (i.e. beauty items).  While the researchers discovered that women were more willing to spend money on the listed items the closer they were to ovulation, they stated that,

A second note of caution must be made regarding a weakness in the methodology used to test whether the self-esteem dip at high fertility corresponds to an increased willingness to purchase expensive items designed to enhance attractiveness. The method with which we tested this prediction asked participants to choose which of two items they would most prefer to purchase across six classes of items. Each of the six item types was a product that is related to physical appearance (e.g., clothes, shoes); thus, we cannot conclude with certainty that the self-esteem shift at high fertility leads to increased willingness to spend on attractiveness augmentation per se. That is, the demonstrated effect of increased willingness to spend on attractiveness-enhancement items may actually result from a more general desire to spend money on anything when self-esteem is low.

They even feel better: “[Fertile] women felt less stressed than at other times of the month, had fewer headaches and could detect a more ‘positive mood’ about themselves,” according to scientists at the University of Texas.

And, again, back we go to the non-study. Unpublished. And un-peer-reviewed. Also, this “study” seems to directly contradict the one you just cited. Which is it? Do women have a higher self-esteem or a lower self-esteem a the point in their cycles when their most fertile?

As if all that weren’t enough, in a study led by Belinda Pletzer of the University of Salzburg Austria, it was found that fertile women had increased gray matter volume in the parts of the brain involved in spatial location and face recognition. While this could be particularly useful information to female students taking exams in any visual type of study — art, film, engineering, etc. — it is primarily associated with a more accurate appraisal of potential mates.

Oh, it’s cute that you think that’s with this study found. Again this is why you ALWAYS have to read the original study, and not what someone else says about it.

This study measured the difference in brain matter between men, women with “normal” cycles, and women using hormonal contraceptives. For the women with “normal” cycles, they measured twice – once in the early follicular phase (a non-fertile time period), and once during the mid-luteal phase (a non-fertile period).

Further, what the researchers ACTUALLY found was that women TAKING hormonal contraceptives had larger grey matter (GM) volumes in the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making and moderating social behavior), the pre – and postcentral gyri (parts of the brain responsible for movement, and the sense of touch), the parahippocampal and fusiform gyri (parts of the brain responsible for memory coding and retrieval; and for processing color, face, body, and word recognition, and within-category identification), and temporal regions (parts of the brain responsible for face recognition, contemplating distance, accessing word meanings when reading, processing sound and language, and visual processing including face recognition).

The study did NOT identify any brain regions with a higher GM volume in naturally cycling women compared to women on hormonal contraceptives.

Yeah, Jean Luc really doesn’t have anything to do with this. But I couldn’t
resist sharing his creepy “I told you so” shimmy.

Hormonal contraception suppresses fertility, and thereby suppresses these natural changes that make it easier for a woman to find and to attract a mate.

Um….yeah, not really. Please to be seeing above. I think the key point to this section is that where there ARE differences between women on hormonal contraceptives and naturally cycling women near ovulation, those differences are so small as to be generally unnoticeable to someone who is not already well-acquainted with the woman.

Obviously, women on hormonal contraception — being women, and thus awesome — 

Finally, something we agree on!

can easily work around some of these difficulties.

But there are other issues:

In a 2011 study published in Personality and Individual Differences, ethinyl estradiol, the active chemical in most birth control pills, was shown to increase relational jealousy in women.

First, here’s the full study.

This study determined that women on low-dose oral contraceptives had higher relational jealousy than women on ultra-low dose formulations. It also determined that progestin type / level was not significantly associated with jealousy levels. The authors were also keen to note that the a limitation of their study was that it was CORRELATIONAL and could not be used to show a causal effect between estrogen doses and jealousy levels.

I seriously feel like I’ve had to post this in almost every
response to you guys. What can I do to get y’all to remember it?

To add to this, however, it is also important to note that it is not ethinyl estradiol itself that is shown to be positively correlated with relational jealousy, but rather free circulating ESTROGEN. For instance, in Estrogens and Relationship Jealousy, researchers found that naturally cycling women experienced increased jealousy levels during the late follicular phase of their cycle, when concentrations of estrogen were at their highest.

According to another 2011 study, “Relationship satisfaction and outcome in women who meet their partner while using oral contraception”, women “who used OC 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.”

First, here’s the full study, wherein you’ll discover that the researchers also determined that women who met their partner while not using hormonal contraception were more likely to experience an unplanned pregnancy (oopsies – but wait, I thought hormonal contraception didn’t work?), and were more likely to separate.

Why? A woman’s body contains testosterone, an essential element when it comes to things like arousal and attraction. When a woman is on birth control pills, her testosterone levels are lowered, causing her to be less sexually inclined,

Cite? Nevermind, I’ll do it for you. This study discusses the effect of “low-dose” (20mg) OCPs on testosterone levels in women.

and more attracted to low-testosterone men.
Yes, he’s the epitome of masculine…

Hmmmm. Cite? I think what you mean to say is that women are attracted to less masculine looking men. And here’s a brand new cite for that.

…but he scores much higher in
paternal markers.

That being said, I’m trying to figure out precisely what the problem is with women being attracted to men with good paternal markers (aka “low-testosterone men”, aka men whom they’re attracted to because of intelligence or perception of faithfulness) over men who show aggression or dominance (aka “high-testosterone men” they’re attracted to due to more masculine facial structure). In other words, why is it “bad” to choose reliable over sexy?

The study did note that women on hormonal contraception tended to be happier with some of the non-sexual aspects of their relationship, as low-testosterone men are less likely to stray, “and thus had longer relationships and were less likely to separate.”

It is important to recognize, however, that this benefit only applies to women as long as they remain on hormonal contraception. When a woman goes off hormonal contraception, her bodily chemistry returns to normal, increasing her testosterone levels. This could cause her to change her attitudes toward sex, and alter how she feels toward her partner.

Actually, the study you reference theorized this, and then controlled for use of OCP use and pregnancy in determining current relationship satisfaction. Women who met their partners while on OCP and later discontinued OCP STILL had higher overall relationship satisfaction levels.

Similarly, hormonal contraception alters how a woman perceives men in the first place. Women have the amazing capacity to, through their sense of smell, sniff out and prefer men with a dissimilar major histocompatibility complex, that is, men with genes dissimilar to their own. The biological reason for this preference is simple: The more dissimilar the genes, the less chance there is of inbreeding, and thus the healthier the children potentially produced by a man and a woman. It is in part our natural preference for a dissimilar major histocompatibility complex that normally prevents us from being attracted to members of our family.

First, um…you do realize this study was a re-analyzation of previous studies on MICE, not women, correct?

Second, yes, women, at the time of ovulation, are more attracted to men who are more genetically dissimilar. You can cite to this for that.

Third, I do hope you understand that individuals who take oral contraceptives are no more likely to engage in incest that individuals who don’t. Because your last statement insinuates you might not.

However, according to a 2008 study published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, women using oral contraceptives show the opposite tendency. They prefer men with a genetic makeup similar to their own. Their romantic chemistry has been altered. The problem with this is the same — once women stops using hormonal contraception, they may find their chosen partner less desirable.

Sigh. Again, here’s the full text.

Second, please to be seeing the first study you cited in this section, wherein women who met their partner while taking oral contraceptives maintained higher overall relationshipsatisfaction and were less likely to separate.

All this has lead to serious concerns within the sexual health community. Sexual counselor Ian Kerner’s write-up on the issue, “Birth control may affect long-term relationships”, expresses this. He cites sexual health expert Dr. Madeleine Castellanos, who argues that “some of these side effects are so serious that I now urge young women to consider just using condoms and leaving the birth control pills behind.” He cites the advice of Dr. Craig Roberts — who lead both of the Biological Sciences studies – recommending ”women who met their partner while taking hormonal birth control should consider switching to another method several months in advance of tying the knot in order to assess whether their feelings for their partner will change or stay the same.”

A blog? You’re citing to a blog? Really?

Of course, it would be absurd to base the success of romantic relationships on biology alone. But it would be similarly absurd to ignore the reality that much of the crazy world of love, romance and sex is fueled by our chemistry, our genetics, and — yes — our smell.

Dear FSM, your disingenuousness is appalling. Much in the world of SEXUAL ATTRACTION is fueled by hormones. But in terms of long-lasting RELATIONSHIPS, hormones play much less of a role.

We’ve been sold the idea that contraception exists for the empowerment of women. Maybe it’s time to rethink, and to begin appreciating the value of a natural way.

Actually, I think I’ll  stick with my hormonal contraception with a less than 0.3% failure rate that gives me lots of nifty health benefits and makes it sure that I won’t have to arrange my schooling or career around an unintended pregnancy (aka – it empowers me), and take a pass on the form of contraception with a THIRTY-FIVE PERCENT TYPICAL USE FAILURE RATE. But thanks anyway.

Key take-aways: Yes, women using non-hormonally based contraceptives DO experience different biological and chemical changes than women who are taking hormonal contraceptives. (Again, taking hormones causes hormonal changes? Who knew!). And it is true that perceptions of these changes in women with “normal” cycles NEAR THE TIME OF OVULATION have been shown to be statistically significant. However, it is also important to note that these changes are often SO small, that unless a partner was already well acquainted with a woman, he would not notice them.  Further, these women are extremely similar to women who are taking hormonal contraceptives when they are NOT ovulating.

Similarly, while it is true that women taking hormonal contraceptives when they meet their partner are more likely to choose partners who are better providers than aggressors (coincidentally, the same type of men that normally cycling men prefer at any time OTHER than when they’re fertile), and while the choice of such a partner may lead to lower levels of sexual satisfaction in a relationship, it leads to higher levels of overall relationship satisfaction, and to longer relationships.

So basing your ability to attract or choose a mate on whether or not you use birth control is, quite frankly, pretty ridiculous.

It’s also fairly insulting to suggest that men and women are incapable of making romantic choices that contradict evolutionary biology. We are more than our bodies, faces, and pheromones would suggest.

You want to find a partner whom you love and enjoy spending time with, and who loves you and wants to spend time with you? Worry more about meeting people who share some of your interests, cultivating a loving and kind personality, and doing good works to help others, and less about what type of birth control you’re using. *

Till next time,

– H

*Though, as always, once you’ve decided to engage in sexual activity, make sure you’ve got a contraceptive plan in place that includes a barrier method until you’ve both been tested. Speaking of getting tested, April is “Get Tested” month. If you haven’t been tested recently, or ever, check out this site to find your nearest testing location. It’s what you and your partner(s) deserve.

© Heather Parker and Antigone Awakens, 2012-2013.

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