Among those who promote body literacy, fertility awareness methods, and natural family planning, opinion is split on the topic of condoms. Some people advocate for the use of condoms in conjunction with fertility awareness, while others believe condoms could make your fertility awareness method less effective, thereby making pregnancy more likely. If that sounds like it just doesn’t make any sense, hang in there—please let me explain!
When condoms could make pregnancy more likely
The title of this article seems like a joke, doesn’t it? As we all know, condoms are a form of birth control. They are also billed as being essential to “safe sex,” in that they can be protective against the transmission of certain STDs (although it should be noted that they are not equally effective against all types of STDs). However, when compared to other forms of contraception, condoms are surprisingly ineffective (the CDC reports a typical use failure rate of 13%). Still, when they are used regularly and as directed (perfect use rates are as high as 98%), condoms can prevent pregnancy more often than not; if a woman happens to have sex on a day when she is fertile, condoms can lessen the likelihood of pregnancy.
Condoms are also free of the health risks associated with the various forms of hormonal birth control pills or the risks related to other birth control devices like IUDs, implants, or patches. For this reason, some couples looking for hormone-free birth control may choose to use what’s known in the medical community as Fertility Awareness-Based Methods (FABM), more informally called fertility awareness methods (FAM) or natural family planning (NFP). Some couples who use a fertility awareness method, choose to “supplement” their method by using condoms every time they have sex, or especially during periods of heightened fertility (rather than abstaining from sex during that time, as most fertility awareness methods advise).
On the surface, this seems to make sense, right? After all, since condoms are another method of preventing pregnancy, wouldn’t using condoms in addition to a fertility awareness method exponentially decrease your likelihood of achieving pregnancy? As it turns out, the answer could be a resounding “nope.”
Pairing condoms with a fertility awareness method could make the method less effective
Although it may seem counterintuitive, using condoms with a fertility awareness method could actually reduce the FABM’s effectiveness rate.
Couples who use fertility awareness know when the woman is going through the fertile part of her cycle and can most effectively avoid pregnancy by abstaining during that time. However, some of these couples choose to use condoms (or another barrier method), while having sex during fertile times, rather than abstaining. (Some condom-using couples who learn FAM appreciate knowing when they’re infertile to know when they can pass on the condom.) But, here’s the crux of the matter: Despite the high efficacy of fertility awareness methods, their typical use rate of success in avoiding pregnancy is, at best, only as good as that of the condom (which again, is about 87% with typical use), should a couple choose to use them in combination with their method. In other words, your success rate is only as good as that of the least effective method you are using, like a chain with one weak link.
When couples using a fertility awareness method choose to have intercourse with a condom during the woman’s fertile time, they are having sex with a far less effective family planning method at the exact time when she is most likely to get pregnant. During that period, any intercourse has a heightened risk of resulting in pregnancy, and therefore any failure of the condom could result in pregnancy. The impressive effectiveness rates of fertility awareness methods (which can be as high as 99% for some methods) are wholly dependent on abstinence during the fertile times—that is, not having sex when pregnancy is most likely to happen. Therefore, when you combine a fertility awareness method with a barrier method during sex in times of fertility, you are stuck with the barrier method’s lower effectiveness rate. As a result, you could completely lose the higher effectiveness of the fertility awareness method if you use it in conjunction with a condom.
Toni Weschler puts it best in her book Taking Charge of Your Fertility: “Because the fertile phase is the only time in the cycle in which you can possibly get pregnant, this is the time when abstinence is necessary if you’re determined to avoid a pregnancy. If a condom is going to fail, this is the time it would really matter!” 
One high-quality study found similar pregnancy rates for couples who occasionally use barrier method, mainly condoms, during the fertile time as compared to couples who were abstinent. However, the study authors note that “there were very few pregnancies in the two samples. We therefore barely had enough statistical power to evaluate the multivariate and adjusted effect of barrier methods for avoiding a pregnancy.” The authors also posited that couples using both the German Sympto-thermal method (the FABM evaluated by the study) may have been engaging in something called “conscious intelligent risk taking, i.e. no unprotected intercourse during the few highly fertile days, and intercourse only occurred on days at the beginning and end of the fertile time that would be considered to be a relatively low fertile time.” . More studies are needed to evaluate the effect of condoms on the efficacy rates of fertility awareness methods.
The unexpected benefits of ditching condoms
Whether or not pregnancy prevention rates are the same for fertility awareness alone, or fertility awareness with condoms, there are other benefits for couples who want to go condom-free. In addition to reaping the benefits of high efficacy in pregnancy prevention offered by fertility awareness methods, couples who say a thorough “goodbye!” to condoms may experience some other surprising benefits. Semen contains an entire host of beneficial vitamins, minerals, and other compounds, including zinc, ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), blood-group antigens, calcium, chlorine, cholesterol, choline, citric acid, creatine, fructose, glutathione, lactic acid, magnesium, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, sorbitol, and vitamin B12. It has long been known that the vagina absorbs many of these seminal components , and as it happens, many of them are known to be beneficial to a woman’s reproductive health.
The benefits of vaginally absorbed semen may also extend beyond the physical. Semen contains many mood-elevating compounds such as endorphins, estrone, prolactin, oxytocin, thyrotropin-releasing hormone, and serotonin, leading to theories that semen might be a natural “mood-booster.” One famous study from 2002 found some evidence to support that theory: women who had condomless sex exhibited fewer depressive symptoms than women who had sex with condoms . The presence of oxytocin, the so-called “bonding hormone” (as well as other hormones) has led to theories that seminal absorption binds the couple to each other more fully. In a similar vein, research has found that men and women find sex more pleasurable without the use of condoms , and studies have shown a correlation between sexual satisfaction and marital satisfaction . Finally, the presence of melatonin in semen has also led to theories that it can promote more restful sleep.
At the end of the day, it’s important to be as informed as possible about the family planning method you choose. Fertility awareness methods are somewhat unique among family planning methods in that “doubling up” with other methods of birth control (like condoms, or even other methods of fertility awareness), could actually decrease their effectiveness. Stick to learning the facts and following the rules of your method (and reach out to your instructor if need be), so that you can use your chosen method as effectively as possible.
 Condom Fact Sheet In Brief | CDC. Cdc.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/condomeffectiveness/brief.html. Published 2020. Accessed October 14, 2020.
 Contraception | Reproductive Health | CDC. Cdc.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/contraception/index.htm. Published 2020. Accessed October 14, 2020.
 Weschler T. Taking Charge of Your Fertility: The Definitive Guide to Natural Birth Control and Pregnancy Achievement. 1st ed. New York: Harper Perennial; 1995:176.
 Frank-Herrmann P, Heil J, Gnoth C et al. The effectiveness of a fertility awareness based method to avoid pregnancy in relation to a couple’s sexual behaviour during the fertile time: a prospective longitudinal study. Human Reproduction. 2007;22(5):1310-1319. doi:10.1093/humrep/dem003
 Drummond Robinson G. Absorption from the Human Vagina. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. 1925;32(3):496-504. doi:10.1111/j.1471-0528.1925.tb06358.x
 Gallup GG Jr, Burch RL, Platek SM. Does semen have antidepressant properties? Arch Sex Behav. 2002 Jun;31(3):289-93. doi: 10.1023/a:1015257004839. PMID: 12049024.
 Milhausen R, McKay A, Graham C et al. Do Associations Between Pleasure Ratings and Condom Use During Penile–Vaginal Intercourse Vary by Relationship Type?: A Study of Canadian University Students. The Journal of Sex Research. 2017;55(1):21-30. doi:10.1080/00224499.2017.1298713
 Schoenfeld E, Loving T, Pope M, Huston T, Štulhofer A. Does Sex Really Matter? Examining the Connections Between Spouses’ Nonsexual Behaviors, Sexual Frequency, Sexual Satisfaction, and Marital Satisfaction. Arch Sex Behav. 2016;46(2):489-501. doi:10.1007/s10508-015-0672-4
This article was originally published on February 6, 2016 as written by Molly Daley. It has since been updated by Natural Womanhood to offer more resources. Last updated October 21, 2020.