New research suggests that contextual factors, such as the length of the relationship, may have a more significant impact on women's sex drive than the type of contraceptives they use.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2012 that 62 percent of women of reproductive age were using a means of contraception. Of these, 28 percent - or 10.6 million women in the United States - were using the pill, making it the most popular method of contraception.
Despite the common belief that contraceptive pills decrease a woman's libido, the evidence supporting this has been mixed and inconclusive.
A comprehensive review of existing research reports that the effects of hormonal contraceptives on female sexual desire are conflicting and "not well studied," with only a small percentage of women reporting either an increase or a decrease in their libido.
Given this lack of evidence, researchers from the University of Kentucky and Indiana University have set out to examine the impact of oral hormonal contraceptive use on female sexual desire.
The results have been published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine.
Examining the effect of different contraceptives on the female libido
Authors of the new study point out that previous research has been inconsistent in the methodology used. For instance, some studies did not differentiate between the types of contraceptives, while others did not use non-hormonal comparison groups.
Additionally, previous studies did not account for the relationship context relating to contraceptive use and the sexual behavior of partners, these authors note.
However, researchers led by Dr. Kristen Mark carried out two separate studies. Both studies investigated the impact of different kinds of contraceptives on sexual desire in women. The studies also examined sexual desire in the men who were partnered with contraceptive-using women.
The first study looked at how contraceptive use affected heterosexual partners in relationships of different lengths, while the second study investigated this impact on long-term relationships.
Using the Sexual Desire Inventory (SDI), researchers examined two kinds of sexual desire: solitary and dyadic. These describe the libido a woman has on her own and with a partner, respectively.
The SDI is a 14-item questionnaire designed to measure sexual desire in cognitive terms, unlike other measurement tools that use behavioral methods.
As for the types of contraceptive, Dr. Mark and team grouped these into three categories: oral hormonal, other hormonal, and non-hormonal.
Overall, researchers examined sexual desire in more than 900 people.
The pill 'does not kill desire'
The study showed that the type of contraceptive used affected solitary and dyadic sexual desire significantly.
Women using non-hormonal contraceptives reported higher solitary libido than women on hormonal contraceptives. But women using oral hormonal contraceptives had higher levels of dyadic sexual desire than women on non-hormonal contraceptives.
The sexual desire of male partners did not seem to change with the type of contraceptive their partners used.
When scientists accounted for contextual information such as relationship length and age, however, the differences were no longer significant.
This suggests that contextual factors have a more considerable impact on sexual desire than the type of contraceptive used.
Sexual desire was more strongly predicted by the length and age of the relationship than by the type of contraceptive used.
Furthermore, when examining couples, researchers saw no association between contraceptive type and solitary or dyadic sexual desire in men and women.
Dr. Mark emphasizes the need to "bust the myth" that contraceptive pills can decrease libido.
"Sometimes women are looking for something to explain changes in their sexual desire, which is not fixed throughout their life. 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, 'so what's the point?' Our findings are clear: the pill does not kill desire. This research helps to bust those myths and hopefully eventually get rid of this common cultural script in our society."
Dr. Kristen Mark
The lead author also insists that contextual factors are far stronger predictors of sexual desire than the type of contraceptive used. As a result, Dr. Mark is now investigating the effect of other contextual elements on the female libido, such as desire discrepancy. This occurs when one partner has much lower or much higher desire than the other.