So, I have been contacted by a handful of readers now who have told me that going on or off the pill seems to have impacted their sexual preferences. And it’s not just in a “my pill seems to have impacted the qualities I desire in my male partners” kind of way. It’s in a “I identified as a lesbian for a decade while I was on the pill, but now that I am off it, I am no longer attracted to women, but attracted to men.” And I have also heard the opposite. In these cases, the emails read something along the lines of “I identified as a lesbian until I went on the pill, but after going on it, I developed attraction to men”.
My mind is blown. Yet, it probably shouldn’t be. [Yet, it still f***ing is!].
I say that my mind shouldn’t be blown because…well, it shouldn’t be. Decades of research has found that women’s sex hormones impact their attraction to specific members of one sex. Why shouldn’t it also impact their attraction between the sexes? Which seems really wild, but maybe it isn’t. And if we are to take seriously the idea that gender isn’t as binary as biological sex, it really isn’t wild at all. It just goes to demonstrate that sex hormones are intimately involved in attraction and – for some women – the hormonal changes initiated by the birth control pill can nudge their preferences in ways that are more noticeable than they are for others.
The other thing that this got me thinking about was the phenomenon of mid-life sexual orientation changes. This is the thing where women who were previously only involved in relationships with men (or women), once they are in their 40s or thereabouts, start getting involved in relationships with women (or men). In other words, the gender of their preferred partners changes. I think that there is a tendency to assume that this sort of thing happens mostly in response to cultural pressures.
For example, if we know a woman who was previously only involved with men who started dating women later in life, there is a tendency to assume that she was probably interested in dating women all along, but didn’t feel safe coming out as a lesbian until she was older.
And there is good reason to believe that, for a lot of women, this is exactly what goes on. People who fall outside the cisgendered, heterosexual mold are still routinely discriminated against and, for many, coming out can be scary and even dangerous. But given that the hormonal changes initiated by the pill may have the ability to nudge some women’s sexual preferences this way and that, it also seems possible that midlife changes in women’s partner choices might also occur because of midlife changes in sexual preferences. That is, it seems pretty plausible that the midlife hormonal changes that women experience as fertility begins to decline could nudge women’s partner preferences in ways that – for some women – produce changes in the sex of their preferred partners.
All of this is utterly fascinating to me. It raises so many interesting questions about women’s sexual psychology, attraction, and even the whole notion of the self. A person’s self – which is our perceptions about who we are – is believed to be relatively stable. But given that hormonal changes may change our self in important ways, this view of the self could actually be a totally gendered assumption that applies less to women than it does to men. That is, the idea that each of us is a relatively fixed person (and that to be otherwise is pathological or deviant in some way) may be an assumption that was created based only on the experiences of men, whose hormones change less across the lifespan. For women, it may be the norm for the self to constantly evolve. We may have selves.
I would love to hear your own thoughts on any of this. Do you know anyone who has experienced changes in sexual preferences on the pill? Has your notion of self changed in response to hormonal changes? Are our views about the self male-centric?
Xoxo. Stay healthy and be well.
Written by Dr. Sarah E. Hill
Psychologist at the forefront of research on women, health, and sexual psychology.