There are a host of contraceptives a woman can choose from: oral hormonal contraceptives (the pill), an intrauterine device (IUD or coil), injections, condoms and more. These are all designed to prevent unwanted pregnancies, giving users confidence that they are being safer in their sexual relationships.
But there have been reported side effects, including an impact on desire; anecdotal evidence suggests that using contraceptives decreases desire. There’s been a lot of research on this, with mixed results – some studies have found that it decreases desire, but many have found no relationship between contraceptive use and desire.
To explore this, I collaborated with my doctoral student in the Sexual Health Promotion Lab at the University of Kentucky and a colleague at Indiana University. We wanted to understand the link between desire and contraceptive choice, especially in the context of longer-term relationships. Most research doesn’t focus on partners or people in long-term relationships, but many contraceptive users are in long-term monogamous relationships, so this is an important group to study.
In The Journal of Sexual Medicine, we describe two studies we carried out to explore the effect using different contraceptives had on women’s sexual desire, and also on the men these women were partnered with.
Do contraceptives affect desire?
In the first study, we looked at the impact of three different contraceptive types – oral hormonal contraceptive, other hormonal contraceptive, and non-hormonal contraceptive – on the desire of couples in relationships of varying lengths. The second study focused on people in long-term heterosexual relationships.
For more than 900 people, we measured solitary and dyadic sexual desire – that is, libido alone or with a partner – using a tool called the Sexual Desire Inventory. We found significant differences in the way contraceptives affected the desire of women alone and in their relationships.
Women who were on non-hormonal contraceptives reported higher desire on their own, and women on oral contraceptives had a higher desire with their partner. But when we adjusted the results to take into account relationship length and age, there was no significant difference in the desire of women in couples. This suggests that it’s not the contraceptive type but the context that has the biggest effect on desire.
This makes sense logically: when you are on a contraceptive method you know is reliable, you can sexually express yourself more freely as you’re protected against things you don’t intend to happen, like pregnancy.
Although we expected the logic to hold true for the men in the relationships, it didn’t; male partners’ sexual desire was not affected. Instead, relationship length and age were far more important, both decreasing desire over time. This goes against previous research findings that suggest men in couples experience greater desire when their partners take oral contraceptives.
Should desire inform women’s contraceptive choice or physicians’ recommendations? We don’t think so. One significant conclusion we made is that the evidence is still too mixed for any concrete recommendations.
Sometimes women are looking for something to explain changes in their sexual desire, which is not fixed throughout her life. It can be very difficult to measure, but in general it is only a problem if there is a discrepancy in the desire of partners in a relationship.
The message that hormonal pills decrease desire is really prevalent. In my undergrad classes, my students often say they hear the pill makes you not want sex, and they ask, “What’s the point?” Our findings are clear: the pill doesn’t kill desire. I think it is important to bust those myths and work to eventually get rid of this common cultural script in our society.
Looking at contextual factors – how satisfied a woman is with her relationship, her psychological health, and how attracted she is to her partner – seems to be a better way of predicting sexual desire in women in long-term relationships than looking at contraceptive use.
I’m currently trying to figure out how we can protect against sexual desire decreasing in longer-term relationships. My research collaborators and I have been looking at ways couples can best modulate sexual desire discrepancy and manage inevitable ebbs and flow in desire across the lifespan. By continuing to unravel the mysteries behind the inaccurate anecdotes out there, I hope we can help women understand – and address – changes in their sexual desire.
Read the study (or article when appropriate)
Elsevier has made this article freely available until March 16, 2017.
- Mark, Kristen et al: “Impact of Contraceptive Type on Sexual Desire of Women and of Men Partnered to Contraceptive Users,” The Journal of Sexual Medicine (September 2016)
The Journal of Sexual Medicine publishes multidisciplinary basic science and clinical research to define and understand the scientific basis of male, female, and couple’s sexual function and dysfunction. As an official journal of the International Society for Sexual Medicine and the International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health, it provides healthcare professionals in sexual medicine with essential educational content and promotes the exchange of scientific information generated from experimental and clinical research. This journal is published by Elsevier.