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Birth Control Bingo: Withdrawal

  • 96% effective with perfect use (estimated); 4 out of every 100 people will become pregnant each year
  • 73-82% effective with typical use: 18-27 out of every 100 people will become pregnant each year

Additional Sources for Effectiveness Ratings and Use:

The What, the Why, the Where, the When, and the How-to: Withdrawal is sometimes called "pulling out" or coitus interruptus latin for interrupted intercourse: it's when, during intercourse and well before ejaculation, a partner withdraws their penis from the vagina and ejaculates elsewhere -- and not anywhere near ttheir partner's genitals or pelvis. For those who like to geek out on this stuff, coitus reservatus is the latin term for someone trying to reserve ejaculation entirely or who withdraws from intercourse without ejaculating at all.

Withdrawal is one of the oldest methods of birth control there is. The pros are that it's free and it doesn't have any side effects. It can safely be combined with any other method of contraception. It's also one of the few methods of male-directed birth control. The cons are that many couples find it frustrating to have to cease sex to use it solely, and especially before orgasm, that it is a method which the person who may themselves become pregnant if it fails has no control over, and that it does fail often in typical use.

What will/might you need to discuss or negotiate with a partner?

  • How it needs to be used properly, namely that they -- or you -- need to withdraw either without ejaculating or well before (not just seconds before, or at the time of) ejaculation
  • Where they -- or you -- want or intend to ejaculate, and what each of you is or isn't okay with per where you (or your partner) ejaculates; if semen is something you (or they) do or don't want cleaned up right away or not
  • Possible semen allergies or sensitivities (it is currently estimated as many as around 10% of people may have them)
  • STI status and history, if withdrawal is not being combined with condom use

Some questions and answers about withdrawal:

  • I didn't want to go without protection, but could I be pregnant?
  • Or, click on the tag for withdrawal for a larger list.

    When Good Birth Control Does Bad Things: When withdrawal fails, it is most often because a partner does not withdraw at all, does not withdraw in time (not seconds or moments before), well before ejaculation, or because even if they do withdraw, they still ejaculate on a partner's genitals. More rarely, pre-ejaculate may sometimes contain sperm, and those sperm may be able to create a pregnancy.

    To be clear: pre-ejaculate does not ever, all by itself, contain sperm. What can happen, though, is that on the way out of the penis, it can pick up sperm left from a previous ejaculation. However, pre-ejaculate is understood to be highly unlikely to contain sperm if someone has urinated since their last ejaculation, and while few studies have been done on this, those which have have supported that premise.

    Withdrawal appears to be less effective for young adults than it is for older adults. While I do not know of actual lab data on this (because of legal issues and privacy concerns, we have very few adolescent-specific studies on contraception), we do have plenty of studies on teen pregnancy saying withdrawal is common method in those pregnancies, and that pregnancy among teens has been declining in large part due to increased use of far more effective methods of birth control, or in pairing withdrawal with other, more effective methods.

    Anecdotally, I have had years of experience in hearing and reading quite a lot of different accounts of pregnancy for young people: in my ten-and-some years running Scarleteen, I've observed that withdrawal simply appears to often be a more ineffective method for younger people specifically. That's not surprising. After all, younger people tend to ejaculate much more quickly, sex with partners is newer to them so it's tougher to anticipate when orgasm is going to happen or has even started happening; younger people are often just learning how to communicate with each other well about and during sex, and young people are also often more fertile than their older counterparts. These are some reasons why even advocates for withdrawal overall will express that it is not often the best choice for young people. As well, we have found that of all the methods of contraception, withdrawal is the one which tends to leave our users feeling most panicked and least protected.

    Think or know you used this method improperly, or know that you have had a pregnancy risk due to unprotected sex? It might not be too late for you to prevent an unwanted pregnancy with a method of emergency contraception.

    Younger people also tend to be more impulsive (the nice word for that is spontaneous, and it is a cool thing about y'all when it's not endangering you or others), and for plenty of young couples using withdrawal, it seems it sometimes doesn't take long to get to a time when a partner decides to go without withdrawing on purpose -- often without consulting their partner -- or wait until what seems like the very last minute -- and turns out to be too late -- "just this once." Anyone practicing withdrawal has got to have a lot of self-control, something that can tend to be difficult for people of any age at the same moment they're having a big orgasm.

    While in daily life, at Scarleteen and in the clinic I work for there are certainly plenty of times I hear about pregnancies due to user error with all methods, I have to say that withdrawal is the only method I can think of where I hear about so many failures, especially among younger folks, even when it's been used perfectly. Some of that is probably because there is a difference between misusing a method because someone has not had the information on how to use it perfectly, and/or failure because a person's age and developmental state makes it difficult or impossible to use a method properly.

    Of course, no single method of contraception is 100% effective, even in perfect use. And it's sage to remember that there are situations -- be they financial or situational -- where for some couples it's only less effective (than most other) methods like withdrawal or spermicides which are available, or when the only method a partner can be talked into at a time is withdrawal. Withdrawal IS a method of contraception like all others: it's just one of the least effective compared to other methods.

    Other methods which can be used as a backup method with withdrawal:

    Other methods you might like if you like withdrawal:

    Why would withdrawal be a good option for me? If any of the following are true:

    • You or your partner are currently unable to pay anything at all for birth control, and are unwilling to abstain from intercourse
    • You are combining it with another method
    • Your partner (or you, if you're the person who will be withdrawing) is considerably experienced in both knowing their own sexual responses with a partner and at timing withdrawal, and takes the risk of pregnancy very seriously
    • You and a partner communicate very well about sex, and your partner is very invested in preventing a pregnancy
    • You are not bothered by, or prefer, a lack of ejaculation into the vagina
    • You are looking for a method you only have to think about at the time you're going to have sex
    • You are currently breastfeeding and cannot use many hormonal methods

    Want to start over with Birth Control Bingo? Click here.

    Don't forget: Statistically, sexually active young adults are as, if not more, likely to acquire a sexually transmitted infection (STI) as you are to become pregnant. Although 15-24-year-olds represent only one-quarter of the sexually active population, they account for nearly half of all new STIs each year, and of the 18.9 million new cases of STIs each year, 9.1 million (48%) occur among 15-24-year-olds (AGI). Often people have some funny ideas about who is most likely to get an STI, but the fact of the matter is that younger people -- of any sexual orientation, any economic class, any kind of relationship -- have been the highest risk group for some time now.

    Condoms are the only method of birth control which also provide protection against STIs. It's pretty typical for younger people to ditch condoms if they have another method of birth control, so just remember that STIs are still a risk if you're using another method. You can read all about safer sex here -- Safe, Sound & Sexy: A Safer Sex How-To -- but the rule of thumb most medical experts and prevention organizations suggest, which we also encourage at Scarleteen is six months of safer sex, six months of sexual monogamy, and then TWO full STI screenings for each partner -- once at the start of that six months, once at the end -- before ditching latex barriers.

Information on this site is provided for educational purposes. It is not meant to and cannot substitute for advice or care provided by an in-person medical professional. The information contained herein is not meant to be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, or for prescribing any medication. You should always consult your own healthcare provider if you have a health problem or medical condition.