Different is Good

This article discusses a mature topic. Our 17-year-old and younger readers are encouraged to read this with an adult.

One of the greatest struggles that I face as a Planned Parenthood health educator is in negotiating the gap that exists between medically-accurate, factual information and the 100% unique experiences, relationships and bodies that each of us has. There’s a reason why the FDA has approved a long list of pills, patches and rings to prevent pregnancy – because there has never been a “one size fits all” approach that works when it comes to birth control. Part of understanding our own bodies is accepting that we’re all different—even from our own mothers, sisters and best friends in some instances.

So, I say: vive la difference! Yes, you should educate yourself—for example, by reading columns like this—but you should also be sensitive to your own body, how it changes over time, and finding what works best for you. And if you have questions you can always send them to me at AskElizabeth@pp-la.org, and I’ll gladly answer them (anonymously) in my next column.

Who knows… sooner rather than later it may be the men in our lives who are the primary sources for pregnancy prevention.

How long does ovulation last? You mentioned that a woman ovulates once a month, but what exactly does that mean? Does one ovulate for 24 hours, several days, a week or a mere moment?

It would be fun to think about ovulation (when an egg is released from your ovary) as a magical moment in time (like a shooting star) but that’s not actually the case. Most women ovulate about once a month, usually in the middle of their cycle. As that egg travels from the ovary through the fallopian tube, it could be fertilized for about 24 hours. Some women will notice symptoms when they’re ovulating (slight cramping, change in vaginal fluids, body temperature), but many women won’t notice.

If the egg doesn’t get fertilized then it joins the lining of the uterus (which builds up during the month) and exits the body during your period.

My friend has unprotected sex. She claims that her boyfriend never ejaculates inside of her, and that is one of the reasons she hasn’t gotten pregnant. She has irregular periods, and she doesn’t get it every month. Is it possible for her to still get pregnant? 

Yes, it is still possible for her to get pregnant. Coitus interruptus (I like to throw in a little Latin)—better known as the withdrawal or pull out method—is one way that some people try to prevent pregnancy, but it’s not always effective.

Pre-cum (the fluid that leaves the penis before ejaculation) is intended to clean out the urethra and make way for semen, but it doesn’t actually have sperm in it. However, if someone has recently had sex there can be sperm leftover in the urethra (the tube that runs the length of the penis) that can be pushed out by the pre-cum, which means that there could be the possibility of pregnancy.

Of course, when the pull out method fails, it’s very often due to what you might refer to as user error…in short, the man doesn’t pull out in time. To reduce the risk of pregnancy, your partner needs to be able to accurately predict when he is reaching the point of ejaculation. That’s not necessarily easy for every man to do every time, especially if he’s younger, sexually inexperienced or intoxicated. It’s also important to remember that the pull out method won’t protect you from many sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

But back to your friend….if she’s not getting her period regularly, then she’s probably not ovulating regularly. Like I mentioned before, ovulation is when a woman’s body releases an egg, which if fertilized can lead to pregnancy. Irregular periods are common for teens, and stress, diet and exercise can all affect how often a woman gets her period. If your friend doesn’t want to become pregnant, condoms and hormonal birth control are both considered to be more effective ways of preventing pregnancy.