Sunday, October 11, 2009

Unnatural Selection (by Phila)

An article revealingly titled "Unnatural Selection" explores the possibility that the use of oral contraceptives is changing women's (natural) preference for domineering men, and their ability to land a mate (of the correct type).
Ovulating women exhibit a preference for more masculine male features, are particularly attracted to men showing dominance and male-male competitiveness and prefer partners that are genetically dissimilar to themselves....

The authors also speculate that the use of oral contraceptives may influence a woman's ability to attract a mate by reducing attractiveness to men, thereby disrupting her ability to compete with normally cycling women for access to mate.
So women who are on the pill lack the ovulating women's "normal" desire for aggressively masculine men, and are less attractive to men per se, and fail to choose genetically dissimilar partners who are more likely to get them pregnant? Obviously, this path to reproductive freedom is an evolutionary dead end.
"The ultimate outstanding evolutionary question concerns whether the use of oral contraceptives when making mating decisions can have long-term consequences on the ability of couples to reproduce," suggests Dr. Lummaa.
One way to investigate this theory, it seems to me, would be to study whether fertility problems are more common among couples who previously relied on oral contraceptives. Since the myth that oral contraceptives cause infertility is pretty widespread, a fair amount of attention has been given to this issue. And as far I know, the results have been entirely negative. (Granted, couples who use the pill may delay pregnancy until an age when fertility has decreased...but again, I don't know of any evidence showing that these older couples are statistically more likely to have fertility problems than ones who never used the pill).

As always, I'm concerned about the normative tone that prevails when this sort of research is described in the press. And I'm skeptical that these alleged "preferences" have the power and ubiquity that tends to be assigned to them. And I'm troubled that these stories almost never report the actual statistical incidence of the expected response; they simply issue blanket statements about what "ovulating women" prefer, as though the women who failed to conform to expectations were so completely irrelevant that there's no need to know how many of them there were. And of course, I'm irritated at the lack of any acknowledgment that the definition of research topics, the research itself, the subjects' responses, the researchers' conclusions, and the media's reporting all take place not in some anti-ideological vacuum, but within a social context of male dominance, misogyny, and heteronormativity.

In this case, I'm also curious about how closely you can compare the supposed mate preferences of women who are not on the pill to those who are, especially if they're avoiding contraceptives for ethical or cultural reasons. If a woman doesn't use contraceptives because she was raised in a conservative household, is she more likely to report a preference for traditionally "masculine" (i.e., socially dominant) men? Beats me. But like every other factor that influences the incredibly complex social phenomenon of sexual behavior, it probably bears looking into.

Putting all that aside, the main thing that interests me about this groundbreaking research is how it ties in with the finding that ovulating women were more likely to vote for Obama. Will women who are taking oral contraceptives show the same preference in 2012, or will they be more interested in, say, a Palin/Jindal ticket? Hopefully someone's working on this important problem right now, because as the author of the Obama study notes:
"There are some women who aren't going to change their beliefs whether they're ovulating or not, but people don't pay enough attention to a woman's changing cycle and how it might affect decision making."