We get this kind of question all the time, and the reality is it's very difficult to answer — because the effectiveness of birth control has a lot to do with how well you use it. A method doesn’t work as well if you mess it up (like putting the condom on incorrectly, or not pulling out before ejaculation). And, “messing it up” is the number-one reason birth control fails. But, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and talk numbers (remember, these stats aren’t exact and vary depending on how well you use your method):
For every 100 people who use withdrawal (pulling the penis out and ejaculating away from your partner’s vulva/vagina), 27 will become pregnant each year if they don’t always do it correctly. With perfect use, that number drops to four out of 100. But, withdrawal is a VERY difficult method of birth control to use perfectly. The ejaculator needs to know his body, have lots of self-control, and be able and willing to pull out in time — every time. While pre-ejaculate (pre-cum) does not usually contain sperm, sometimes it does — and it only takes one little sperm to cause a pregnancy. Long story short: Withdrawal leaves a lot up to chance, but if used correctly, it’s more effective than many realize.
For every 100 people who use condoms, 18 will become pregnant if they don’t always use them correctly. Two out of 100 will get pregnant even with perfect use. Making sure you use condoms correctly (storing them in a cool, dry place, checking the expiration date, rolling them on the right way, adding water-based or silicone lubricant, etc.) will increase their effectiveness.
Again, it’s impossible to predict exactly how effective each method will be for each person, but condoms come out the overall winner, here. And, condoms are the ONLY method of birth control that also prevents STDs, including HIV. Regardless of your pregnancy risk and/or whether or not you’re using another method of contraception, condoms are always a good idea.
If you’re set on using withdrawal or condoms for pregnancy prevention, the safest way to go would be to use them together (wear a condom and also pull out before ejaculation). Ejaculating outside of your partner always reduces the chances of pregnancy, and condoms protect you against STDs and act as a backup in case pulling out doesn’t go as planned.
Answered by Kendall at Planned Parenthood.
Beyond serving as a go-to source for vital reproductive care, the folks at Planned Parenthood— a team of experts in medicine, sexual health, and law — are passionate, informed advocates for knowing your own body. Planned Parenthood's very own Kendall McKenzie is here to tackle the big issues.