Earlier this month, Ann Friedman wrote a piece for The Cut about “the pullout generation,” women in their 30s who are tired of the pill’s side effects and so have stopped taking it, relying instead on their partners to withdraw before ejaculation. Friedman says, “this isn’t as crazy as it sounds,” citing a 2009 study which found that, “when you compare typical condom use to typical use of the pullout method (rather than the ideal usage of each), the withdrawal method is only slightly more likely than condoms to result in pregnancy.” Friedman is careful to explain that the women she knows who advocate the pullout method are all in their 30s, and in long-term, monogamous relationships. Young women in their 20s who have used the pullout method, she says, are “less deliberate” about it. For women in their 20s, the pullout method is something that results from an inability to be firm with their partners. (“Younger women tended to say they had condomless sex with no birth-control backup only when they were too drunk or too in-the-moment or too shy to protest.”) For women in their 30s, however, it’s an informed choice resulting not only from their negative experiences with the pill, but from what Amanda Marcotte of Slate describes as “pregnancy ambivalence.”
Marcotte says we don’t talk about pregnancy ambivalence “because there’s a tendency to assume that people are—or should be—either in a state of trying to or trying not to get pregnant, with nothing in between.” But, she adds, “in real life, there’s a surprising amount of gray.” She writes:
Not everyone is decisive when it comes to knowing when to start having kids—or, if you want more than one kid, when the time is right to try for another. For some, it becomes easier to just be inconsistent with contraception or switch to less effective methods and let fate make the decisions for you. We all know a lot of people who say they’re not trying to have a baby exactly, but they’re not not-trying either—basically carving out emotional space to consider starting a family without having your mom start emailing you the names of fertility doctors if it doesn’t happen right away. Switching to the pullout method in particular allows men and women to choose, in the heat of the moment, to throw caution to the wind and maybe just get pregnant.
I relate to the exact type of pregnancy ambivalence described above, because when I was married, that’s the attitude my husband and I adopted about getting pregnant. We weren’t trying, but we weren’t not trying. When I felt scared, like I was perhaps not ready to have a baby, we’d use a condom. When we felt like playing reproductive roulette, we did – without using the pullout method, of course. I was in my 20s when my daughter was conceived, but I was married and ready to have a family if that’s what the fates allowed, so taking chances made sense (and paid off).
But now that I’m divorced, I relate to another kind of pregnancy ambivalence, too, the one of the single gal in her 30s who buys “organic kale and all-natural cleaning products, and so can’t quite get down with taking synthetic hormones every day” and who is “driven by sexual pleasure,” seeing “orgasms as a right, not a privilege,” as Friedman describes us. A woman who knows she can rely on Plan B or other measures should something go amiss with the pullout method, but who also is maybe open to having another baby if that’s what the fates allow because she’s getting older and that window closes a bit more every year, so, why not?
I’m not currently in a relationship (nor am I seeking casual sex partners), so I don’t have to worry about birth control right now. But I imagine that at some point in the future, I’ll have to deal with this type of reproductive quandary again. And let’s not forget, using protection while having sex isn’t just about pregnancy, it’s about stopping the spread of disease, as well. And that’s something the pullout method can’t do.
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