The Pill may have “changed women's taste in men”, according to the Daily Mail, which reports on a new study that says the hormone-based contraceptive suppresses a woman's interest in masculine men and makes boyish men more attractive.
The newspaper quotes the study’s authors as saying this may have “long-term implications for society”. The article applies the scientific theory to the popularity of Hollywood actors, highlighting the shift in tastes from rugged actors such as Steve McQueen to “wimpy, androgynous stars like Johnny Depp”.
The study’s authors argue their case using evolutionary theory, but acknowledge limitations in the evidence and the amount of speculation involved in their theory that the Pill causes changes in partner choice, relationship satisfaction and reproductive outcomes.
This is flimsy evidence on which to say that the Pill has influenced women’s preferences in men. The notion that it affects choice of partner and the likelihood of a successful relationship is speculative at this stage.
This research was carried out by Alexandra Alvergne and Virpi Lummaa from the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield. The study was funded by the Kone Foundation and the Royal Society of London, and published in the peer-reviewed journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.
This was a review looking at how the contraceptive pill might influence mating choices. The review was non-systematic, which means it did not describe the criteria used to choose the research it referenced. The study cited 72 research studies that were mostly conducted in humans.
The authors argue that both the female and male choices of mates vary in accordance with the different stages of the menstrual cycle. They quote studies that show women saying they prefer more masculine, symmetrical and genetically dissimilar (to themselves) men during ovulation than during other phases of their cycle. Other studies suggest that men are more attracted to women who are ovulating (in the most fertile stage of their cycle).
The researchers quote from studies that support the following statements:
The researchers also summarise some studies in tables and graphs:
The authors report that during the past decade more than 75% of studies investigating women’s partner preferences in relation to their menstrual cycles have demonstrated that women seek specific characteristics when their fertility peaks, with ovulating women preferring more masculine and symmetrical male features, and men who are MHC-dissimilar.
The researchers say that women taking the Pill do not appear to show the same preferences as ovulating women, but instead show preferences similar to non-ovulating women, with no preference based on symmetry or masculinity, and favouring MHC-similar men.
They concluded that the monthly shifts in mate preference may bring evolutionary benefits in terms of reproductive success.
In relation to mating decisions, they conclude that it is possible that the Pill might also have a “non-negligible” impact, and say they hope that this review will stimulate further research on this subject.
As a non-systematic review, this study did not report how studies were selected for inclusion in the paper, and so it is not possible to say to what extent other perspectives have been included or excluded.
All but one of the studies on preferences quoted were based on comparing users and non-users of the Pill. It was unclear whether these studies controlled for possible pre-existing differences in Pill and non-Pill users, which means that most of the results should be treated with caution.
The researchers acknowledge that their conclusions are speculative when they look at the effect of the contraceptive pill on the choice of partners, relationship satisfaction, durability and reproductive outcomes.
They also say that there may be “crucial social and medical [advantages] of this contraceptive method, which might act in opposite ways from those discussed here”.
This sort of review article is useful for sparking discussion, but at this time should be considered speculative.