Abstinence is a lifestyle choice in which a person chooses not to engage in intercourse, and is the only form of birth control that is 100% effective because it doesn’t involve any sex. In our hyper sexual modern culture, practicing abstinence can sometimes get an unwarranted bad rap, despite being a surefire way to avoid all of the less-than-pretty emotional and physical side effects of sex. It’s the perfect option for anyone who doesn’t want to have sex, because the time isn’t right, they haven’t found the right person yet, they are choosing to wait until marriage, or anything in between. Plus it has some pretty fabulous advantages, including of a complete lack of hormones, absolutely zero unplanned pregnancies, and practically no risk of STD contractions.
Condoms are a must-have for anyone who is sexually active, whether they are using any other forms of birth control or not. They can be made of latex or plastic, and are worn on the penis to catch semen after ejaculation and prevent it from entering the vagina. This stops unplanned pregnancy and STD transmission. Used alone, condoms are about 80% effective, because, although they do their jobs well, they can be put on or taken off incorrectly and can break during use. Female condoms are similar to male condoms, except they are inserted into the vagina before intercourse. Condoms are great because they are effective and, at only about $1 each (and sometimes free), extremely inexpensive. But watch out: never reuse a condom, stop immediately if the condom breaks, and be sure to remove it right after sex, before the penis is limp.
Spermicide is a gel that can be applied to the inside of the vagina before sex to block sperm from reaching the uterus. Generally, spermicide is paired with condom use, a great option whether or not the woman is using any other form of birth control. Used alone, spermicide is about 70% effective, because it is often applied incorrectly and, even when application is perfect, it cannot create a fully reliable barrier at the cervix. This is an okay option for birth control, and an excellent supplement for condoms or other contraceptives.
The diaphragm, which was extremely popular through the 1960s, is a cup that a woman inserts into her vagina before intercourse, blocking the cervix and prevents sperm from entering the uterus. Used alone, diaphragms are about 90% effective. It is generally recommended that the diaphragm be lined with spermicide for added protection. Diaphragms do have to be fitted by a doctor roughly every two years and inserted before intercourse, and they do not prevent STD transmission. However, they are a simple, effective, non-hormonal way to reduce the risk of unplanned pregnancy.
Birth control pills, commonly known as “the pill,” are the single most commonly used, reversible form of birth control seen in the United States. These small tablets come in two forms, progesterone only, and estrogen-progesterone combination pills, and work by using hormones to essentially trick the body into believing it is pregnant so that ovulation does not occur. Used alone, the pill is over 90% effective, although when taken correctly less than one in 100 pill users will get pregnant. Once a woman stops taking the pill, ovulation will resume after about a month. The pill must be taken every day at the same time for maximum effectiveness, and cannot be combined with certain antibiotics and medications. The pill does not protect against STDs. However, the pill is one of the cheapest, most effective forms of birth control on the market, which has contributed to its enormous popularity.
Intrauterine devices, commonly known as IUDs, are small, T-shaped objects that are inserted into the uterus by a doctor. There are three types of IUDs on the market in the United States: Mirena and Skyla, which use hormones, and Paraguard which does not. IUDs are over 99% effective, and can last for up to 12 years. Women with an IUD continue to ovulate and can therefore conceive, but fertilized eggs do not implant in the uterus. This is believed to be due to the fact that a foreign object is already in the uterus, making the body recognize it as an unsuitable environment for fetal growth. Once the IUD is removed, the uterine environment returns to its previous state. After falling from favor in the 1980s, IUDs are making their way back into the mainstream, due in large part to their effectiveness and easy maintenance.
Birth control implants are small, plastic rods inserted into a woman’s upper arm. Like the pill, implants release the hormone progestin, which prevents the woman from ovulating. They must be inserted into the arm by a doctor and last up to 3 years. Used alone, implants are over 99% effective. When the implant is removed, normal ovulation will resume after about one month. Implants do not protect against STDs. However, they are highly effective and require no maintenance, making them a very appealing option.
Vaginal rings are small, flexible plastic rings inserted into the vagina once a month. The ring remains in the vagina for three weeks, and is removed for one to allow menstruation to occur. They release estrogen and progesterone, which prevent the body from ovulating. Used alone, the ring is over 90% effective. Much like the pill, certain antibiotics and medications can make the ring less effective, so it is important to check with your doctor before going on any medications. The ring also does not prevent STD transmission. Their easy upkeep and low cost have made vaginal rings gain popularity in recent years.
For women who have never given birth, the sponge is a cheap, non-hormonal way to prevent pregnancy. The sponge is a small foam pad inserted into the vagina before sex, and works by absorbing sperm and stopping it from entering the uterus. Used alone, it is about 85% effective, because it can become displaced during intercourse. For women who have had children, the sponge can get more easily displaced, and is only 75% effective. The sponge does not protect against STDs. The sponge is inexpensive but should be combined with condoms and/or spermicide to increase effectiveness.
The birth control shot is an injection of progestin performed by a doctor every three months. The hormones in the shot prevent the woman from ovulating, which prevents pregnancy. Used alone, the shot is over 95% effective, although the effectiveness is lowered if shots are missed or late. The shot does not protect against STDs. The shot is inexpensive and easy to get, and after the injection it does not require any additional maintenance. If a shot is missed, normal ovulation will begin again.
Withdrawal, also called “pulling out,” is a method of birth control in which a man removes his penis from the vagina before ejaculation. This method requires great self-control and mutual trust between the partners. Used alone, withdrawal is about 70% effective. Withdrawal does not protect against STDs and is generally considered to be an ineffective form of birth control. The use of condoms and spermicide will make the pull out method more effective.
The rhythm method is a form of birth control in which a calendar is used to predict when ovulation will occur so that unprotected sex does not occur on those days. Ovulation occurs approximately two weeks after menstruation ends, and days when a woman is most likely to be fertile are avoided. Used alone, the rhythm method is about 75% effective, and is generally not considered a reliable form of birth control. The rhythm method does not protect against STDs. The use of condoms and spermicide make the rhythm method more effective.
Emergency contraception, commonly known as Plan B or the Morning After Pill, is a hormonal pill that can be taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex. It works by releasing a large dose of the hormone levonorgestrel, a common component of birth control pills, which will cause the uterus to stop ovulation if it has not yet occurred. The sooner Plan B is taken after unprotected sex, the better, as time can lead to ovulation, which will render the pill ineffective. If ovulation has occurred, Plan B will have no effect; it also does not serve as an abortion pill. It should not be taken more than once a month, and is not a substitute for regular birth control. But accidents do happen, and Plan B is a great supplement to any birth control plan.
As women, using our preferred methods of birth control can contribute greatly to our sexual health and happiness. It is important to research contraceptives to find the best fit for you, and test out various methods until you find what works. Remember that multiple forms of birth control is always better than one, and make safe, smart decisions regarding your sexual health. A happy sex life is important for a healthy mind. Whether you decide to have sex or not, know what is best for you and always listen to your body.