Does the pull-out method work?
Reviewed by our clinical team
For lots of people contraception is a tricky subject. It's usually women who are in charge of birth control, but not everyone gets on with standard contraception. You might think condoms "spoil the moment" and they aren't always available.
It's not surprising then, that some couples rely on the withdrawal or pull-out method, also known as coitus interruptus. According to the WHO, 47millon women worldwide use this method. In 2008 in the UK 3.9 % of all contraceptive users were using the withdrawal method.
The question is: does it actually work? In this article we’ll look at the pros and cons as well as other contraception options.
What is the withdrawal method?
Withdrawal or “pulling out” is exactly what it sounds like – the man removes his penis from his partner’s vagina and genital area before he ejaculates. In theory, this should prevent pregnancy as it stops his sperm from entering her vagina. In practice, however, the withdrawal method can be pretty unreliable, which is why it’s not advised as a reliable or standalone method of contraception by the NHS.
Perfect use of this method would mean:
- Pulling out before ejaculation every time you have sex
- Ejaculating outside the vagina and away from the genitals.
Remember: Sperm are mobile and can find their way into the vagina even if the ejaculation happened "outside".
In one survey, 41% of women ages 18 to 24 reported practicing withdrawal and researchers estimate the actual number could be higher.
How effective is the withdrawal method?
Statistics about withdrawal method effectiveness will vary depending on who you ask. However, it’s all about technique. If you don’t pull out quickly enough, or if some sperm still gets into the vagina, there’s going to be a risk of pregnancy.
Planned Parenthood recommends that with perfect use:
- Withdrawal is effective in preventing pregnancy about 96% of the time
- For every 100 people who use it perfectly, there will be four pregnancies
However, going by typical use, it’s a different story:
- On average, 22 out of 100 couples will become pregnant from relying on the withdrawal method
- Roughly one in five people will become pregnant
When it works best
The withdrawal method works best when you are in a long-term relationship and if both partners are equally keen to avoid pregnancy but know that they might end up pregnant. It can’t really be recommended when you are having casual sex - condoms would be ideal here: they also protect you against STIs.
One reason why withdrawal isn’t 100% effective – even with perfect technique – is that sperm can be released even before ejaculation. This “pre-ejaculate” or “pre-cum” contains sperm, which is why it can cause pregnancy. Because of this, if you experience premature ejaculation the pull-out method is not advisable.
Having said this, the withdrawal method is still better than nothing. So if you don't have reliable contraception when you’re in the moment, it is an option.
Does pulling out protect against STIs?
No, pulling out doesn’t stop you catching an STI. Some STIs like herpes and genital warts are spread through skin-to-skin contact. While others like chlamydia can be spread in pre-cum. The best way to prevent STIs is using condoms for penetrative and oral sex. This is why it’s not recommended in any situations where you aren’t sure of your partner’s STI status.
Benefits of the pull-out method
Although the pull-out method isn’t reliable, many people use it for a range of reasons, including:
- They wouldn’t mind if they got pregnant
- Religious or philosophical
- It’s too late to use another method
- They don’t have sex often
- It's a non-hormonal method
- There are no side effects
Should I use the pull-out method?
The NHS doesn’t recommend withdrawal as contraception; it’s much more likely to lead to pregnancy than tried and tested methods like the pill.
Dr Neel Patel:
"The pull-out method is not a reliable or recommended method of contraception. It has a higher failure rate than other forms of birth control. Even if perfectly done (which is rare), it is thought to be only 96% effective, lower than other methods. And before using this method, you should have an open conversation with your sexual partner.”
However, there might be some circumstances where withdrawal suits you and your sexual partner. For instance, you may be happy to try it if you’re in a committed relationship and open to the idea of having children together.
Just remember, if you’re going to try the pull-out method, you'll need to do the following:
- Pull the penis out at the right time i.e. before he feels like he’s going to ejaculate
- Ejaculate away from the partner’s genitals to make sure no sperm enters her vagina
- Urinate and clean the end of the penis before having sex again, just in case any sperm is still there
What should I do if the pull-out method goes wrong?
The pull-out method can go wrong quite easily. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to get caught up and time your withdrawal wrong. You might ejaculate inside your partner’s vagina, or close enough that sperm gets inside. You can also release sperm before you ejaculate, you can get pregnant from pre-cum.
If this happens, don’t panic. Emergency contraception is a good option for preventing pregnancy, provided you get hold of it as soon as possible.
There are two main types of emergency contraception:
- Emergency contraceptive pill (morning after pill)
- Emergency IUD (coil)
You can get the morning after pill from contraception and GUM clinics, GP surgeries, walk-in centres, and pharmacies. You can also order it from our secure online service and have it delivered to your home or local ParcelShop.
The emergency coil has to be fitted by a health professional at a clinic within five days of unprotected sex. A benefit of this method is that the IUD can be left in and used as routine contraception for several years.
Get routine contraception from Online Doctor
Women seeking contraception can use Online Doctor to order the pill, patch, or ring. We prescribe combined, mini, and low dose varieties of the pill. Visit our online contraception clinic to find out more.
Each method has different effectiveness from 92% to 99%. Look at our guide to contraception for individual rates:
Although a popular method of contraception, for many reasons including convenience, the pull-out method isn’t always reliable. There are more effective methods of birth control. If you’re looking for a more effective way to stop you getting pregnant, find the right contraceptive pill for you.