WOMEN'S HEALTH
May 18, 2010

Does the Pill Reduce Sex Drive?

Women on the pill may suffer from lower libido than women on other forms of birth control.

A study in the current issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine suggests that women who are on oral contraceptives may be at greater risk for sexual dysfunction. The research found that 32% of all women studied suffered from some form of sexual dysfunction, but those on the pill were at higher risk for problems with arousal and desire.

Women who used hormonal contraceptives (oral or non-oral) were at the greatest risk for sexual dysfunction overall... “data show that hormonal contraception in particular was associated with lower desire and arousal scores when compared with other contraceptives.”

The research team used a standard questionnaire to measure the sexual health of female medical students in Germany. Of the 1,086 participants, most had been active in the past month (those who were not were excluded from the analysis) and 69% used oral contraceptives (the second-most popular method of birth control was condoms, which about 22% of the participants used). The questionnaire was designed to measure aspects of sexual health, like female desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction, and pain.

The findings showed that the method of contraception was significantly correlated with a woman’s risk for sexual dysfunction. Women who used hormonal contraceptives (oral or non-oral) were at the greatest risk for sexual dysfunction overall. When only sex drive – desire and arousal – was taken into account, the authors write that the “data shows that hormonal contraception in particular was associated with lower desire and arousal scores when compared with other contraceptives.”

One explanation for the findings is that hormonal contraceptives may lower the levels of circulating androgens (like testosterone), which could be behind the lower sex drive. But because the study is correlational, it does not show cause and effect. While it’s tempting to assume that it is the hormones in oral contraceptives that are behind the women’s lowered sex drive, the authors do say that the results should be interpreted with caution. They write that “[w]hether there exists an underlying effect of contraceptives or this is simply because of one or more relevant differences between women using contraceptives or no contraceptives such as the ability to enjoy oneself or the perception of one's own body, is speculative.” More detailed research will be needed – particularly using participants from the general population, rather than medical school students only – to figure out what exactly is behind the phenomenon seen in the study.

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