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Urban (or Suburban) Legends About Sex

By Jane Harrison-Hohner, RN, RNPJanuary 14, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

While we are deluged with information about sex from the media and friends, there are some questions which continue to arise on this Board which prompt anxiety among women and their partners. Some of these questions are so prevalent that I would give them the designation of “Urban Legends.” According to David Emery an urban legend is “an apocryphal, secondhand story told as true and just plausible enough to be believed, about some horrific, embarrassing, ironic, or exasperating series of events that supposedly happened to a real person.” Sexual issues are a common source for scary stories. So, even without a campfire or slumber party, here are some sexual urban legends which I was able to investigate.

“You can get pregnant from the pre-ejaculation fluid (“pre-cum”). “
Finally a group of GYN’s published a study in an attempt to put down this urban legend. Twelve men (including five which were being evaluated for known premature ejaculation) were tested on at least two separate occasions for the presence of sperm in the pre-ejaculatory fluid. After ejaculation they were then given a standard semen sample evaluation. While all men had normal sperm counts and motility, NONE of them had sperm found in their pre-ejaculatory fluids (Zukerman, 2003).

This data would suggest that risk for pregnancy after contact with pre-ejaculatory is very small. Now perhaps, if the male partner has already begun to climax, pregnancy is possible.

“You can conceive if the man ejaculates on your thighs or near the vagina.”
One would think that a woman who became pregnant without intercourse would report this to her MD – and that the MD would publish this important report of a virgin birth. Yet exhaustive searches of the published literature yielded only two reports of a pregnancy following ejaculation outside the vagina. Both were in the same German gynecology magazine, one in 1962 and 1971.

This small number of reports could be interpreted two ways. Perhaps it is a VERY rare occurrence. Alternatively, it may be that a doctor does not report this type of conception because they do not believe the patient’s story. Several elements need to be present for this “outercourse” to yield a pregnancy. The female must be ovulating to conceive, and there must be enough vaginal lubrication to allow active sperm to swim up into the vagina. Generally ejaculation that is not in or on the vagina has a minimal chance to provoke a pregnancy.

One study (Bonnar, 1997) followed nineteen couples for up to seven cycles. These couples practiced various types of non-vaginal sex for 16 days every month during the woman’s fertile days, the “calendar method” of birth control. Fifty percent of couples used oral sex, frottage (body rubbing to climax), or mutual masturbation. None of the couples using these methods of non-intercourse sex during the woman’s fertile time had an accidental pregnancy.

“If you douche right after intercourse, especially if you use a soft drink, you can prevent pregnancy.”
The time it takes for sperm to reach the Fallopian tube has been variously reported in the medical literature as 5-60 minutes. The quoted swim speed for these tiny beings is about 8 inches per hour. The average vaginal length is about three inches, and sperm only need to reach the cervix and they are out of range for the effects of douching.

Amazingly, a study of sperm motility was done using a variety of soft drinks (Classic Coke, caffeine free new Coke, diet Coke, and Pepsi Cola). Compared to a control group of sperm with no soft drink exposure, the “treated” sperm still had 70% of normal speed and motility (Hong, 1987). Among the various soft drink “treatments” the diet Coke had the greatest spermicidal effect, but this was minimal compared to standard spermicidal products.

“Motile sperm can live in hot tubs, on toilet seats, cloth, fingers, thighs, or in the mouth.”
Remember that sperm were designed to live in a moist, warm environment, with a certain pH. Thus, even though a bath tub/hot tub is a warm moist place, water by itself (as opposed to a bath tub of normal saline) can hurt sperm by causing them to absorb unwanted water (osmotic shock). Additionally hot tubs usually have chemicals which can change pH, and add toxic to sperm chemicals. Even the use of soap can strip sperm’s protective cell membranes off.

Sperm on hard surfaces remain mobile until they have dried out. The time for this to occur depends upon the environmental temperature and humidity. Sperm are destined to swim in vaginal secretions and cervical mucus. A towel or men’s boxer shorts provide a barrier which is not occlusive as latex, but it slows down sperm movement as some of them end up in the fabric where they dry out. Laundry soap and hand washing will kill sperm on clothes and on fingers. Sperm in the mouth have to contend with the enzymes in the saliva.

Suffice it to say that sperm out side the vagina or male reproductive organs will have a more difficult survival-at best 30 to 120 minutes under the most ideal conditions. That, coupled with the need for an ovulating female, makes pregnancy from this cause unlikely.

“You can get pregnant during your menstrual period.”
As you may know the most likely time to conceive is about 14 days before the start of your next period. So if one had a regular 28 day cycle, ovulation is around day 14; a regular 34 day cycle will have an ovulation around day 20. If one has a regular 24 day cycle, ovulation can be as early as cycle day 10.

The problem arises among women who have periods/bleeds which are not linked to an ovulation. These “non-ovulatory bleeds” can occur randomly as the too-thick lining of the uterus begins to shed on its own. The woman in this case could have a bleed and then ovulate anytime thereafter. An even more risky scenario would be the women who mistakes bleeding associated with the release of an egg/oocyte as a period. In that case she could get pregnant from intercourse during her “supposed period” because she is actually at a very fertile time.

Thus, while getting pregnant during a “real” period is unlikely, if one is ovulating very erratically (e.g., PCOS), or having a heavy breakthrough bleeding episode around ovulation – then one could have a higher chance of an unplanned conception.

If you have heard one of these sexual urban legends, you are not alone! One recent study (Wynn, 2009) found that 7% of the emails received on the Emergency Contraception website concerned some of the topics mentioned above.

So where are the reliable sources of sexual information on the web? Here are two suggestions:

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