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Surprising Science

Justin Bieber and Birth Control, or Why Young Women Prefer Girly Faced Men

50 years of widespread use of the pill may have changed the preferences of young women away from masculine-looking men to those with feminine features.

A Canadian boy, at the age of sixteen, sells millions of albums and creates hysteria among throngs of female fans. He once almost created a riot of 6,000 screaming girls when he sat on the edge of the stage. His masculine good looks and street smart confidence makes him a heart throb of a generation.

Wait…masculine good looks?

OK, so I’m not talking about who you think I am.  I am talking about an entirely different Canadian boy, singing sensation Paul Anka, who created a wake of screaming, fainting girls in 1957. 

Three years later the FDA approved the use of oral contraceptives in the US.  Fast forward another fifty years: According to recent scientific research, half a century of widespread use of the pill may well have changed the preferences of young women away from masculine-looking men to those with more feminine features.

Enter stage right…Justin Bieber.

It has been fairly well documented that women change their mate preference according to where they are in their menstrual cycle. For example, participants in one study preferred, at significantly higher rates, poor yet creative men for short-term sexual relationships over financially successful and not creative men when they were ovulating (93% versus 58%).* Other studies find that women are more likely to seek extra-marital relationships when they are ovulating as well.**

This suggests that at peak fertility, women seek men for their reproductive benefits rather than other, important characteristics such as their abilities as caretakers.

So if women prefer men for their genetic fitness when ovulating, and other characteristics when they are not, then what happens when ovulation stops?

Well, according to the evidence, when taking hormone-based contraceptives, women lose their variations in preference over their cycle and, in particular, they lose the approximately six days in which they have a strong preference for a man who is masculine in appearance.***

My interpretation of this research is that in societies where large numbers of women are taking oral contraceptives, the societal ideal of an ‘attractive’ mate is moving away from a man who looks like he will provide good genes towards a mate who looks like he might be a caretaker.

So a technological advance, the invention of oral contraceptives, leads to a chance in mate preference for women.

This makes me wonder what happens when a woman who is on the pill, meets and marries her perfect man and then stops taking the pill in order to become pregnant. I was reminded of a previous post I wrote in Dollars and Sex, called Income and Infidelity, in which I said that young women were much more likely to cheat in marriage than older women. At that time, I argued that perhaps these women were seeking better genes for their children and the, above noted, fact that women are more likely to cheat when most fertile supports that argument.

Now I wonder; if these women had not been taking oral contraceptives before they were married, and when they were looking for a long-term mate, would they have not chosen a different, perfect partner?

Dollars and Sex will return to this story in a future post. After all, there are implications for men when women stop ovulating and for the women who make their living out of turning men on.

*Haselton. M.G. and G. Miller (2006). “Women’s fertility across the cycle increases the short-term attractiveness of creative intelligence.” Human Nature Vol(17). **Pillsworth E.G. and M.G. Haselton (2006). “Male sexual attractiveness predicts differential ovulatory shifts in female extra-pair attraction and male mate retention.” Evolution and Human Behavior Vol(27). ***Alvergne, Alexandra and Virpi Lumma (2009). “Does the contraceptive pill alter mate choice in humans?” Trends in Ecology and Evolution vol. 25(3).


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