The Vagenda

Pulling power: Using the Withdrawal Method as a Form of ‘Contraception’

Hadley Freeman’s recent Guardian piece about the decline in contraceptive use amongst young women got us wanting to hear tales from the horse’s mouth. Here, one woman confesses all about her continued reliance on him pulling out…Oh, and N.B, just in case we’re not clear: THIS IS NOT RECOMMENDED BY THE NHS AS AN EFFECTIVE MEANS OF CONTRACEPTION
When I first started having sex I was a religious contraceptive pill taker. Like starting your period, for me it was something that I knew you were supposed to be all ‘oh it’s such a drag’ about, but secretly couldn’t wait to start because – woohoo! I. AM. WOMAN. And – even better – one that’s having sex. 
My first boyfriend was a self-involved, jealous, ‘I only cheated because my antidepressants had a funny effect on me’ type of chap, and I loved him dearly. But after two years passed and a little self-esteem built up, I stopped taking the pill. If he wanted to have sex (which I would have happily done without) he could get the condoms. This was begrudgingly undertaken, but not without letting me know I’d put a dampener on things. Eventually I managed to lose him, but ‘condoms-as-sex-spoilers’ stayed put.
A year later, I was still hung up on my first love. So I had a firm word with myself: Get. Laid. Now.
A boy eventually came on the scene and after a far too vague, ‘yeah I’m STD-free’ assurance, I start ed taking the pill. But I noticed something almost immediately: I felt constantly angry. ‘Is it because he’s a bit of a knob, or is it the pill?’ I wondered. ‘Hang on, is that why I was an emotionally unstable and uncharacteristically short-tempered person during most of my first relationship?’ I couldn’t decide, so I stopped. 
The boy in question wasn’t overly supportive of my decision. In fact, on introducing a condom next time we have sex, he helpfully murmured ‘you’re ruining it’. And – I know – walking out should have been the only conceivable reaction. But my inner ‘oh god, he thinks I’m crap in bed… and probably fat’ voice won, and ‘pulling out’, as a tactic, began in earnest. And I loathed myself a bit. Thankfully it didn’t last. Some more self-esteem amassed, an STI test was booked and a boy was dumped. 
Fast-forward a few years, past some more shit boys and stupid risks, and I finally bed someone that’s actually nice. Five years on, I’m still bedding him. But while the relationship has been sturdy, contraception has still been…less so.
At first, I went on the pill. But then, a year or so later, I started to ask myself ‘why should I?’ I hate constantly questioning whether my angry, anxious bouts are ‘just me’ or are added-hormone-induced. My friend’s 32-year-old stepmum has had a stroke and ‘long-term pill taking’ has been thrown around, and we’ve been having a bit of dry spell lately – could it destroying my lovely libido? I’m fed up of wondering. 
‘From now on,’ I told my boyfriend, ‘we will use condoms. And ‘wholeheartedly agreeing’ but still waiting for me to instigate it isn’t enough: You are now in charge of contraception.’
The next time we had sex, sure enough, a condom was used. And it split. So, off I go to the chemist where I’m interrogated by a boy younger than me who insists on calling it ‘The Incident,’ given the morning after pill and charged £30 for the pleasure. That night at a party (where I remain sober, as instructed) a pleasant side effect kicked in: my bowels seemed to be telling me that they’re keen to explode. And they did. I spent most of the night in the loo, listening for ‘quiet gaps’, during I can sneak out unnoticed.
And so, pulling out creeps back in.
Soon after, we’re with my boyfriend’s brother who’s about to be married. He tells us, nonchalantly, that at one of the Catholic ‘marriage classes’ he’s attended, a doctor stated that the rhythm method was the most effective. 
‘YYYYYYYEEEEEEEESSSSSSS!!!!!!!!’ my inner self screamed, ‘Validation!’ It’s almost as reassuring as when I heard smoking was fine if you gave up before 30. 
But just as back then my more sensible conscience whispered: ‘Um… I’m not sure you’re meant to take that as active encouragement to smoke…’ again, she piped up: ‘….Really? I doubt Nan was one of 11 kids because her dad used cond-‘
‘SHUT UP!!’ louder me cried. ‘A doctor said it for Christ’s sake, a doctor! Who are you to question him?’ 
And so, it has continued.
I know there are other methods, but I’m not really sold. A few years ago, a friend failed to reply to my text within her usual 20-second timeframe, so I called her. 
‘Helllllooooo?!’ I enquired. 
‘Hello.’ A tiny voice said back. 
‘What’s wrong?’
‘Just had the coil put in,’ she said quietly. ‘Am in so… much… pain.’
What followed were periods so severe that she could only describe them as ‘blood clotting its way out of her’. It took over a year for her to pluck up the courage to have it removed. I still envisage it as a kind of rusty wire spring gouged into her womb.
Another pal found herself in the situation where a manfriend was visiting for just two weeks, and he really wasn’t ‘getting on’ with condoms. Needing something immediate, she went to the clinic and asked for a diaphragm. The nurse was bewildered at such an un-British request and pointed out that actually, it’s not a very effective contraceptive method and the only reason its big in the US is that their litigious culture makes dolling out the pill too risky for doctors. But even without that, I’ve seen the Sex And The City where it gets stuck. 
I guess it’s important to note here that, at 28 and in a long-term relationship, pregnancy does not completely fill me with fear. Don’t get me wrong, on a not-very-good wage and living in a 1-bed flat, a baby really isn’t something I’m secretly hoping for. But I know that, if I felt I were running the risk of undergoing an abortion every time I had sex, Sensible Subconscious voice would get her way. (Although I have just got a prescription for less-hormonal pill, so I do listen to her sometimes).
But I’ve definitely used ‘pulling out’ before this was the case and I’m suitably ashamed that I took such massive risks. But also, actually, I feel really sad for my insecure younger self, who was so easily persuaded by boys that there was either safe sex or good sex.
- CC

29 thoughts on “Pulling power: Using the Withdrawal Method as a Form of ‘Contraception’

  1. I have been on several types of contraception, the pill, the implant (twice) and the combined method. Each time I have been seriously unhealthy, my mood went crazy, I’ve had six month periods on the implant and taking the pill an hour early or an hour late made me come on. So I nearly became anemic and diabetic. The truth is we just don’t have good enough contraception yet. I could never bring myself back to that.

  2. I want to add to that, from 16 onwards I was religious about protecting myself, it’s only drofted as I got older (22, like you, mortgage, degree, shit car, shit job, wouldn’t be the end of the would but rather not) from resentment about buggering up my own body and fertility for the future.

  3. We used to use the pulling out method. Now that I’m 8 1/2 months pregnant, I’m thinking I might use something else after the baby is born. I was happy to become pregnant, but I don’t want another right away! I hate the pill though, so I’ll have to find an alternative and it’s a shame that none of them are really without side effects or downsides. The pill made me angry or depressed, depending on which variety I tried and also killed my sex drive. Contraception sucks.

  4. There are always going to be side effects to something that has such a profound effect on your fertility unfortunately. Contraception affects everyone differently though and I don’t think people should be put off trying a particular method because someone else has had a bad experience. The combined pill made me feel awful but the mini pill/implant have given me very few side effects at all. Someone I know has an IUD and loves it, someone else I know got it taken it 3 months later.
    Personally I don’t mind condoms, it’s just annoying that they’re so expensive.
    I really don’t understand the pulling out method – but I suppose if you’re in a relationship and not adverse to getting preggers then it’s up to you. After all the most important thing about access to contraception is that it gives women a choice.

  5. Props to her for refusing to stay on the pill if it made her feel crap. But it’s frustrating that it’s still all about her as the woman having to take action and responsibility for safe sex. Did they really only try using a condom once and give up? What about learning how to use a condom properly? Having a bit of practice putting it on etc? Trying different sizes/thicknesses/lubricated varieties? Going slow, checking everything’s in place, getting to know how to use this bit of contraceptive kit. More difficult if you’re not having sex with the same person all the time, but here she seems to be in a relationship. Is her sexual health and happiness not worth a wee bit of effort?

    There seems to be this idea that when it comes to contraception, it’s the pill, with all the possible side-effects that entails, or something worse e.g. the coil (though it suits some women). Why are condoms such a small part of this discussion? The “condoms-as-sex-spoilers” idea is blokey propaganda. Yes, there is an interlude of a few seconds while it goes on – but in my book it’s much less of an intrusion into the actual act than pulling out at the crescendo of proceedings is, particularly if your partner has learned how to deploy said condom quickly and effectively.

    Are men really so unwilling to take responsibility for contraception? Are we really so unwilling to ask? I’m nearly 31 and happily use nothing but condoms – until now, I’ve never really considered that a feminist achievement.

  6. I’m so glad you wrote this in response to Hadley’s article, I actually felt quite affronted by her use of inverted commas when using the word ‘crazy’ to describe her friends reaction to the pill. Maybe I was taking it too personally but I felt like it was belittling. I stopped taking the pill about 5 years ago as it just wasn’t worth the effect it had on my mood, I get bad PMS anyway and contrary to what every doctor told me the pill did not help, it just accentuated various symptoms while minimizing others. If I’m going to be crazy I’d like to know it’s all me, I’ll own it! Still, every time I go to the Dr’s I get looked at like an oddity when I say I don’t take the pill and they always ask if I’ve tried this one or that one, why the propaganda?

  7. I should add that me and my now boyfriend use condoms but in a previous relationship we just used the pulling out method and I don’t actually know why we were risking it like that.

  8. I think the side-effects of the pill are very different for everyone. I’ve known people for whom it really didn’t work. I’ve seen a lot of reactions to the Guardian article around the web focussing on the downsides of the combined pill. For me the side effects have been an absolute bonus!

    I started taking a combined pill 7 years ago. It has
    - taken away my previously crappy period pain that regularly required ibuprofen+paracetamol with codiene and a hot water bottle to make it through the day.
    - My periods are much much l lighter. Before they were very heavy for several days a month.
    - It stopped the fluctuations in mood that preceded my period.
    - It has stopped the increases sweating before and during my period.
    - It has stopped the odd fluctuations in blood sugar levels that I’d get during and before my period.
    - No massive change in libido – I’m still aware (though at a lower level) of the monthly fluctations in levels of desire etc.

    On the downside
    - I’m a little dry down there so sometimes a bit of lube is required – but an unexpected bonus of that has been seven years with no thrush – which I used to get regularly whether I was having sex or not. I even managed a dose of heavy duty antibiotics without getting the dreaded itch.
    - My eyes are noticeably drier – so contact lenses are out – but I’m not bothered about being a glasses wearer for a variety of other reasons (hayfever making my eyes itch, cost of the kind of contacts I’d need)
    - It probably increases my appetite. So I have to pay a little bit more attention, intellectually, to how much I’ve actually eaten vs. just letting my appetite dictate. And I think that the role of increased appetite in weight gain on both the combined and the mini pill is poorly documented and understood.

    I’ve been able to do things that I simply wouldn’t have been able to plan for without the pill – such as swimming 5 km for charity. No way I could’ve done that without being confident that even if I had my period it would be no biggie and I’d still be able to swim.

    I think it ‘s absolutely right that men need to take more responsibility for contraception – and certainly I think the ‘mood killer’ line, whilst it’s a real problem for some men, is perhaps not as common as it’s made out to be. I’ve certainly never had any trouble when I’ve insisted on using them. However, as it’s me, and not any bloke, who might get pregnant in this equation – I’m absolutely OK with taking charge of this. I would still use condoms with a new partner anyway to protect against STI’s. And I figure it’s with a new partner that I most want to have contraceptive cover where I’m in control.

  9. I now really appreciate my current boyfriend’s attitude to condoms: the first time we had sex I barely had time to blink before it was out of the packet, put on, and we were ready to go! It never even occurred to him not to use one. We have risked it the odd time, as it does feel good without, but that hasn’t been for a while- we decided to make an effort to be sensible.

    I can’t take the combined pill, and the mini pill gave me almost constant spotting and aggravated my already acne-ridden skin, so I gave up on that- and any other progesterone based method. Neither can I handle the idea of the IUD. So I guess it’s condoms until one of us gets the snip…

    They really aren’t so bad though- if you get decent quality ones- and with regards to price, I bought a 144 pack online for about £35, which is much better value than getting the little boxes from a pharmacy, if you don’t mind an initial investment.

  10. As far as I’m concerned, no condom, no nooky. I’m on the pill to regulate my periods and if some guy doesn’t care enough to help protect me from possible pregnancy and STI, why would I consider him worth it? It’s my life and body that will be stuffed up, not his so if he’s not willing to get over using condoms, he’s not mature enough to get involved with a woman, especially not me. I’m not willing to take that risk

  11. Could anyone point me to *reliable* information on the reliability of the withdrawal method, *when* that method is used properly (i.e. the man does actually pull out in time)? Thanks.

  12. I’m sure we were taught at school about the charmingly-entitled ‘blob on the knob’…ie. precum. (Oh straight-talking sexual health nurses of the ’90s, how wonderful you were). The lesson being it only takes one little swimmer to get you pregnant and some are released before your guy actually cums. Why would you risk that?

  13. I don’t necessarily think it’s entirely a feminist thing. It’s just a matter of preference really. I always used condoms religiously when I was single. But now I’m in a relationship I’m glad to be rid of them. I’ve never really liked the feel of them (maybe like you say I need to shop around more) and I feel like it does spoil the intimacy when you’re in a relationship. Also I personally I prefer my guy to pull out early. I feel like it’s less messy for me and since me being on the pill is not enough to ease his pregnancy paranoia it’s a win-win.

  14. Is the IUD really that painful? I’m not really enjoying being on the my pill for various reasons and I thought about changing to a different one, but what I actually really want is a non-hormonal contraceptive. The copper IUD seemed like the only option after condoms, but I’ve been quite put off by all the horror stories. Anyone got any advice?

  15. Hi Eleanor, I had a copper coil put in a couple of months ago, after deciding to overlook various unpleasant stories (since I also wanted a non-hormonal contraception). The actual insertion was pretty painful, and I was extremely light headed and had to lie on the floor for 45 minutes afterwards as I would have fainted trying to walk. That said, the pain decreased fairly fast and wasn’t by any means unbearable (mainly cramps that resemble a period pain). The first night I was woken up with pains, but after that things returned to normal. It’s not fun but could be worse! However, the downside so far is that my periods (which were light before) are significantly heavier (though not longer) and the pains are worse. I have to say that’s a drag, but at least it’s only once a month, and there is no need for paranoia about mood swings or other health risks. I would perhaps warn you against it though if your periods are already heavy and painful, because it invariably worsens them.
    I live in France and recently listened to an interesting radio programme about a girl who had a stroke after being on the pill and who now campaigns for greater awareness of the risks. Over here the pill costs around 300€ over 3 years, whereas the coil only costs around 20€ for the same period… evidently pharmaceutical companies have a vested interest in promoting the pill as the no.1 method of contraception. Pretty suspect.

  16. I’ve read something about scientists having developed a contraceptive method which is basically inserting a liquid into the testicles to make the sperm immobile. It is also completely reversible.

    Too good to be true?

  17. Tis true! They are still doing trials on it in India, but fingers crossed! And then all we need to do is convince guys that one little injection in your penis really can’t be that painful

  18. Completely agree. I’ve always assumed a man who refuses to use a condom is an arrogant, entitled arse who doesn’t give a shit about women. And also extremely likely to have an STD. I find it really depressing reading all these posts from women who go along with selfish men who expect the woman to deal with the burden of contraception as well as taking all the risks just because they think they deserve some particular kind of sexual experience. These are men who are saying – “I don’t care if I cause you to have a pregnancy or an abortion, so long as I can enjoy myself the way I want to enjoy myself”. Why the hell would anyone sleep with charmers like that?

    Get it together, women: please stop letting men walk all over you.

  19. There are countless viable sperm in lubricating liquid that is produced by the penis long, long before ejaculation. The withdrawal method DOES NOT WORK. And yes I shouted that because I’m really scared that you might not take notice and this shit is serious. I’m a teacher and I can’t believe how crap sex ed is in this country. I’ve had this conversation so many times it’s depressing. The rhythm method only works if you have a clockwork cycle and there are quite a lot of us who don’t. Please, please don’t use the withdrawal method – you’re just playing Russian roulette with your ovulation cycle.

  20. Sorry having to do this as two comments – The Vagenda really doesn’t like iPad.
    So the Gynefix was designed so women who haven’t had kids could use an IUD. The insertion of it isn’t particularly enjoyable but I can say with experience that the pain is as nothing compared to labour! I rejected a standard IUD in my twenties (they has the adrenaline shit out and ready – it wasn’t fun) and a few weeks later the lovely family planning doctor fitted me with the Gynefix. I’ve used it for the last 15 years and it’s caused me no hassles. It seems to be fairly uncommon and you may have to be referred to a doctor who’s trained to fit them but they’re a bloody godsend if you can’t take the pill and you haven’t had kids so don’t want a standard IUD. I’ve now had a kid but I’m still using it on the basis of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. (& the sentence above about the adrenaline shot should be ‘had’ not ‘has’ but it won’t let me edit)

  21. Are there any other women who hate condoms? Cause I know the trope is that men do, but I can’t stand them! They’re drying and then those ribbed and dotted things can feel like sandpaper sometimes! Plus I went on the pill pretty quickly after my first BF and I started the sex stuff cause we had 2 break and now I don’t trust them! I love love LOVED the combined pill, but just switched to the implant whilst I live in another country and can’t get the pill and… well, I started my second period nearly a month ago and it’s still going… I don’t think I will ever be un-paranoid enough to go back to using no long term contraception until I want kids.

  22. i feel like this is such a common situation that no-one really speaks about it, and that is absolutely left out of sex ed. After trying a gazillion different pills which all made me semi-psychotic, i stated firmly to my long term boyfriend that we would be using condoms from now on. And yet systematically he would murmur, ‘it’s fine, you’re not ovulating’ or ‘please, it’s so much better without condoms’. And the baby russian roulette began. one ‘lucky’ miscarriage and a grim abortion later, i have the implant and a lower libido… I just can’t believe this isn’t talked about more to young, impressionable girls.

  23. I love condoms. They are FRIGGIN’ amazing. I have been in two long term relationships and used condoms all the way through. In my mind they jsut go along with sex, they’re not something you ‘graduate’ from when things get serious. The Pill makes me moody, depressed, and zaps my libido. IF a guy can’t get on board with condoms and shut the fuck up then he’s not worth it.

  24. Hi Eleanor,

    I’ve had my IUD in for about 5 years, and I have to say going on it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Having it put in WAS painful (but the clinic I went to had wonderful nurses, one of them just stood next to me and held my hand for the duration of the procedure) and it felt like a really strong period for about a day afterwards. After you’ve had the IUD put in, it takes about three months for it to ‘settle’, during which your periods can be irregular. I settled quite quickly into getting regular periods.

    For me, having gone from the pill to the IUD, my periods are longer, stronger and more painful than they were on the pill. But it’s definitely not unbearable (and actually nowhere near as bad as my periods were when I was a teenager) and also more than made up for by the fact that I know I’m not putting weird hormones in my body that are not supposed to be there, no nausea (was nauseous every day when on the pill), no mood swings, my libido is back to where it should be (i.e. actually having one), I don’t have to worry about not being protected if I forget a pill/am on antibiotics/fall ill, and I feel much more in control and in touch with my body. I would definitely recommend it. Speak to someone at your local women’s clinic, and take their advice over horror stories you hear on the internet ;) Good luck xxx

  25. I’m sure some women do have bad reactions to being on the pill, but I do think some anecdotal evidence I’ve heard over the years stems from a misunderstanding on how the pill works. Having so many periods is bad for your health – we just weren’t designed to have these constant monthly menstruations. The story of how the pill was developed is a great explanation of how misunderstood it is.