Girl meets guy. Guy pulls out before he ejaculates. They avoid pregnancy. And they live happily ever after.
That’s the story we’d like to believe about withdrawal — but how real is it?
The reality is, we’re taught that withdrawal won’t work, that it’s a sketchy contraceptive method, if one at all, and that its failure rate is high (a whopping 18% for regular use!). This means that, for every five couples avoiding pregnancy using the withdrawal method, about one will end up pregnant within a year. In light of that stat, fear of withdrawal makes sense.
Even though we’re told that withdrawal is a no-no, a 2013 National Health Statistics Report said that 60% of sexually experienced women rely on withdrawal at some point in life. That’s over half of all American women! On our fertility app Glow, we’ve also seen that a disproportionate portion of our population — 18% of our birth control users — list withdrawal as their primary birth control method.
These Glow stats imply that withdrawal isn’t going anywhere. And if that’s the case, we need better education about withdrawal, good information about how to make the method as smart and safe as possible, and how technology can help. Let’s start with the numbers.
Women & Withdrawal By The Numbers
According to the CDC, at any given moment ~5% of American birth control users are relying on withdrawal as their primary birth control method. But within the Glow population, withdrawal is actually much more popular. Recall that ~18% of birth control users on Glow use withdrawal as their primary birth control method.
Why this disparity between the national stats and the Glow population? It’s hard to say. We cannot accurately read cause and effect from an observational dataset like ours, but our best guess is that women who use withdrawal like knowing the specifics of their cycle, and thus enjoy using cycle tracking apps like Glow.
Withdrawal is used by women across many different ages and relationship situations. Looking at the age and relationship status of our withdrawal users on Glow, we found that the method is widely used across women of many age ranges, and that relationship status doesn’t really affect the number of women who depend on withdrawal. Surprisingly, over half of withdrawal users are either single or dating, but not engaged or married.
To address the “Why withdrawal?” question, we asked the Glow community to weigh in.
In a poll that garnered 94,607 votes, the Glow Community opined that they believe people choose withdrawal because of how good it feels, in addition to the fact that it’s considered an “easy” birth control method (though it can be hard to do correctly!). Most medical professionals advise against using withdrawal for women who strongly want to avoid pregnancy, and Glow also recommends that women consider a more reliable birth control method. Also important to note that the withdrawal method does not prevent the spread of STIs.
For those who do choose withdrawal…
For women who do choose to use withdrawal as their primary birth control method, there are ways to maximize the method’s chances of preventing pregnancy, to make withdrawal both smarter and safer. Here are a few:
Scope Out Your Guy
Before you and your partner decide on withdrawal, there are a few important things to suss out.
- How well does he know his body?
A guy’s gotta know his body real well if withdrawal’s gonna work. He needs to be able to pull out at exactly the right moment every. single. time. That’s tough! Especially for younger guys and those who don’t have a ton of sexual experience.
2. Does he have an STI?
Withdrawal can prevent pregnancy when done effectively, but it doesn’t prevent the spread of STIs. That said, a lot of methods without a hood don’t. Make sure your guy can produce a clean STI test before giving withdrawal a whirl.
3. Has he had sex since the last time he peed?
Some of the withdrawal skeptics are justified in their worry that precum can contain sperm…and thus, get you pregnant, even if withdrawal happens at the right time. Yes, precum can contain sperm. But the reality is that it’s unlikely. Sperm can get caught in the tip of a man’s penis after sex. Then once he pees, the sperm washes. So, your man’s precum will contain sperm if and only if he has had sex very recently and has not peed since then. Take that as you will…
4. Do you trust him?
A question to ask before you have sex with anyone!
And This One’s For The Girls
It’s not just on the guy’s shoulders to make withdrawal as safe as possible. There are things we can do to increase the method’s safety. The biggest tip? Get to know your own fertility.
Fertility fluctuates throughout the menstrual cycle; there are some days when likelihood of pregnancy is much higher than other days. If you know when those days are and take precautions (avoiding sex altogether, playing it safe with spermicide, having condoms and maybe even emergency contraception on hand, etc.), you can drastically reduce the risk of pregnancy. Sounds easy, right?
Ehh…not so much. The reality is that most women don’t actually know very much about their menstrual cycle and fertility. Our Glow data shows that a third of women are 6+ days off in estimating the length of their cycle; half of women are 4+ days off in estimating their cycle.
These mis-estimations can have major consequences. If we don’t have a good sense of when we’re ovulating (which is harder to tell than knowing when your period is, mind you!) then we don’t know when to take extra precautions during sex.
Knowing about your cycle is an important part of being empowered in any birth control situation, not just withdrawal. Take condoms, for example. The failure rate of condoms is ~17% for regular use — just one percentage point lower than the failure rate of withdrawal. So incorporating knowledge of one’s cycle into a birth control regimen, whether that is condom use, withdrawal, or some other form of contraception, can help you be confident that you’ll stay pregnancy-free.
Choosing a birth control method is a complicated choice, dependent on a variety of factors specific to each woman at each stage in her life. Knowledge of our bodies is changing and evolving daily, and that which seems risky can become less so now with the use of technology.
For those opting for birth control methods like withdrawal or even condoms, apps that track your cycle can be great tools. More importantly, however, pairing technology with personal health tracking opens up new opportunities for women, and new security. That’s an advancement we certainly don’t want to pull out on.