In “The Pill”—my favorite Loretta Lynn song—Lynn croons:
All these years I`ve stayed at home while you had all your fun
And every year that`s gone by another baby`s come
There`s gonna be some changes made right here on Nursery Hill
You`ve set this chicken your last time `cause now I`ve got the pill
The song was released in 1975, fifteen years after the birth control pill was first introduced on the U.S. market. Loretta Lynn and her husband already had six children by the time Kentucky stores were stocking the pill. The couple had married in January of 1946, when Loretta was just thirteen years old.
The bill control pill has been lauded as The Great Liberator of women, and in many ways, it was: The pill gave women unprecedented control over their own bodies, families, and futures.
But there’s another, more complicated element of the pill—an element that isn’t in Loretta Lynn’s song and doesn’t quite fit into the mainstream women’s lib narrative. The pill has many unintended effects on the female body—among them, an unsettling tendency to significantly lower women’s libidos.
The Wall Street Journal’s Shirley Wang draws attention to some of the unexamined consequences of birth control use in her May 9th article, “The Tricky Chemistry of Attraction.” But in deference (perhaps?) to conservative Journal readers, Wang dances around the issue of libido and instead focuses on how the pill affects “attraction.” She writes:
When women are ovulating, they tend to be drawn to men with greater facial symmetry and more signals of masculinity, such as muscle tone, a more masculine voice and dominant behaviors. […]
Such natural preferences get wiped out when the woman is on hormonal birth control, research has shown. Women on the pill no longer experience a greater desire for traditionally masculine men during ovulation. Their preference for partners who carry different immunities than they do also disappears.
Wang goes a little off the rails at the end of her article: She suggests that women on the pill will marry effeminate men, go off the pill, suddenly become attracted to hunky masculine men, and be biologically driven to cheat on their effeminate spouses. That’s a little too Desperate Housewives to really be taken seriously.
But Wang’s article is gratifying, if only because it nods (delicately) toward serious questions about how the pill affects the female sex drive.
Women have been reporting for a while now that their interest in sex declines when they take the birth control pill. Of course, it doesn’t happen to all women, and some brands of birth control have a better track record than others. But a 2010 German survey confirmed what many women have long been insisting: that there is a correlation between birth control pill use and low sex drive.
Ironic, isn’t it? The great sexual liberator of women is reducing women’s desire to have sex. That’s troubling in itself—but what’s truly upsetting is how under-publicized the problem is. Despite all the studies, despite all the reports, many women today choose to go on the pill not knowing that it might affect their libidos.
In a 2006 interview with Tucker Carlson, Loveline host Dr. Drew Pinsky said doctors were being “somewhat irresponsible” in not informing female patients that they may experience a loss of libido when on the pill. I’d say doctors are being more than irresponsible; they’re actually betraying their patients. But they’re not the only ones to blame.
Imagine if we were talking about a contraceptive drug used by men. Imagine if a large subset of the male population were ingesting an oral contraceptive that had the unfortunate side effect of making them less interested in pursuing sex.
Would it still be an under-reported problem?
Of course not—because society places a high value on male libido. Turn on the television; flip through a magazine. You’re bound to come across advertisements for the newest cures for erectile dysfunction, recommended by smiling grey-haired men in polo shirts and khakis.
But the female sex drive isn’t valued in the same way. It’s as if, despite decades of social progress and sexual liberation, women are still viewed as something less than equal, active partners in sexual relations—as if female desire and satisfaction are disposable, thoughtlessly exchanged for the convenience of a daily oral contraceptive.
Today—thirty-five years after Loretta Lynn released “The Pill”—over 80% of sexually active women under 44 say they have been on the birth control pill at some point in their life. So isn’t it time we openly acknowledge the side effects of birth control and look at alternative contraceptives? The pill is convenient—especially for men!—but the next generation of women shouldn’t have to sacrifice their sex drive for peace of mind.