UK Researcher Discovers Pill Doesn't Kill Desire

Photo of Kristen Mark
Kristen Mark, director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab and assistant professor of health promotion at the University of Kentucky.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Dec. 15, 2016) Taking the pill doesn’t lower sexual desire, contrary to popular belief, according to research published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine. Kristen Mark, director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab and assistant professor of health promotion at the University of Kentucky, and her co-authors UK doctoral candidate Christine Leistner and Justin Garcia from Indiana University say the evidence explaining what affects women’s sexual desire is mixed and more research is needed.

Contraceptives are designed to prevent unwanted pregnancies and, for some, to protect from sexually transmitted infections. A very popular anecdote is that using contraceptives — particularly oral hormone contraceptives, frequently called the pill — decreases desire. But so far scientific evidence has been mixed, with some studies supporting the claim and others suggesting the opposite.

In their paper, Mark and her colleagues describe two studies they carried out to explore the impact of using different contraceptives on the sexual desire of women and men in relationships.

“We wanted to understand the link between desire and contraceptive choice, especially in the context of longer-term relationships,” said Mark. “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.”

They 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 heterosexual relationships of varying lengths. They measured solitary and dyadic sexual desire — that is, libido alone or with a partner — of more than 900 people using a tool called the Sexual Desire Inventory.

The findings revealed significant differences in the way contraceptives affected the desire of women alone and in their relationships: women on non-hormonal contraceptives reported higher desire on their own and women on oral contraceptives reported higher desire with their partner.

However, when the researchers adjusted the results to take into account relationship length and age, the differences were no longer significant, suggesting that it’s the context rather than the contraceptive type that has the biggest impact on desire.

“Sometimes women are looking for something to explain changes in their sexual desire, which is not fixed throughout their life,” Mark said. “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?' In our study, the pill wasn’t responsible for killing desire. It is important to use research to get rid of this common cultural script in our society.”

Looking at contextual factors seems to be a better way of predicting sexual desire in women in long-term relationships than looking at contraceptive use. As such, Mark is now studying additional contextual factors related to desire discrepancy, where one member of the couple has lower or higher sexual desire relative to their partner.

“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.”

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