Precum can contain sperm so the pull-out method is a risky game if you don’t want to get pregnant.
Medically reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson and words by Claire Chamberlain
Caught in the heat of the moment without a condom or interested in exploring your natural family planning options? Either way, if you have penetrative penis-in-vagina sex and you definitely don’t want to get you (or your partner) pregnant, or you have any concerns whatsoever about birth control, then it’s important to know the facts about pre-ejaculate.
We spoke to Dr Sarah Welsh, cofounder of HANX, about precum, unprotected sex and the chances of getting pregnant while using the pull-out method:
What is precum?
Have you ever noticed a clear liquid coming out of your (or your partner’s) penis while aroused? Pre-ejaculate, also known as precum, is the clear fluid that comes out of the penis just before ejaculation. ‘Precum is released during sexual arousal, and sometimes can be seen at the tip of the penis,’ says Dr Welsh.
But what exactly is precum? Pre-ejaculate differs from actual sperm as it comes from the Cowper’s gland and not the testes. ‘These are small pea-sized glands next to the urethra, which is the small tube in the penis that carries both urine and semen outside of the body,’ says Dr Welsh. ‘Precum neutralises any acidic fluid left by urine in the urethra. This protects the sperm that may follow the precum.’
Does precum contain sperm?
In theory, as actual sperm is only released from the penis during ejaculation, you’d be forgiven for assuming that precum is sperm-free. However, while research is limited on the subject, studies have found that precum can contain some sperm. One study found that as many as 40 per cent of men had some sperm in their pre-ejaculate.
‘Although the precum itself does not contain sperm, as sperm is produced in the testicles, precum acts as a natural lubricant during sex and can sometimes contain live sperm, due to contamination from semen that is lingering in the urethra,’ explains Dr Welsh.
Precum acts as a natural lubricant during sex and can sometimes contain live sperm, due to semen lingering in the urethra.
What’s more, another 2016 study found actively mobile sperm in 16.7 per cent of participants’ pre-ejaculatory fluid. So based on the stats ‘pulling out’ is not a fail-safe method of contraception and if you want to avoid pregnancy, you should consider your contraceptive options.
Can you get pregnant from precum?
You can get pregnant from precum, although the risk is low. ‘It is possible to get pregnant from pre-ejaculate, as there can sometimes be live sperm present within,’ says Dr Welsh.
‘If you start having penetrative penis-in-vagina intercourse and you have not put on a condom or you are not using another form of contraceptive, then some of this pre-cum can get inside the uterus to fertilise an egg,’ she adds.
If you want to avoid getting pregnant, you should use a form of contraception. There are 15 different methods of contraception currently available in the UK, including thirteen for women and two for men. Read our guide to contraception to help you make an informed decision about the best type of birth control to suit your needs.
⚠️ Only condoms can protect you against both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) so if you’re having sex with a new partner, always practise safe sex and wear a condom.
Is the pull-out method of contraception reliable?
The pull-out method – also known as the withdrawal method or coitus interruptus – is where the penis is pulled out of the vagina before ejaculating, thus limiting the chances of any sperm reaching an egg, says Dr Welsh. But given that precum may contain viable sperm, the pull-out method is not a viable method of contraception as you can get pregnant from precum.
‘Statistically, the failure rate of typical use of this method of contraception is up to 27 per cent’, says Dr Welsh. ‘This means that roughly 27 out of every 100 women using this method for a year will become unintentionally pregnant.’
Roughly 27% of women using the pull-out method for a year will become unintentionally pregnant.
While failure to withdraw is one possible explanation behind the high pregnancy rate, the presence of sperm in pre-cum is another obvious reason. ‘It only takes one sperm to fertilise an egg, and therefore a sperm in pre-cum could do exactly that,’ reminds Dr Welsh.
If you have penetrative sex and you don’t want to become pregnant, it’s important to use a form of contraception. ‘The pull-out method is by no means a reliable method of contraception, so alternatives should be used if you’re serious about not getting pregnant!’ warns Dr Welsh. ‘And remember, the pull-out method does not protect you from STIs – only barrier methods of contraception, such as condoms, can do that.’
What to do if you’re worried about precum
If you have had unprotected sex within the past 72-hours, you (or your partner) can use emergency contraception to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. You can get the morning after pill from your local pharmacy and you don’t need to get a prescription from your doctor.
If it has been longer than 72 hours since you had unprotected sex, visit your GP or find a sexual health clinic near you to speak to a healthcare professional about the various options available, so you can make a choice based on what is most suitable for you.