Traditionally, pregnancy can occur when the male ejaculates semen – fluid from the seminal vesicles and prostate gland combined with sperm from the testicles – into the female’s vagina during sexual intercourse.

Pregnancy is more likely during ovulation, the phase of the menstrual cycle when women are most fertile. During ovulation, the ovary releases an egg, which then travels down the fallopian tube into the uterus. In most cases, the fertility window for females is the five days leading up to ovulation, the day of ovulation, and the day after ovulation. And it’s during this time that couples who are trying to conceive usually plan to have sex. 

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But say you’re having intercourse while ovulating, and your partner doesn’t ejaculate: Is it still possible to get pregnant from pre-ejaculatory fluid, aka precum? 

Before we answer that question, let’s first establish what exactly precum is and how it’s different from semen. 

What is precum?

Also known as “pre-ejaculate,” precum is a clear, whitish fluid produced by the male partner during sexual arousal, and prior to climax. Precum is different from semen because it’s produced in the Cowper’s gland, which is just below the prostate. It serves as a natural lubricant for the sperm to pass through before the semen moves through the urethra and the penis. As an alkaline mucus, precum also neutralizes the acid from urine in the urethra. 

What is semen?

Semen is released from the penis during orgasm. As previously mentioned, semen is made up of fluids from the seminal vesicles and the prostate gland. Unlike precum, however, every drop of semen contains millions of sperm

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Can you get pregnant from precum during ovulation? 

“It’s certainly possible to become pregnant from pre-ejaculate, especially during ovulation,” says Ila Dayananda, M.D., MPH, OB/GYN and Chief Medical Officer at Oula Health. “However, it’s less likely than with full ejaculation.” 

The main reason why you are still at risk of pregnancy from precum is because “the presence of viable sperm is not zero with pre-ejaculate,” says Dr. Dayananda. “[Sperm] can exist within the urethra from prior ejaculation.” 

To be perfectly clear: Although precum doesn’t initially contain sperm, it is possible for small “leftover” amounts of sperm to enter pre-ejaculatory fluid from the urethra, which then moves to the penis and into the vagina during intercourse.

This, paired with the ovulation phase, is why pregnancy is certainly possible even when ejaculation doesn’t occur. As previously stated, ovulation is when women are at their most fertile.

Regardless of when you ovulate, it’s important to use an effective form of contraception if you’re not trying to get pregnant. This is because sperm can live in the vagina for up to five days, whether it’s from precum or semen.

Does the withdrawal method work? 

The withdrawal method, when the male partner removes his penis from the vagina before ejaculation, is “one of the oldest methods of birth control.” Unfortunately, it’s not a reliable barrier against pregnancy, especially considering precum can possibly contain a small amount of active sperm if it comes into contact with the vagina. About one in five people who use the withdrawal method for contraception end up becoming pregnant. 

Another reason it’s worth considering other forms of contraception if you’re trying to avoid pregnancy is that men have no control over when precum is released. Not only that, most don’t even notice when it happens. 

woman putting a condom in her pocket

Is contraception even necessary? 

While the likelihood of getting pregnant from precum is much lower than from full ejaculation, don’t dismiss contraception if you’re not TTC: “If you’re trying to avoid pregnancy, especially during ovulation, it’s recommended to use contraception to lower that probability,” says Dr. Dayananda. 

Fortunately, there are numerous birth control options out there that are far more effective than the withdrawal method, including the Pill, an IUD, and condoms. 

“If you’re concerned or have questions about which contraceptive method you’re using or would like to use, it’s best to consult your doctor for guidance,” advises Dr. Dayananda.

Sarene Leeds holds an M.S. in Professional Writing from NYU, and is a seasoned journalist, having written and reported on subjects ranging from TV and pop culture to health, wellness, and parenting over the course of her career. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, Vulture, SheKnows, and numerous other outlets. A staunch mental health advocate, Sarene also hosts the podcast “Emotional Abuse Is Real.” Visit her website here, or follow her on Instagram or Twitter.