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Fact Check

Can Going Off Hormonal Birth Control Affect Your Sexual Relationship? Let’s Fact-Check

With the help of experts, we’ve taken a closer look at the controversial claim that stopping the pill can make you less sexually attracted to the person you’re sleeping with.

“Did you know…,” TikTok user Shannen Michaela asks in the kind of conspiratorial tone typically used for small-town gossip over who’s gotten engaged or just broken up, “…that birth control can literally change who you’re attracted to?” 

It’s an attention-grabbing statement—and one that’s appeared in multiple other videos on the app that have racked up thousands, sometimes millions, of views. The videos always tout the same general message, that horomonal birth control could make you less sexually attracted to the person you’re sleeping with, though the nuances differ. Several videos are purely anecdotal, presented as a first- or (more common) secondhand experience with the cadence of a friend spilling a salacious story. Even more dubiously cite studies as evidence without proper context. In most, the comments sections consist of users accepting the information as fact or recounting how hormonal birth control affected their own attraction to their partners, with statements like: “Yes! My taste in men had completely changed since being off of the pill.” “This happened to my ex-partner.” “This needs to be talked about more!” 

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People are talking about it, actually. A number of these videos are hashtagged #postbirthcontrol, a subgroup of TikTok videos with more than 6 million views. In addition to the claim that birth control alters your sexual attraction, you’ll find negative anecdotes about commonly discussed side effects of birth control—missed periods, weight gain, nausea—as well as more sinister perceived ramifications on using what has long been considered a highly effective contraceptive method. It’s not only TikTok where these conversations are happening, either. On Emily Ratajkowski’s podcast, High Low, a recent episode titled “Can the Pill Impact Your Decision Making?” discussed some of the same topics seen in these videos. 

For New York–based ob-gyn Alyssa Dweck, MD, it’s no surprise that people have latched onto the idea that birth control can alter who you’re sexually attracted to. “This has been a concept in [the evolutionary] psychology world for a long time,” she tells Glamour, adding that the studies typically cited on social media are known as “sweaty” T-shirt tests in the field. Essentially, behavioral scientists in these studies performed olfactory tests on clothing worn by male counterparts for a night and then asked women to rate their potential attraction based solely on the shirt’s scent. Findings did suggest a change in odor preferences for those actively taking hormonal contraceptives as compared with those of nonusers.

But does this mean the birth control pill has been subconsciously deceiving us? Dr. Dweck says that, while there is an association, it’s “really difficult” to conclude there’s a 100% cause and effect.

Like TikTok user @shannen.michaela (and several others with the viral videos), Ratajkowski cites a study in which researchers had heterosexual women come into a lab to assess computer-generated faces, asking them to rate their attractiveness. Published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, the study’s researchers found that women who were not taking oral contraceptives generally preferred faces that appeared more “masculine” by evolutionary psychology standards—think brow ridges, broad shoulders, and square-cut jaws. Those who were taking oral contraceptives did not, thus suggesting that birth control can alter mate preference. 

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But when we asked Karen Tang, MD, a board-certified gynecologist at Axia Women’s Health in Pennsylvania, about the studies cited in these TikTok videos, she expressed a deep concern over growing birth control skepticism and how the online discourse often presents this information out of context, ultimately leaving patients confused. After all, TikTok has been known to be a hotbed of birth control misinformation before. An impressionable person watching these videos pop up on their FYP might have the same concerns as Ratajkowski, who says we “don’t talk enough about…how hormones impact the decisions we make.”

Dr. Tang says that’s not the case, at least when doctors consult with their patients. “Those of us who counsel about birth control always try to be really transparent about the possibility that people can have different reactions to hormones and medications,” she says. “There should be nuance in how someone’s counseled. We should just say that they have these potential benefits and these potential side effects. It’s about choosing what’s right for an individual person.” In general, she says, your doctor should give you very unbiased advice to help find the best option for you. 

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So when it comes to the facial-recognition studies cited in the viral videos and Ratajkowski’s podcast, Dr. Tang says to proceed with caution. Her concern lies in the execution of the studies themselves, including the use of small sample sizes and nonrepresentative populations (plenty of these studies are blaringly heteronormative). Also, the findings represent correlation, not causation. She also notes that so much individual variability goes into tests like these. In short, one person’s experience is not all. 

That’s certainly true: Other studies, like one published in Psychological Science, found no compelling evidence that preferences for facial masculinity track changes in women’s hormonal status. That doesn’t mean it’s totally impossible, says Dr. Tang. If a person has this experience when they take—or stop taking—birth control, practitioners will never say that’s false because our work “is not to diminish the experiences of individual people.” However, she adds, it’s important to keep in mind that one person’s negative experience isn’t likely to cause harm to everyone in the same way.

The potential side effects of birth control and its associated risks are no secret, but this skepticism around hormonal birth control is a newer phenomenon. The number of women using hormonal birth control pills has declined in recent years. Another study from 2019 has shown that over 70% of women (out of 2,000 surveyed) who have used the pill said they stopped or thought about quitting in the preceding three years. But in a Post-Roe America, where there is an attack on contraception and reproductive health services, this assumes choice. It also means vetting our sources is even more critical now than ever.

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Birth Control TikTok Is, Unsurprisingly, a Hotbed of Misinformation

Down the birth control rabbit hole, TikTokers—many with no medical training, just their personal experience—are romanticizing a “return to nature” movement in which they “break free” of birth control and “reconnect with their periods.”

Birth Control TikTok illustration

“If somebody is saying something that sounds different from what every other doctor or standard medical advice is saying, look to see if they have some conflict of interest,” Dr. Tang advises, noting that doctors get paid nothing different if a patient chooses an IUD or the pill. People selling hormonal supplements or courses, however, might have a financial interest at play. 

If you are one of those women who’ve noticed a change in your sexual attraction after going on or off birth control, take a pause before taking any drastic measures. You may “just be bored” in your relationship, says Dr. Dweck. It’s possible you’ve grown apart from the person you’re sleeping with or the sex has become lackluster and stagnant. She also points to the possibility that the pill has lowered your libido. “There's less circulating testosterone and therefore perhaps a lower libido as a result of that,” she explains. 

You could also be experiencing common side effects that make you feel less sexual altogether. At that point, Dr. Tang says, it’s standard practice to change your pill to something lower on estrogen—or pick something that doesn't have estrogen—instead of ditching your birth control altogether. It’s all about trial and error. 

In short, always talk to your doctor before making a decision. And don’t let misinformation keep you from something that could actually benefit your health in ways TikTok hasn’t jumped on. “The pill itself has been shown over and over, without controversy, to lower the risk of ovarian and uterine cancer,” says Dr. Dweck. “This is huge. How many straightforward medications that have been around for years have this anticancer benefit? There are very much two sides to the birth control pill story.” But the anticancer benefit? “That’s something that resonates with me as a physician,” she says.

Morgan Sullivan is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer covering everything from health and sex to fashion and beauty. Her work can also be seen in The Cut, Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, and more.