I heard Dan Savage talk about this a while ago, and I was just reading someone writing on the question, and I thought I’d address it here, because – well, because it seems important.

In a Q&A on a web site to which many people go seeking advice on such matters, someone asked, “I recently had sex without a condom, and pulled out before I came. Is the woman I fucked at risk for pregnancy?”

This nationally recognized sex expert wrote that “pulling out is not reliable.”

This answer is, if not wrong, deeply misleading.

Can you guess the correct answer?

The correct answer is, “Yes, of course, she’s at risk. She is, however, not at significantly greater risk than she would have been had you been using a condom. Withdrawal – though completely ineffective at preventing the spread of sexually transmitted infections (other than those transmitted via semen) – is a fairly effective means of preventing pregnancy.

This is the dirty secret of sex educators – one no one likes to speak aloud because of the fear that people will undervalue the risk of STIs. And, one that many sex educators simply don’t know.

I’m a big believer in accurate information and you should know, if pregnancy is your concern, withdrawal, practiced well, is about as effective as condoms.

Here are the numbers for the failure rates for couples using each method over a year: assuming perfect use, condoms are about twice as effective as withdrawal, with a 2% failure rate for condoms and 4% for withdrawal. But assuming typical use, they’re virtually the same: 17% for condoms vs. 18% for withdrawal. But pay attention: those failure rates aren’t for an instance of intercourse: they’re for a year’s worth of intercourse. I haven’t done enough research into the data to know the assumptions that reflects, but it’s clear that we’re talking about failure rates of well under 1% even for imperfect, typical use.

This is not to say that withdrawal is a great method. It’s not. It does expose both parties to all sorts of sexually transmitted infections. And perfect condom use is twice as effective as perfect withdrawal.

But who among us is perfect, honestly?

[Incidentally, because I’ve been asked about this recently: I’ve had unprotected vaginal intercourse with exactly one person in the 21st century. And, in much of the last decade of the previous century.]


Want to read more? Go here.

Wicked Wednesday


  1. Not sure about this. Read from somewhere that before a guy cums,he may unknowingly has already secreted some sperms though not much, but still can have the likelihood of making his sex partner pregnant!

    1. I recall a study from a couple years ago, which suggested that the presence of semen in precum varied from individual to individual (for many people it was never present; for some, trace amounts were detected; for others, more than trace amounts). Most people don’t actually know whether or not their precum is carrying a payload, so when we talk about risk, we’re averaging out this variance (and many other variables).

      In other words, when we talk about this sort of risk, we’re talking about populations, not individuals.

      Not actually withdrawing, in my mind, is the greater risk. I trust the method well enough; I haven’t always trusted my partners. In that respect, I prefer birth control methods which I can control.

      1. 1) You’re right. The discussion of risk is risk across population, not individuals. Some individuals presumably present higher risks, and some present lower risks.
        2) I agree – I like to be in control of my destiny, and if I could get pregnant, I’d prefer a method that I knew I could control.
        3) The precum argument, though, is a canard. The study includes the risk presented by precum. See the follow-up I’m about to write….

  2. ahhh statistic, fascinating stuff until you are the one with the unwanted pregnancy. I will admit that I have indulged in it and it didn’t go well and I ended up taking the morning after pill.


    1. Wait wait wait. How do you know it didn’t go well? The morning-after pill is something you do long before you learn whether withdrawal worked or not. Unless you mean, he didn’t actually pull out. Which is different.

      (It seems to me there’s an analogy which, after two scotches, I’m not quite competent to make, between failed withdrawal and imperfect monogamy.)

  3. Being a nurse I always preach to wrap your willy being as no one is perfect and no one truly knows how loaded their precum might be. Lord Raven is a perfect example, swear if I still had a uterus I would be pregnant with him just looking at me. (exaggeration of course but you get the idea)

  4. I got pregnant twice using the withdrawal method. With a partner who always did withdraw “in time”. Just sayin’.
    Proceed with caution, and be ready for potential consequences.

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