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Coitus Interruptus Erroneous: Would You Believe That Pulling Out Actually Works?

Withdrawal is one of the oldest forms of birth control. Yet, our gender biases -- along with some very bad science -- have made it taboo.
 
 
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Coitus interruptus, withdrawal, pulling out, raw dog. Of all the names ascribed to the intimate act that is a man removing his penis from his partner's vagina before orgasm, the terminology that best encapsulates the public's perception of it is "Pull and Pray." As in, pull out and pray you don't have a baby. As a form of birth control, the method is largely regarded as ill-thought out -- the last resort of hasty teenagers with access to the family car and several cans of beer. In short, it doesn't work. Except that it probably does.

A recent study conducted by Rachel Jones, senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute, asserts that research shows the withdrawal method is almost as effective as condoms when used correctly. When used correctly 100 percent of the time, condoms have a two percent failure rate. When used correctly, withdrawal has a four percent failure rate. And Jones is not the first one to the party. In her paper "Better than nothing or savvy risk-reduction practice? The importance of withdrawal," she references another study by an enterprising pair named Deborah Rogow and Sonya Horowitz who came to the same conclusion, which is that pulling out is a hell of a lot better than nothing and that more research should be done on the matter. That was back in 1995. Fourteen years later, Jones is still one of the scant voices requesting more research.

Withdrawal is one of the oldest, most widely used forms of birth control outside abstinence. It's mentioned in the Bible. Some scholars argue that the Prophet Muhammad gave pulling out the thumbs up. So when did coitus withdrawal get the big red "rejected" stamp?

The Catholic Church was one of the first institutions to frown on pulling out. Sperm deserved a shot at the egg, and impeding its journey indicated couples were interested in copulating for reasons other than having a baby. But the tide really began turning against pulling out because, unlike the church, opponents believed users would have a child. The 1900s ushered in new forms of birth control, like diaphragms, and along with it, birth control activists. Margaret Sanger, the champion of birth control in the U.S. and Marie Stopes, her counterpart across the pond, were not fans. In addition to deeming the method unreliable even when used correctly, both felt that men couldn't be trusted to pull out in time. Men were sexual animals who either didn't care enough to pull out, or couldn't.

Sanger and Stopes also subscribed to a belief that was common during the day that pulling out would essentially drive both participants bonkers and lead to any number of health problems. In a report she prepared for the courts in 1917, Sanger includes the writings of Enoch Heinrich Kisch, an Austrian gynecologist who penned one of the, ahem, seminal texts on the dangers of withdrawal, The Sexual Life of Women, in 1910.

Kisch believed that some of the "evil effects" of coitus interruptus lead to "intense hyperaemia of the uterus" and "chronic netritis." Stopes complained that women were deprived of "the beneficial absorption from the seminal and prostatic fluids." (At least one researcher suggested that it was obvious that certain elements of sperm were absorbed through the vaginal walls because its odor could be detected on the breath of women who had recently had intercourse.)

Coitus interruptus was blamed for heart problems, back problems, "congested" urethras, and neuroses. In short, the failure of a man to deposit the proof of his orgasm inside a woman's vagina was a tragedy. And it wasn't just bad news for the guy. The woman's satisfaction was intrinsically tied to the man's. Withdrawing the penis prior to ejaculation circumvented the female orgasm and left her frustrated. While a valid concern for women's need to control their own fertility made birth control the domain of doctors and the medical establishment, it was also coupled with bad science. Natural methods fell to the wayside.