Headlines about the “Pullout Generation” Are Premature: Studies Show Multiple Methods of Contraception Use

By Rachel Walden |

A recent article in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology has led to some catchy headlines calling today’s young, straight women “the pullout generation.”

The researchers looked at data from the 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth for 2,220 sexually active female respondents ages 15–24 years and found that almost 1 in 3 of those surveyed reported using withdrawal as a method of contraception during at least one month of the study. (It’s not clear how girls who were not having sex with male partners were included or excluded.)

What the study-inspired headlines don’t explain, though, is that very few of these respondents relied only the “pullout” method to prevent pregnancy – maybe even fewer than in older studies.

So it is really accurate to call today’s young women the “Pullout Generation?” Almost 9 out of 10 withdrawal users also used other methods, either simultaneously or at some other point in the study. And let’s not forget that 69 percent of those surveyed always used other methods, such as condoms and the pill.

Those who used withdrawal at any point were more likely to have unintended pregnancies, and more likely to use emergency contraception. While some coverage of the study has noted that those exclusively using withdrawal were “less likely” to get pregnant than women exclusively using other methods, the small mathematical difference isn’t considered meaningful.

When the CDC reported in 2009 on the sexual and reproductive health of young people ages 10-24 (covering the years 2002-2007), about 13 percent of unmarried, sexually active girls and women said they had used withdrawal the last time they had sex. This included those who had used withdrawal alongside another method. Thus, the reporting should have noted fewer than 13 percent were using *only* withdrawal.

In another report of contraception use by adolescents released in 2010, almost 11 percent of sexually active girls in 9th-12th grades reported using only the withdrawal method the last time they had sex. This study uses some data sources that overlap with the CDC’s report.

It’s not clear, then, that increasing use of withdrawal as a main method of contraception is actually “a thing.”

As Ann Friedman suggests in her column on the “Pullout Generation,” that doesn’t mean there isn’t legitimate interest in better and alternate birth control methods. In fact, Global Female Condom Day is today, which makes it the perfect opportunity to learn more about this woman-oriented, non-hormonal method.

For more information on withdrawal, including failure rates and things to think about, see Scarleteen and Bedsider. For more info on female condoms, read this excerpt from “Our Bodies, Ourselves” or our many blog posts on the topic.

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