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 man withdraws his penis from the vagina and ejaculates elsewhere -- and not anywhere near the woman's genitals or pelvis. For those who like to geek out on this stuff, coitus reservatus is the latin term for a man 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 will become pregnant if it fails -- the female partner -- has no control over, and that it does fail often in typical use.
Some questions and answers about withdrawal:
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 man does not withdraw at all, does not withdraw well (not seconds or moments before) before ejaculation, or because even if he does withdraw, he still ejaculates on a woman's genitals. Much more rarely, pre-ejaculate may sometimes contain sperm, and when the timing is right in terms of female fertility, 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 a man has urinated since his 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 men tend to ejaculate much more quickly, sex with partners is newer to them so it's tougher for young men to anticipate when their 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.
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 male partner decides to go without withdrawing on purpose -- often without consulting his 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.
Mind, 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 male 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:
For a brief overview of all BC methods, have a look at Margaret Sanger's Disneyland: Choosing Contraceptives. Want to start over with Birth Control Bingo? Click here.