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.]
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