Just How Ineffective Is The Pull-Out Method?

Anytime the pull-out method is mentioned, there are legions of people willing to tell you either their horror or success stories. This is why it’s always important to remember that a plural of anecdote isn’t data.


While it may work for some people some of the time, there’s no guarantee it will work for you. In fact, it probably won't.

What is the Pull-Out Method?

For the uninitiated, the pull-out method (also known as the withdrawal method or the rhythm method) seems pretty simple: instead of wearing a condom or using another type of birth control, the penis is extracted before ejaculation. While this seems like the perfect solution to condom discomfort and sexual dysfunction due to hormonal birth control, the fact is, it’s difficult to rely on.

When we talk about birth control statistics, we often cite the differences between perfect use and typical use. Perfect use means that every single use was done exactly as it should be to prevent pregnancy and/or STDs. An example of this would be someone who takes their birth control pills at the same exact time every single day, or someone who measures themselves and only uses the correctly-sized condom with the correct type and amount of lubricant (like one of our favorites, WET Naturals Silky Supreme.)

Typical use refers to someone who may normally have a preferred brand of condoms that fits, but will use whatever they can find if they're in a pinch, or they may take their hormonal birth control every day but not always the same time, or they may miss a day here or there.


When we talk about the pull-out method, the definitions for typical vs. perfect use are a lot more varied. Perfect typically indicates a couple who not only pull out before ejaculation every single time, but track the female partner's cycles using a basal thermometer and tracking. The majority of people who use the pull-out method, studies have shown, are in the typical category-- and because of this, they are far more likely to get pregnant.

In fact, 21% of women who rely on the pull-out method, typical or perfect use, experience an unwanted pregnancy-- which is nearly double the rate at all other forms of birth control, including condoms.

Why The Pull-Out Method Doesn't Work:

There are multiple reasons why the pull-out method doesn’t work. The first is that is requires a lot of control. Guys who suffer from premature-ejaculation or are sexually-inexperienced are bad candidates for the withdrawal method because they may not be able to stop themselves from ejaculating.

The second is that for some people, it simply never works. A third of men consistently have sperm in their pre-cum as well as their ejaculate. They may not get their partners pregnant with this pre-cum every single time, but all it takes is one sperm on one unlucky day of a woman's cycle. Unless you're certain about your own pre-cum, you could inevitably be taking a very big risk.

A third problem revolves around a woman’s natural cycle. Unless you’re taking birth control, it’s hard to assume that your cycle is regular. Even if you think that your period is here, it could just be some random spotting. There are scientific ways to track your fertility using a basal thermometer that rely on sheer accuracy and vigilance. We aren't talking like, "Oh yeah, my cycle is usually about 27 days," vigilance. We're talking like, "My cervix is dilated this big and my vaginal mucous is watery but a little white and my internal temperature is approximately..." vigilance. Many women find this too taxing to deal with every day, but it's not something you can half-ass if you want to do it right.


But the most glaring problem with the withdrawal method? STDs. Even if it was 100% effective at preventing pregnancy, even if you or your partner are sterile, there’s no guarantee that one of you doesn’t have STDs. In fact, many STDs are asymptomatic, so unless you were just tested (and sometimes not even then as some take a while to show up), you could potentially be taking a big risk with your or your partner's health.

The best way to prevent STDs? Barrier methods, like condoms or diaphragms.

If you’re with a long-term and supportive partner, if STDs aren’t a concern, and if you’re at a place in your life (emotionally, financially, and physically) where you could handle a pregnancy if it happens, then the pull-out method might be a good alternative. Otherwise, you may want to consider a different option.

Pull-Out Method Safety Tips:

If you are going to use the pull-out method, here are some safety tips.

  • Track your fertile days. Apps like Kindara can help you keep track of your period, although keep in mind that there is always the chance that it isn’t accurate. For more accurate results, a basal thermometer is a great idea.
  • Keep condoms or another barrier method on hand for those times when it's during your most fertile period and you still need to get some.
  • Keep emergency contraception on hand for accidents. They do happen.
  • Communicate. If there’s a chance that your cycle is off, or that you could have an STD/STI, let your partner known. Getting tested every few months also never hurts.
  • Practice, practice, practice! Before you make the commitment to withdrawal, practice withdrawing with a condom on to make sure you or your partner are up to the challenge. A great time to do this is when you’re waiting for your STD tests to come back!

There is one time when the pull-out method can be a boon, however. If you decide to pair it with another form of contraception, like a condom or hormonal birth control, you can nearly nullify your chances of unwanted pregnancy.

Remember, the pull-out method is not perfect, nor is it even preferable. But if it’s the only option you’ve got, it’s better than nothing, so use it with discretion and care.

[Sources: Slate, Reuters]

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