There’s a ton of different ways to avoid pregnancy, like condoms, the pill, IUDs (intrauterine devices), and others. But because most of these options cost money, plenty of people try the free, but risky, pull-out method.
If you’re not using a condom and relying on ‘coitus interruptus,’ then you probably have some questions about how to manage the risks. So, you may ask, “Can I get pregnant from precum?”
Priming the Pump
First off, what is precum? Before a man reaches orgasm, a clear and somewhat sticky fluid is released in order to prepare the penis for the ejaculatory fluid that’s about to be released. Precum, or pre-ejaculate, is produced by two pea-sized glands that are just below the prostate, near the root of the penis.
These are called the Cowper’s glands, and they release alkaline mucus into the urethra, which is the tube through the middle of the penis that men pee through. Pee is somewhat acidic, which isn’t great for sperm as they’re pretty sensitive to pH levels. So, the precum is used to line the urethra to help the little swimmers survive the journey.
It may also have the same effect on the vagina, which is also naturally somewhat acidic. This generally helps prevent vaginal infections but it isn’t conducive to the survival of sperm.
The other reason for precum is that it works as lubrication for the act of sex itself. Women also have a similar set of glands that sit on either side of the entrance to the vagina. These are called the Bartholin’s glands, and they also produce an alkaline lubricating mucus, which serves a similar purpose.
So, No Sperm Then?
Unfortunately, things aren’t quite that simple. For a long time, because the Cowper’s glands don’t produce or contain any sperm cells themselves, it was believed that precum couldn’t contain any sperm.
The thing is, that just as precum makes it possible for sperm to survive the passage through the urethra, it also makes conditions more favorable for them to survive in there afterward. So, say that you’ve already had sex with your partner once that day. There’s a reasonable chance that there will be some sperm still pottering about in the urethra, especially if you’ve not peed and made things acidic again.
In the right conditions, sperm can survive for around five days. That’s why two studies, conducted in 2016 and 2011, found active, mobile sperm in the precum of 17 percent and 37 percent (respectively) of the men that they tested.
The exact reasons aren’t fully understood, as there hasn’t been a lot of research yet. If it’s not because of sperm left over in the urethra, then scientists theorize that for whatever reason some men just leak sperm cells into their precum.
OK, but Can I Get Pregnant from Precum?
The basic answer is: maybe, but probably not. The odds are very slim, but you still can’t rule it out. An average ejaculation contains around 200 to 300 million sperm, while one of the precum samples tested in the 2011 study had more than 23 million.
While this still sounds like quite a lot, it’s worth keeping in mind that only 25 to 30 percent of couples in their 20s and 30s successfully get pregnant per menstrual cycle when they’re actively trying to, which means intentionally finishing inside multiple times. Considering those odds, precum seems quite safe.
On the other hand, all it takes is one particularly hardy (and lucky) sperm to cause a pregnancy. That’s why the pull-out method, when used perfectly, still has a 4 percent chance of resulting in pregnancy over the course of a year (and most people don’t use it perfectly, which is why the ‘normal’ usage failure rate is 22 percent.)
What If I’m Not Ovulating?
Remember how we said that sperm can survive for five days? That’s not just inside the guy’s urethra. They can survive inside the female partner’s reproductive system too. That means that if the woman releases an egg within that time frame, then there is still a chance that the Chuck Norris of sperms will be able to fertilize it.
Normally, ovulation occurs in the middle of the menstrual cycle, which is around 14 days before your next period. If you’re having regular sex up to five days before or on the same day as you ovulate, then you have a higher chance of getting pregnant. And because there could be sperm in your partner’s precum, there’s a chance of pregnancy, lower but not non-existent.
What Can I Do If My Partner Doesn’t Pull Out in Time?
There are a couple of emergency contraceptive options that you can use if you and your partner accidentally take things too far.
The first is a hormonal emergency contraceptive pill. They can work up to five days after unprotected sex, as they delay or even prevent the egg from being released. The pill is most effective when used within 72 hours of having unprotected sex.
They can cost between $20 to $60 from your local pharmacy, depending on whether you choose a generic version or a branded product. They can also often be procured through your doctor via a prescription. Because they are classed as preventative care, you’re usually free if you have health insurance.
They also have a number of potential side effects, including:
- stomach pain
- breast tenderness
Your other option is having an intrauterine device inserted by your doctor. It can reduce your chances of pregnancy by over 99 percent, which is pretty good odds, and it can be used up to five days after sex as an emergency contraceptive. It’ll also work to keep you from getting pregnant in the future for up to 10 to 12 years if you leave it in. They’re not cheap though, costing between $500 to $1000 if you’re not insured.
Pull Away from Pulling Out
The long and the short of it is that pulling out isn’t really the best way to avoid getting pregnant. Even if he manages it perfectly, there’s still a 4 percent chance that you’ll get pregnant thanks to the lingering sperm in his urethra, or just sheer unlucky timing.
There’s even a very slim – but not ignorable – chance that getting precum on the entrance of your vagina could cause you to end up pregnant. All this considered, skipping out on condoms is too risky to be worth it.