How to get pregnant: what they don’t tell you in schools (part one)

// 19 January 2014

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Saranga discusses getting pregnant and considers the sex education she received in school in the 1990s.

 I recently found myself in the previously unknown situation of actively trying to get pregnant. It took a while, longer than me or my partner expected, which led me to ruminate on the sex education I’d received in school in the 1990s and the information given online about the technicalities of fertilisation.

I’ve come to the conclusion that my sex education at school was a bit crap. Dishonest and misleading even. At the time I thought it was great. We had classes every year, from the age of 10 through to when I left school at 18. We covered conception, contraception, abortion (a bit, in that it existed, I think) and Sexually Transmitted Infections. (I can’t remember if we looked at issues such as consent or even non-PIV (penis-in-vagina) sex.) In addition to school provided teaching, I was a regular buyer of magazines like Just Seventeen, which I thought did an excellent job of informing teenage women about diseases, safe sex and the reality of life as a mother, teenage or not.

But the thing about sex education at school is that I was left with the impression that if you don’t use contraception, you are 99% likely to get knocked up every time you have PIV sex.

Trying to get pregnant showed me this clearly isn’t the case. Here are the technicalities of getting an egg fertilised by a sperm:

  • Women ovulate (release one or two eggs, usually one, maybe three) once a month
  • Women ovulate 14 days before the start of their period
  • The egg remains alive and fertile for up to four hours after it is released into the womb
  • Sperm lives for up to seven days in the womb

This means that in order to get pregnant you have to have potentially reproductive sex in the seven day period before ovulation and up to 24 hours after ovulation. To increase your chances of getting pregnant, you should do this as close to ovulation as you possibly can.

Unless you have a dead regular cycle, you can’t tell exactly when you are going to ovulate, so it is recommended to either have PIV sex every two or three days throughout your cycle, or, if you want to make sure you are timing it right, you need to use an ovulation kit. Here, you either pee on a stick, which will measure the amount of hormones in your system and tells you if you are due to ovulate, or use an digital contraception device like this one. Basically you pee on a stick, put the stick in a machine and after a couple of months it will have learnt your cycle and tell when you are fertile. It’s sold as a contraception device, so you have intercourse when it says not to if you want to get pregnant.

If you have a 28 day cycle (which, as far as I’m concerned, is a myth anyway), you cannot get pregnant for 20 of those 28 days. If you have a 21 day cycle, you cannot get pregnant for 13 of those 28 days.

Even if you have PIV sex on those magic eight out of 28 days, you are not guaranteed to get pregnant. Sperm might not survive long enough to fertilise the egg. The egg may be impenetrable. The fertilised egg may not settle in the womb lining. The sperm and egg that have joined may not be compatible and you may miscarry before your next period.

My question is, why wasn’t this made clear in our sex education classes? I do not ever recall having the mechanics of ovulation spelled out to me. I’ve had nearly a year to consider this and I still can’t work out why it wasn’t explained properly to us. My cynical side says teachers and schools think teenage girls can’t handle this information and, once armed with an understanding of this basic biology, will use it as a carte blanche mandate to shag every male we can find on our non-fertile days.

See, the thing is that if you explain how fertile periods work, you can also explain that they are bloody difficult to predict, especially when you are a teenager and you don’t have regular periods. So why not say to teenage girls that it is possible to get pregnant anytime but that this is because ovulation is irregular and you can’t predict when you will ovulate? You can only look back and see when you have ovulated. So explain that it’s not worth trying to guess because it’s impossible. Talk about how you don’t always make the best decision when you’re horny. Discuss how teenagers (and often adults) of any gender sometimes lie and are flexible with the truth just to get their rocks off (we’ve all done it). And, while you’re at it, challenge the idea that responsibility for contraception lies with the woman and not the man.

Part two of this post to follow tomorrow…

Saranga is a 33 year old bisexual feminist reading many many comics. She runs New readers…start here!, where she reviews comics for people who are new to them and also Pai, where she talks about comics in a more general sense. Her favourite hero is Supergirl. She is on twitter as @sarangacomics.

Image description:

White outline sketch of a profile of a pregnant woman against a black background. By Jerome Ware, shared under a Creative Commons License.

Comments From You

Laura // Posted 19 January 2014 at 6:17 pm

Could not agree more! I read Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler when we first decided to start trying to get pregnant, and was astounded at how little I had been told about my reproductive cycle at school or by the media, healthcare practitioners or anyone else in my life. You are given the impression that it’s incredibly easy to get pregnant and that it could happen at any moment, which is just wrong. This sets women like me (still failing to conceive after 28 cycles) up for a really shit time: you have such high expectations when you first come off the pill, and it’s heartbreaking when you don’t conceive in the first couple of months. If I had had more realistic expectations I would at least have started the cycle of getting excited then feeling like utter crap every month a little later.

Looking forward to part two :) I have my own post brewing on infertility – hope to get round to it soon.

Elisa // Posted 19 January 2014 at 10:22 pm

Also, apart from setting young people up for the disappointment of not being able to conceive at will in later life, surely it’s wrong in principle to just lie from a teacher’s platform? I mean, I remember being told in biology class that you could even get pregnant if you had PIV during your period (only by an exceptional configuration of circumstances that I struggle to imagine!). You can’t just present something as scientific fact to match whatever agenda you may have, even if that agenda is as laudable as trying to avoid pregnancy amongst teens. Besides, clever teens will figure out they’re being lied to and ask themselves what else they can disregard from sex ed. But then again, maybe the really clever ones will figure out institutional sex ed is really just about controlling sexuality -as opposed to empowering us to take control of it ourselves — and become feminists. Here’s hoping!

Holly Combe // Posted 20 January 2014 at 9:52 am

@Laura. I reckon the Fertility Awareness Method should be covered in sex education for the exact reason you describe. Anything that could help prevent even some of that stress in the future would be a good thing. I also think it’s a brilliant way of developing awareness of one’s body, regardless of the kind of sex you’re having and whether you’re looking to avoid pregnancy or conceive. I guess there would be hand wringing about rampant unprotected PIV sex if teenagers got a handle on it but I see no reason why it shouldn’t comfortably accompany good safer sex teaching (plus not everyone will find the method suits them or feel motivated to do it anyway).

@Elisa. Totally agree that scaremongering and withholding information means teens will figure out they’re being lied to and ask themselves what else they can disregard from sex ed (i.e. possibly lead to the very things the teachings are apparently meant to prevent!).

Re: The possibility of getting pregnant during a period. I agree they’re exceptional circumstances but I reckon advising that it’s possible is fair enough. As this NHS page advises, sperm can survive in the body for up to seven days so a shorter menstrual cycle could combine with that to create a genuine risk. (When I used Persona , it gave me an annoying number of extra red days once it got to know my cycle!) Still, empowering people to find out about their own bodies, rather than using that fact to create mystery to encourage caution, seems like a much better approach.

The Goldfish // Posted 20 January 2014 at 12:53 pm

I’m so pleased you wrote this. Folks think our culture is saturated with sex, but sex itself, the various acts, sexuality, reproduction etc. are still surrounded by mythology. My Granny says that when they married, my grandparents didn’t actually know what they were supposed to do, which seems a little sweet and amusing to us now (although it did have serious consequences for some), but I’m hoping a few generations on will laugh at our ignorance in the same way.

Oh and congratulations on your pregnancy! Hope it all goes very smoothly!

anywavewilldo // Posted 25 January 2014 at 6:58 pm

I like the way that a distinction is made between reproductive / PIV/ and ‘sex’ in general as specific activities. However the article does keep the focus on getting pregnant as a sexual act which is a shame as it is perfectly possible for fertile cis women to get themselves pregnant with a Marmite jar, a small syringe and a sperm making accomplice. Trans men can also do similar things with a bit of planning if they usually use HRT. Lots of people do these things in non sexual ways although they might include sex as a accompaniment.

If this culture about getting pregnant is normal for you it also sounds off to say you can’t predict when you are going to ovulate. This is a central part of the process.

Most fertile cis women can predict ovulation. Peeing on sticks and using persona are expensive and often unreliable ways to do this if you want to get pregnant in my culture. If you know you ‘have’ ovulated it’s usually too late to call your friend who knows the friend who is the sperm making accomplice who has gone to stay with his boyfriend 90 miles away.

Cervical mucous, cervical feel and position and multiple sign charting are all way more effective ways to predict ovulation. They don’t tell you this in school – and they don’t tell you at fertility clinics catering to queer clients because DIY conception doesn’t suit capitalism.

Lesbians and other queers have been working this out for decades – this is something we all need to know

Laura // Posted 26 January 2014 at 12:44 pm

Yes indeed, anywavewilldo – I knew nothing about cervical mucous until I read Taking Charge of Your Fertility, and it wasn’t until I came off the pill that I could actually see any changes in my mucous or feel the way my cycle affects me throughout the month. It was a huge revelation for me. Yet when I’ve mentioned egg-white cervical mucous to the various healthcare practitioners I’ve seen since I’ve been trying and failing to get pregnant, they either don’t acknowledge it or look at me like I’m talking nonsense.

anywavewilldo // Posted 26 January 2014 at 5:52 pm

@ laura – wow it really gets me angry that healthcare providers are gate keeping this vital knowledge through ignorance or wilful policy. I’m a midwife but long before I was I was shown fertile mucous by another lesbian midwife who was on the way to meet her donor. Once you’ve see it it’s hard to miss.

Even so cervical mucous is only one strong sign. We need to know at least 3 strong signs for our personal bodies and cis women with polycystic ovaries or trans men dialling down their HRT are only a couple of examples of people who will need knowledgable comrades to share knowing for specific situations.

Cis women are fed so much hype on using technology to prevent PIV conception that (we) are denied access to embodied knowledge. Technology can be great but I think, if possible, cis women should spend a while in (our) lives without hormonal contraceptives to know what (our) bodies default feeling and being is like. As a lesbian I often forget that many het and bi women have no experience of their default cycles through long use of the pill/mirena/implant/depo etc.

A few resources:

old copies of ‘our bodies, ourselves’

Maia Midwifery practice in the US specialise in queer conception and advising trans parents-to-be and have some free info on their website including a meta-sign chart for mapping your cycle. Maia midwife original partner Stephanie Brill wrote ‘ The complete guide to lesbian conception, pregnancy and birth which is an amazing resource for all cissexed women charting their cycles and their lovers and co-parents.

My beautiful cervix is also a wonderful website if you want to know your body better.

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