Q: I’m a 27-year-old woman living on the East Coast. I’ve been sexually active and on birth control since I was 16 — almost always on the pill. I recently switched to the NuvaRing, which I had a bad reaction to: I had no libido at all and extreme mood swings/bouts of depression I could not live with. My boyfriend and I decided it would be a good idea to go off hormonal birth control for a while, just to see what would happen. We’ve been together for almost four years, so we agreed condoms would be fine, and I would try the route of no more supplemental hormones. I stopped a couple of months ago, and it’s been a mix of good and bad. The good is that my moods are more even. Another good thing is I feel like I’m having a sexual awakening. My libido came back! But the bad thing is… my libido came back in a way I wasn’t expecting. My sexual appetite is insane. I want to have sex with everyone! Men, women, friends, colleagues, acquaintances. My boyfriend has been amazing through all of this. He’s agreed to let us open up our relationship under specific terms. I agree with the terms we placed, but I still feel like my urges are going to get me in trouble. I know not to have sex with friends and colleagues, but a lot of situations come up that make it hard to resist — especially when alcohol is involved. I’m very good with self-policing, and I don’t think I’ll actually act on my urges. My question is one you get a lot: Is this normal? Can removing a cocktail of hormones from my life really change me this much? I used to want sex, but now I WANT SEX. I want a lot of it, and it’s overwhelming. I don’t want to blame it all on the birth control, but I can’t help but feel it to be true since it was the only variable in my life that changed in the last couple of months. I want to be faithful to my boyfriend, who has been great and understanding — allowing us to open our relationship to casual encounters with strangers. (Also: No friends, no one we both know, DADT, and no intimacy with anyone — it must be purely sexual/physical.) But I’m feeling sexual connections to so many more people now, and often to people I’ve known for a while. I see this all as mostly positive, but the adjustment to the new sexual hunger has been strange and difficult to wrap my head around.
—Suddenly Horny And Going Gaga Isn’t Normal
A: “I’m so glad to hear this woman sees the increase in her libido as positive,” said Dr. Meredith Chivers, an associate professor of psychology at Queen’s University, a world-renowned sex researcher, and — I’m proud to say — a frequent guest expert around here. “At the same time, I understand how overwhelming these urges can feel, especially when they are new.”
Luckily for you, SHAGGIN, you’re with someone who’s secure enough to let you feel the fuck out these new feelings. Whether or not you act on them is one thing — DADT agreement or no DADT agreement — but not having to pretend you aren’t suddenly interested in fucking men, women, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances is a real gift.
Another example of your good luck? Dr. Chivers is about to give you the Actual Science download on hormonal birth control — complete with qualifications about what we know, what we don’t know, and areas that require more research!
“It’s difficult to say what is and isn’t normal when it comes to the effects of hormonal contraception (HC) on women’s sexual interest,” said Dr. Chivers. “To my knowledge, researchers have not specifically examined the question of what happens to women’s sex drive after stopping HC.”
But lots of women have stopped using hormonal contraception for the exact same reason you did, SHAGGIN: worries about how it might be affecting their libido — and there is some indirect evidence that HC can negatively impact a woman’s desire for sex.
“The NuvaRing is a combined hormonal contraceptive containing synthetic estrogens and progestins (the same as many birth control pills),” said Dr. Chivers. “HC like the NuvaRing works, in part, by raising and stabilizing progesterone levels throughout the menstrual cycle, which helps to prevent ovulation and implantation.”
And it’s those stabilized progesterone levels that could be the culprit.
“Progesterone is one of the hormones involved in the menstrual cycle and pregnancy; levels are highest in the week before menstruation (called the luteal phase) and are also high during pregnancy,” said Dr. Chivers. “A recent, large-scale study reported that women with higher progesterone — women who weren’t using HC — had lower sexual interest, on average. Because using HC is associated with reductions in sexual interest, we could predict that stopping HC, and thus progesterone levels returning to more typical lower levels, could be associated with increases in sexual motivation.”
Since you definitely experienced an increase in sexual desire after you removed your NuvaRing and started using condoms, SHAGGIN, Dr. Chivers was comfortable saying… that you definitely experienced an increase in sexual desire and that might be related to going off HC.
“Given that she has been using some form of HC since she became sexually active, my guess is that she’s never had the chance to experience her sexuality while naturally cycling,” said Dr. Chivers. “Part of her process could be learning about her unmedicated hormonal cycle, her sexuality, and the variations in her sex drive. For example, does her sexual interest fluctuate over her cycle? She might want to consider collecting some data with a cycle tracker app. Flo, Clue, and Period Tracker are among those that my women sex-researcher/educator colleagues recommend. This might help her notice patterns in her libido, attractions, and sexual pleasure — and help her to develop strategies to manage, and perhaps even capitalize on, her sexual desires.”
As for your boyfriend, SHAGGIN, and your desire to be faithful to him: So long as you honor the terms of your openness agreement, you are being faithful to him. But check in with him more than once before you fuck someone who isn’t him. Because when a partner agrees to open the relationship but then places a long list of restrictions on who you can fuck — a list that excludes most of the people you wanna fuck — that can be a sign your partner doesn’t actually want to open the relationship.
The last word goes to Dr. Chivers: Whether you’re having fun with others or you decide to remain sexually exclusive with your boyfriend, “Have fun!”
To learn more about Dr. Chivers’s research, visit the SageLab website (queensu.ca/psychology/sexuality-and-gender-lab) and follow her on Twitter @DrMLChivers.
Q: I’m part of a nonhierarchical polycule. In a few months, one of my girlfriends will be marrying her fiancée. I’ll be attending as a guest with my other girlfriend. What are the guidelines or expectations for purchasing a gift for your girlfriend’s wedding? Surprisingly, the other advice columnists don’t have guidance on this one.
—Wedding Etiquette Dilemma
A: Get the couple something nice, something you can afford, maybe something from their gift registry. Or give them a card with a check in it so they can spend the money on whatever they might need for their household or use it to cover the expense of the wedding itself. In short, WED, wedding-gift guidelines are the same for people in nonhierarchical polycules as they are for love-muggle monocules. I’m not slamming the poly thing for overprocessing and overthinking — most people process (aka communicate) too little, and it’s often better to overthink than to under-think or not-think — but not everything needs to be dumped into the poly processor and pureed. Congrats to your girlfriend (the one who’s getting married) and her fiancée! •