Before the advent of contraception, the withdrawal method – or ‘pulling out’ as it is commonly known - was the only way people could proactively manage their pregnancies. It is a method which has worked well for many people for many years. But the truth of the matter is that luck may well play more of a part in its success than science.
The idea behind the method is that, during sexual intercourse, the man removes his penis prior to ejaculation and in doing so the sperm is prevented from coming into contact with the egg. For many women, particularly those who prefer not to take hormones, or who are turned off by having to halt proceedings to reach for a condom, it may seem like the perfect solution.
However, there are two key issues which make it a largely unreliable method of contraception:
1. Timing is critical. Misjudge the timing by a second and it’s a trip to your local pharmacy for the morning after pill
2. Studies have shown that even if your man is a zen master when it comes to delivering the goods, the fluid released before ejaculation (affectionately known as pre-cum) can actually contain live sperm – and it only takes one live sperm to make a baby.
Your chances of using the withdrawal method successfully can be increased by ensuring you are at the right place in your cycle to minimise chances of conception. The theory goes that if you avoid sex during ovulation you can avoid pregnancy.
In order to do this successfully you must track your menstrual cycle very closely for a period of six months, so that you know precisely the days when you are most fertile. If your periods are irregular this method is not recommended. There are apps available to help manage this process and many women find these very useful.
Typically, sperm can survive for around five to seven days, whereas an egg can only live for 24 hours. If the egg is released while live sperm are still present in the fallopian tubes, the egg can still be fertilised. Equally, once 24 hours have passed after you have ovulated, fertilisation can not occur until another egg has been released as part of your next menstrual cycle. The key to real success is therefore knowing when you are ovulating.
There’s no doubt that the withdrawal method is better than crossing your fingers and hoping for the best, but it requires control and a clear head, and is best avoided after a pint of beer or in throws of passion. It takes trust on the part of the woman and dedication on the part of the man and is probably not the best option in a new relationship.
Ultimately, there are many much more effective forms of contraception out there, so if you have any doubts about getting pregnant opt for an alternative. It also goes without saying that the withdrawal method does not provide any protection against STIs.
If he isn’t quite able to hold back, or if you suspect there may have been an unauthorised deposit at your egg bank - make sure you ask your GP or pharmacist for emergency contraception.