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Perils of the pill?

January 3rd, 2006

Dr Petra

It’s a shame to start the New Year on a bit of a downer, but unfortunately there’s a bad sex story doing the rounds and it’s time to unmask it.

It all started back in May 2005 when we were told that the pill could harm women’s sex drives. A study presented at a conference featured 124 women being treated in a sexual dysfunction clinic. 62 used the pill, 39 had stopped the pill, and 23 had never used it. Those who used the pill were more likely to have higher levels of sex hormone binding globulin that the researchers claim suppress testosterone and therefore reduce female sexual desire. The study suggested the effect continued after women came off the pill.

I was concerned about the science of the research and the uncritical media coverage of it. You can read my blog about it here.

In a nutshell the research had a number of flaws. It was based on a small and unrepresentative sample, it lacked a control group, it assumed desire was almost exclusively linked to testosterone, and the subtext of the research was to advocate women take more hormones in the form of testosterone to ‘fix’ their lack of desire.

Today the story is back in the news again. Once more we’re seeing scare headlines such as:
Pill can leave a libido hangover – The Times.
Pill linked to reduction in women’s sexual desire – The Independent.
Women on pill may lose sex drive – Malayala Manorama.
Pill may kill women’s libido – Melbourne Herald Sun.
The Pill may kill sex drive, permanently – Advertiser Adelaide.
Taking oral pill may kill your sex drive forever – The Mirror.

The problem is it really IS exactly the same story as the one in May 2005.

Did anyone notice? Apparently not.

The research was presented the first time around as part of a press release from a conference. This time it’s been press released after publication in an academic journal.

The media isn’t supposed to cover old news unless it dramatically changes (which this story hasn’t). Nobody seemed to notice they’d plugged the same research again.

This double press releasing of the same story is also very poor in academic terms since you’re suggesting it’s new research, when in fact it’s the same old data.

And you can see why it is a no-no when the media jump on it with enthusiasm and present it as new data.

For the public this repeated story won’t necessarily make them think ‘hang on, haven’t I heard this once before?’ But it may well make them believe ‘it must be true, that’s something I’ve already read’.

The knock on effect is going to be negative. Aside from people deciding to ditch the pill without consulting a health professional or increased risks of unplanned pregnancies, there’s also the issue of causing needless panic. Because none of these stories have clearly defined what ‘decreased libido’ means. So if you don’t fancy sex much people will blame the pill or themselves without realising they may be okay or other factors could be the cause of their lack of desire.

Whilst some of the stories have quoted family planning or medical experts to dispute the research, none appear to have done a quick news search to uncover they’d reported this exact study eight months ago. And virtually nobody has looked at the quality of the research.

Just because it’s being written about again the problems with this research haven’t changed. It’s still a small scale, flawed study with a conflict of interest and hidden agenda.

But for the second time in eight months, why let that get in the way of a great headline?

Here’s how to prevent this happening for a third time.

If you’re worried about the pill talk to your GP or family planning clinic who’ll be able to advise you about a contraceptive that will suit you. Don’t stop taking the pill without medical advice, even if you think it has changed your sex life.

And if you’re a journalist, next time you hear about a story like first do a google news search to see if this story has been covered before (using researcher names is a quick way to identify replicated research). Then use google scholar to see if anyone else has published on this topic – you may well find there’s no support for the research within the wider academic community. You can identify other researchers and ask them to give you the inside track on the study you’ve seen in that press release.

Who knows? You may even manage to scoop the story that everyone else missed.

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