The uncertain future of masculinity — What’s your type?

-Ellie Swan

Birth control is a complicated topic. Whether or not it should be legal, available over the counter, at schools, or free are questions repeatedly being asked in the political sphere. On a smaller scale, in terms of personal decision-making, however, individual women are confronted with making choices about contraceptives. Many are flabbergasted by the choice of whether or not to use contraception and further by the choice between the many available options, from implants, to IUDs, to oral options. One of the most widely used forms of hormonal contraception is the infamous pill. Now most people are aware that the drugs contained in the pill have certain side effects on the body. The typical worries about weight gain or mood swings are known to many and are experienced by a majority of users. One aspect of the pill that often remains in the dark, however, is the effects it has on our brain.

When ingested, the pill releases hormones into the blood stream which inhibit the release of a hormone from the pituitary gland in the brain which ultimately prevents ovulation of eggs within the ovaries. Interestingly, however, the pill exerts further effects on the brain involving changes in behavior. This should actually not come as a surprise, since we have known for years that hormones are able to influence behavior. In this way, birth control pills have been shown to alter women’s perception of a man’s attractiveness. Odds are, when asking a woman ‘What’s your type?’ before and several years after taking oral contraceptives, you are likely to receive a different answer.

This concept was excellently illuminated in a TEDxVienna event, whereby Sarah E. Hill discussed ‘Women’s Brains and the Birth Control Pill’. As a research psychologist, Hill is particularly interested in women’s sexual decision making and relationship psychology. During her research, she found that women taking the pill lack the usual preference for testosterone markers in men. Instead of a deep voice, a masculine, chiseled, bearded face and muscular appearance, pill-takers prefer softer, more feminine looking men. This is attributed to the absence of a cyclical estrogen urge which causes women to naturally prefer romantic partners with qualities linked to masculinity and higher testosterone. The change in preference does not only apply to short-term sexual partners but also long-term relationships. In studies, a majority of women taking oral contraception showed marked preference for more feminine-looking men; compared to women on a natural cycle who preferred more masculine-looking men. Now, this has a plethora of consequences. For starters, a pill-taking woman, having chosen a partner based on sexual preference rooted in her artificially-altered hormone balance, may feel relationship dissatisfaction when coming off the pill, because her natural hormones would cause her to be sexually attracted to man with a different appearance. Beyond this, the altered partner preference may change attraction and relationship data on demographic scale. Since increasing numbers in women are taking birth control, the population may skew to favor the reproduction of women with less-masculine looking men, thus changing the appearance of the population at large.

So is masculinity going extinct? For now, there are sufficient heterosexual females who prefer a male face chock-full of testosterone markers to counteract the effect the pill is having on partner preference. While we now know that oral contraceptives impact female bodies in ways far beyond the mere reproductive organs, the effects on the brain are numerous and still largely unstudied, thus giving incentive for further research by psychologists and neurobiologists like Sarah Hill.