Cycle It Out


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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42 Responses

  1. Avatar Jim Heffman says:

    And, of course, the old joke: “What do you call people who use the rhythm method?” “Parents!”Report

  2. Avatar Kimmi says:

    The good news is that if you can monitor it, you know which weeks you don’t have to worry.

    … if you’re in a boring relationship. And if you’re a nice, normal boy. Funny thing is, humans vary, and windows of fertility vary accordingly.

    There was the vague notion that sex during ovulation was bad, but nothing of the female cycle was explained to the boys either in sex ed or out of it. The cycle method wasn’t even given the (questionable) “it will always fail” explanation that withdrawal was.

    Do you remember the study of induced ovulation after rape/stranger sex?

    People who think that’s nonsense, on the other hand, often seem wary of teaching young people about the cycle or withdrawal with fears along similar lines: The more you teach it, the more they’ll think it’s okay and will do that in lieu of better methods of contraception.

    Withdrawal, in particular, is a far better method when your unknowing parents aren’t likely to bust in the door. (Plus, there’s the sticky “practice makes perfect” part… practicing on someone is likely to get them pregnant).Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Guys practice on their own quite a bit. Typical use efficacy with withdrawal is not very much different than with condoms.

      Do I like the thought of Lain having to rely on some guy to pull out? Nope. But I don’t like her relying on the guy to have a Condom and use it correctly, either.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        “typical use” is not what I’m really talking about. I’m talking about “first time use” and also, in all probability, “first time sex”. The statistics on that are rather horrid.

        “Typical use” for adults can be in all probability confined to relationships. That’s… not the case for teens, both because teens are less likely to be in a sex-having relationship (as opposed to “just at prom”), and they’re more likely to have “casual” sex (by which I mean rape or other forms of non-consensual sex, to be perfectly clear. Inexperience is a bitch).Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Young people also screw up condoms. Some who can withdraw with 100% accuracy can still screw up a condom. And, of course, some kids can handle condoms but can’t withdraw in time. I haven’t seen any data on young people specifically with the levels of efficacy.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      I think one of the major issues here is that contraception is taught to presumed virgins, and that it’s aimed at riskmanaging pregnancy in high school, because we really do a shitty job of helping teenage moms out.

      But it’s the only time we teach it, and the advice you can give to people in a steady relationship, who might be able to afford a bit of risk… very different.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        One thing I should have noted in the OP is that young people are really, really bad at risk management.

        Unfortunately, that includes not just overestimating one’s odds of success with non-compliance-laden contraceptive techniques like condoms or withdrawal, but also incorporating things like “I don’t have a condom and we’re having sex anyway and since withdrawal doesn’t work I might as well not bother.”Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        your characterization of young people sounds very negative. I would like to suggest a better term of art:

        You could characterize a lot of older people as prone to be set in their ways, and to not try new things, even when situations change dramatically.Report

  3. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I must say that as a Jewish Secular person, the concept of original sin and sex is an icky, icky thing really passes me over. I have a jaundiced eye towards the Patheos suggestion for abstaining because it still seems more rooted in the idea of original sin and sex being an icky, icky thing over actual science and trying to prevent pregnancy. The author seems to be trying desperately to preserve a little bit of original sin in an increasingly secular age and her pitch seems to be a basic beg of “Please please do this even if you don’t believe in it.”

    Orthodox Jews have plenty of really stupid hang-ups about sex. Men are not supposed to touch women during the menstrual cycles because they are allegedly impure then. This is absolutely moronic. Women are supposed to do a ritual cleansing bath called a mikvah. Also rather wrong.

    But Jews do not believe in any variant of original sin (despite arguments with some people here who tried to shoe-horn Jewish belief into original sin). Jews generally see sex as being good, “thou shall be fruitful and multiply.” It is considered a mitzvah (a good deed) to have sex on the sabbath. Traditional Jewish marriage contracts contained stipulations about how often a husband must have sex with his wife. Masturbation is a sin in Judaism because the seed could go to pregnancy. Interestingly you can find debates among rabbis arguing that Lesbianism is less of a sin than male homosexuality because Lesbian sex does not ruin eggs in the same way that male sex ruins semen. There are also writings on how sex should be pleasurable. I think Jewish logic would be: If God exists and created us and how we reproduce, than God had a reason for making the act pleasurable, and it wasn’t to make humans practice self-restraint. And no, Haredi Jews do not have sex through a sheet.

    Now there is still a lot of religion and theology in the above that I don’t agree with but I find that it makes more sense than anything based on the slightist notion of original sin (I find original sin to be a real head scratcher.) There are more modern studies that show American Jewish teenagers interestingly have the fewest hang ups with sex but are more likely to wait because of a fear that an unexpected pregnancy will destroy educational, professional, and other opportunities. Make of that what you will.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      The “original sin” and anti-sex angles only work if you assume they are against sex between married couples. To the extent that this is aimed at anyone, it’s aimed more at couples having approved sex. If there is a bias, it’s more towards Catholic teachings against condoms and in favor of the cycle. (Which itself may come from original sinnism, but whatever influence there is limited because embracing the cycle method is embracing sex not-for-procreation.)Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I should add that I do think a lot of the criticisms of contraceptive efficacy is a product of moral virtuosity rather than science. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have their core fact (“The only sure way to prevent pregnancy…”) correct, of course, but it does color their thinking.

        Of course, I think there is a ritualistic aspect to condom-advocacy as well, even if it’s not exactly in the same ballpark.Report

    • I think original sin has more to do with pride than with sex. But that’s just me. I do know a lot of Christians who seem to think sex and the body are the same as original sin.Report

  4. Avatar DavidTC says:

    Since we’re talking about the course of a year, they do not affect the CDC’s statistics since failure rates will, as Fitz points out, always occur during the fertility window. So the failure rate the CDC uses is the failure rate during the periods that Fitz is talking about.

    Uh, no. Fitz seems to be right, technically, although it’s not that important.

    If using condoms results in pregnancy (For a made up number) 9% of the time during 10 days of fertile periods, and 0% of the time (duh) during 20 days of non-fertile periods, that means the failure rate the CDC would be reporting would be 3%. Whereas *actual* condom failure rate would be 9%.

    When the CDC is talking about failure rates of condoms, they appear to be talking about sex with condoms resulting pregnancy *at any random time*, not only when it could result in pregnancy. They *could* calculate it the other way, and that way might make more sense…but they don’t. And if people wish to know the failure rate calculated that way, they need to know that they need to, basically, multiple it by three.

    I think what *you’re* trying to say, Will, is that this is moot. I think you’re thinking the statistical failure rate for the entire year would be, if considering only times when the condom is in use, exactly the same. This is true, but mathematically a bit silly to talk about…trying to calculate condom failure over time periods that only other birth control methods are in use is a bit nonsensical.

    So Fitz is exactly right. Using this calculation (With the same failure rate as a condom) to decide when to use a condom is, in fact, more risky than just using a condom all the time.

    And if you think that about for a second, logically, you’ll realize it *must* be true. There’s no way not using a condom could be *less* risky, and if the calculation has any error rate at all, that means, at certain points, a condom will wrongly not-used.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      So Fitz is exactly right. Using this calculation (With the same failure rate as a condom) to decide when to use a condom is, in fact, more risky than just using a condom all the time.

      It’s only more risky if the cycle part fails. Whether you wear a condom outside the fertility window has no effect on the overall efficacy rates because outside the fertility window pregnancy cannot occur. Those numbers are entirely irrelevant.

      When the CDC is talking about failure rates of condoms, they appear to be talking about sex with condoms resulting pregnancy *at any random time*,

      No, the CDC is talking about the likelihood of pregnancy occurring over the course of the year. That includes condom sex inside the window and outside of it. Condom sex outside the window is, as I say, irrelevant to that number, because outside the window it doesn’t matter whether you’re wearing a condom or not.

      trying to calculate condom failure over time periods that only other birth control methods are in use is a bit nonsensical.

      Now, if you want to say “Using condoms and the cycle concurrently is riskier because you run the risk of missing the cycle or the cycle might fail”… that would be correct. But that’s not what Fitz is saying. Fitz has faith in the cycle. It’s condoms she thinks are risker. She advocate abstinence during the window and (as near as I can tell) not condoms ever.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC says:

        Yeah, I think you’re right there. I sorta missed Fitz’s conclusion there, which, in rereading, is rather stupid.

        Especially since, technically, Fitz is wrong. Namely, this sentence: ‘But if you have serious reasons to avoid a pregnancy, Natural Family Planning, properly employed, including abstinence during periods of fertility, is your best bet.’

        This is incredibly wrong. As I just pointed out, that is *not* anyone’s bet best, because it has roughly the failure rate of condoms. Getting NFP up to the level of condoms is an impressive feat, but, uh, that’s a pretty low standard.

        And as I’ve mentioned a few times before here, abstinence (even total abstinence) has a horrifically high failure rate. (In fact, I often wonder how much the failure rate of NFP is *due* to the failure of abstinence. zic just recounted such a story below.)

        Howso? Well, there are two failure rates for contraceptives…the ‘used perfectly’ failure rate, and the ‘as actually used’ failure rate.

        Abstinence has a *massive* failure rate of both sorts. Some of it is from what people should call ‘contraceptive failure through misuse’, as in, the woman choosing to have sex. Although the pro-abstinence people never count *this* as contraceptive failure, because reasons.

        And there’s failure even when abstinence is used ‘correctly’ by the woman, because, it turns out that not all sex is consensual. (1) The pro-abstinence people never mention this *at all*.

        Of course, no one does(2). It’s the elephant in the room WRT birth control. There are methods that work in the background, and there are methods that require active use for each sex act (condoms, and yes, abstinence), and not only can couples fail to use those correctly even when everyone tries, but women sometimes are forced not to ‘use them’ at all. Naively comparing failure rates between condoms and the pill is wrong.

        So, basically, Fitz is just completely wrong. If a woman doesn’t want to get pregnant, in some sort of ideal worlds where all contraceptive methods are equal, an implant or an IUD is the way to go.

        1) Phrasing rape that results in pregnancy as ‘contraceptive failure of abstinence’ is, yes, a weird way to refer to rape, but it is technically accurate and that really should be part of the statistics. Obviously, rape is also a bit more than that.

        2) Obviously, feminists are quite up on these issues, and know full well the difference between what condoms did for women and what the pill did, exactly because women didn’t need men’s permission for it. (And, in fact, at various points in time, women *did* need men’s permission for the pill, for that specific reason.) I just mean people often attempt to discuss contraceptives from some magical ‘everyone has full ability to choose to use birth control’ viewpoint that is not, in fact, real.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Typical use and Perfect Use are both relatively useful concepts, depending on what you’re looking at. Typical Use patterns aren’t uniform. If someone is (or can be) religious about taking the Pill, then the Perfect Use metric is more useful. On the other hand, if you would forget your thumb if it wasn’t attached, then neither are particularly useful. If you have no idea what your personal efficacy would be, it’s worth keeping Typical in mind, even though your personal odds may be better or worse.

        With regard to what we tell others to do, Typical is a better benchmark, though there still I tend to support more “put the facts out there and don’t tell people what to do” rather than saying “The data says, so we should push hard for…” because different solutions will work at different rates for some people. If a man has great ejaculatory control, but poor eye-hand coordination, then he should use withdrawal (assuming she trusts him on that score). If he has poor ejaculatory control, he should do something/anything else.

        The same applies to abstinence. If you’re prone to getting lost in the moment, then you shouldn’t try it unless you keep condoms handy just in case (and maybe not then, if you are prone to get really lost in the moment). Abstinence works for some of the population, though. For a lot of other people, though, it’s a recipe for disaster (especially when you don’t have a backup).Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      I never really followed through on the Dick and Jane example. So let’s look at Dick and Jane. Over the course of a year, let’s say that they have sex 100 times over the course of a year. Let’s say that they have sex 28 times in the fertility window, and 72 times outside the fertility window.

      Whether someone is using condoms 100% of the time or not, the 72 times outside the fertility window will result in no pregnancies. If he is wearing a condom all 28 times in the window, as long as he is doing so consistently, there is no increased chance of failure those 28 times based on what they were doing the other 72.

      The risk with this method is that they will only believe that they are in the fertility window 23 times. At that point, the five times they had sex without protection, inside the fertility window, represents a boost in the likelihood of pregnancy.

      That’s not because the condom failed, though. It’s because he wasn’t wearing one. That much is entirely true, and I completely agree with it, and it’s not what Fitz was saying.Report

      • Avatar trizzlor says:

        Good point. Fitz’s numbers only work if you have a CDC couple that has condom sex 100 times uniformly through the year, and an NFP couple that has condom sex 100 times during the fertile window. That’s an unstated assumption that makes her numbers misleading.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Dammit, @trizzlor you put in a single paragraph what it was taking me several to try to articulate.Report

  5. Avatar zic says:

    I’m old now, beyond all these worries, and with a new set that I won’t bother to bore you with. But I clearly recall walking into rooms full of men, and having them react to me very differently when I’d just ovulated than at any other time. Now perhaps the difference was me; but I don’t think so; and neither did Barbara Kingsolver in Prodigal Summer, which contains my favorite literary description of the power of being a woman in the grip of her fertility.

    I have a friend 11 weeks pregnant for these very reasons.

    We spoke before she got pregnant; she’d just removed her IUD (herself, btw), and she’d thought hard about it, talked with her boyfriend about it. Because she knew if she did get pregnant, she’d either 1) have to be willing to have the child, 2) have to be willing to get an abortion; and if she wasn’t willing for one or two, her only other option was to abstain while she was fertile. They agreed to abstain during her fertile time; they agreed to the rhythm method. And that smell, she told me, the scent of a woman ovulating, the way he smelled while she ovulated, overpowered their willpower. An abortion was out of the question for her, so having a baby they are.

    The scent of a woman is not a bar of soap or a perfume. It’s fertility.

    And that, I think, is the real problem with the rhythm method. It relies on our ability to withstand a biological urge old and life. I actually suspect this has a lot to do with contraceptive failures, short of the pill where ovulation doesn’t happen at all.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      This is a good point. I tend to think of cycle failure in terms of mismanaging dates, but there are also scents and hormones involved, leaving the forbidden zone at precisely the worst point. Which makes Fitz’s advocacy of abstinence all the more problematic.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Yes, it is problematic, as my friend’s situation suggests.

        I also think that the pill is such a common method of bc that we sorta lose sight of this, but pheromones pretty much rule here. The lack of pheromones that result from the pill is also a growing concern for a lot of women; and probably one of the reasons apps that chart cycles are popular.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I am also a bit wary of putting too much faith in the cycle by itself for a personal (and wonderful) reason. My wife was watching her cycle pretty closely when we were trying to conceive, but Lain was conceived at an instance we believed was outside of the cycle. We thought we’d missed the window due to this and that, but… you know…Report

      • Avatar Marchmaine says:

        Interesting… we never had a surprise outside of the fertility window. Now, we were surprised at least once on how quickly we could conceive by deciding that maybe, just maybe we should start thinking about another. But that was purely scientific with regards the fertility window. The advent of simple technology like the Lady-comp really helps people make the transition.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I didn’t mean to suggest that Lain is a scientific miracle. I meant that even we can do it wrong (which I assume we did). Tools could have presumably clued us into the fact that we had a chance, but as it was it was a surprise.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        My big problem with the notion is that it’s so easy to shift a cycle.

        Every time we would go on vacation, for instance, I’d get my period. Once, at a family reunion, I mentioned this to my sister-in-law; she did, too. And my other sister-in-law, and the cousins and cousin’s wives. My mother-in-law, her sister-in-laws said the same. Stress from difficult times can also shift your cycle; a death in the family, a child-crisis (my children’s school career proved to be a frequent cycle-shifter for me.) I’ve read that food and water shortages, war, etc. all contribute here, too.

        So the rhythm method works nicely for regular woman living in stable times, without much excitement in their lives. For irregular woman, for woman traveling, for women in crisis zones? This is the stuff of unplanned pregnancies; this is why reliable contraception matters. And most particularly, for women who don’t have the ability to control their sexual activity (via rape or cultures that predispose them to a husband’s convenience,) contraception, pref. an IUD or the pill, are essential.Report

      • Avatar Marchmaine says:

        Rhythm and NFP Charting are not the same thing. That’s something I don’t think the original article did a very good job of differentiating.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        there are differences in bioflora and sperm motility, as well as sperm survivability, that occur naturally between different humans. It’s possible for someone who is still menstruating to get pregnant from intercourse.
        (about the only really safe week is the week after a woman is ovulating).Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      I worked for a husband and wife team who had their third and last child when they were each in their late 40s. So late, surprise pregnancies can happen.Report

    • Avatar Mo says:

      The scent of a woman is not a bar of soap or a perfume. It’s fertility.


    • Avatar Marchmaine says:

      “There was the vague notion that sex during ovulation was bad…”

      Now, I get the context of your original statement, but I’ll agree with Zic that any real education around natural family planning will begin not with a vague notion, but an explicit fact that sex during ovulation is the best.

      We’ve been managing our fertility naturally for 20-years and the ovulation uptick is quite noticeable once you are accustomed to looking at your relationship that way. I’ve wondered what the pill does to that aspect of a woman’s cycle… but the ability to ask the question has never come up in polite company, until now.Report

      • Avatar Marchmaine says:

        hmmn, this should have been threaded to Zic’s comment above.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        I’m glad I’m not the only one who has had this experience, and we shouldn’t fear that talking about it being impolite. All things feminine: they should be discussed, and earnestly, not hinted at with a wink and nod. Women’s biology is not secret, men should understand it because men often opt to live intimately with women, they have daughters.

        Migraine curtailed taking the pill and two birth control failures — we have two kids, of course — took a lot of the pleasure and spontaneity away; plus, it failed despite our best attempts. After my neurologist recommended no more children, my sweetie had a vasectomy. Best thing we ever did, freed us from the concerns of my cycle any longer, which was always irregular to begin with.

        The difference was noticeable. For couples beyond wanting more children, and wanting to avoid a late child like @saul-degraw ‘s friends, I recommend this particular form of birth control. Seriously awesome.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Now that you mention it, I was a bit taken aback by some of the changes in Clancy when she went off birth control. Especially around ovulation. I should have remembered that before Zic brought it up, but it’s definitely true.

        I’m not sure what we’re going to do when she’s done. She is one of those who need birth control for non-contraceptive reasons. So she might get an IUD in after we’re done. I have offered a vasectomy, provided that we freeze some of my little guys just in case.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        hybrid between being pregnant and not. Ya kinda smell pregnant, somewhat.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      I’m old now, beyond all these worries, and with a new set that I won’t bother to bore you with. But I clearly recall walking into rooms full of men, and having them react to me very differently when I’d just ovulated than at any other time.

      Not to discount your explanation, but it might have been something you were doing differently, or some combination of the two. Every couple of years a study is published finding that women dress or act differently in some way while ovulating.

      This is, of course, met with condemnation from the Jezebel crowd, with assertions that it’s horribly sexist to conduct such research and that it must be flawed because the results are inconsistent with the dogmata of their particular brand of feminism.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        That’s certainly a possibility, and I believe I said as much.

        I don’t read Jezebel, so I wouldn’t know how the women who write or read there might react to such a study. I think that most women would find not-getting-pregnant a bigger turn on than sex-during-ovulation, even if it’s a bit more enthusiastic.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        … I think you’re talking mental turn-on. Often, guys in particular are thinking of … more physical/instinctive/feral turn-ons. The type that can take a girl from “what the fuck are you thinking?” to just being quiet while being fucked non-consensually.

        I’m not going to say whether mental or physical is hotter, but I do think that is person-specific and variable.

        Life ain’t liberal, and I’m sorry, but it just ain’t so. I may not like it, but it’s still the case. I’m pretty sure you can show that women who don’t dress differently during ovulation (I’m thinking in particular of those in a incestual sibling relationship, as they’re particularly prone to dowdywear), still wind up getting fucked more near ovulation.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      with some practice, guys can learn to sense/smell when a woman has been ovulating. Many “sexual predators” develop this. (To be clear, this can still be ‘consensual sex’ — its just these beta guys are a bit more in tune with their instincts to actually impregnate women).Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        You know, @kimmi it’s difficult to discuss some of these issues here, in a room filled predominately with men. Yet there is also some real value in holding the conversation; it helps men better understand the women in their lives, women in general, helps them grow the vocabulary to talk about women’s stuff, which was for so long hush-hush. Voices do carry. So think about the responses you often have here — taking the conversation to the male predator.

        I’ve had more than my fair share of encounters with male predators. And because of that, I also see that most men, most of the time, are not predatory. So I don’t see that this response — going from a general discussion of how men and women function together to the predatory relationships — helps. Hush hush, voices carry. And the predator response you have, often carries loud enough to drown out the rest of the conversation.

        You have a lot of valuable insight to offer; but most of it goes unheard or ignored because of this tendency. It often drowns out something worthwhile somebody else has said; frequently, that somebody else is me, and I often resent it.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        yeah, I kinda regret my wordchoice here, in particular. I’m unfairly lumping a lot of people into a category, and that’s unwise and kinda mean of me.

        In fairness, when I’ve brought this up before, people have flat out called me a liar.Report