Illustration by Maxine Crump.

I was 16 years old when I started birth control. I was on the pill for a year when, after a couple of unwanted side effects (such as heavy periods and mood swings), I began looking for another method that would fit better into my life. After a couple weeks of research, I went to the closest Teen Clinic(my city’s equivalent to a Planned Parenthood health center) and requested the copper IUD. A year later, I started experiencing pain in my lower left abdomen and, after an ultrasound, found out I had a seven-centimeter benign cyst on my ovary. Eventually (and very painfully), the cyst ruptured, rendering the IUD ineffective. I visited my doctor, had the copper IUD removed, and after talking through alternatives, set a date to have the hormonal IUD put in. It’s been smooth sailing (knock on wood!) ever since.

Birth control has been a source of a lot of personal anxiety and stress. I’m 20 years old now, and it took me five years to find a method that worked best for my body, my mental health, and my lifestyle. While I am very glad to have found this method, there’s definitely information that, had I known it earlier, would have made my life much easier.

If you’ve recently become sexually active, you probably have questions about birth control methods, including the consequences and effectiveness of different types of birth control. Even if you’re not looking to become sexually active any time soon, methods like the pill and the ring are often used to combat acne or regulate menstruation. Today, we’ll focus on penis-in-vagina sex and birth control as a method of pregnancy prevention. These options all vary in their effectiveness, and many do not protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Using condoms can help to prevent the spread of STIs, and can be paired with most of the methods discussed below. Also, some of these are available over the counter at drugstores, while others have to be prescribed or administered by doctors. Here are some ways to make the process of starting birth control smoother, easier, and even—dare I say—pleasant.

Learn the different kinds.
Before we start throwing around horror movie-esque words like “the ring,” here’s what your options actually look like. (Spoiler alert: None of them are scary.)

  • The Pill is a pill (DUH) taken orally around the same time each day. All pills are either a combination of estrogen and progestin, or progestin-only. They work by releasing hormones that stop ovulation (the release of eggs from your ovaries). The pill is one of the most popular methods of birth control.
  • The Sponge is a small, round piece of plastic foam inserted into the vagina before sex. The sponge blocks your cervix, acting as a barrier between semen and the opening of your uterus. It also contains spermicide for extra protection.
  • The IUD (intrauterine device) is a tiny, T-shaped piece of plastic that is inserted into the uterus. There are two types of IUDs: hormonal and copper. The hormonal IUD works by thickening the mucus within the cervix, making it harder for sperm to travel. In some cases, the hormonal IUD will stop ovulation completely. The copper in the copper IUD is incompatible with sperm, which makes fertilization extremely rare. Both of the IUDs can also be used as emergency contraception if inserted by a doctor within five days after unprotected sex.
  • The Shot (AKA the depo shot; short for the brand name Depo-Provera) is an injection you get from a nurse or doctor, and it is effective for three months after it is administered. The shot works by using progestin to stop ovulation and thickening the cervical mucus, making it hard for sperm to move through the vagina.
  • A condom is a thin, stretchy pouch usually made out of latex. Condoms are rolled onto the penis and act as a barrier for the sperm. Internal condoms are inserted into the vagina and also create a barrier for the sperm. Both types of condoms also help to prevent STIs.
  • Spermicide is a cream, gel, or foam containing chemicals that stop sperm from travel. It is inserted deep inside the vagina before sex, creating a barrier between sperm and the entrance to the cervix. Spermicide is often used in conjunction with another method like condoms or the diaphragm.
  • A diaphragm is a shallow, dome-shaped cup made of silicone that is placed deep into the vagina, covering your cervix and keeping sperm out of your uterus. For it to work best, a diaphragm must be used with spermicide. In order to get a diaphragm, you have to be fitted for one by your nurse or doctor!
  • The implant is a tiny, thin rod inserted by a nurse or doctor under the skin of your upper arm. The hormones in the implant prevent pregnancy by thickening the mucus in your cervix and stopping ovulation. Once the implant is inserted, it can be effective for up to four years.
  • The patch is a thin piece of plastic (it looks like a square Band-Aid!) that is stuck onto your skin. It works by releasing hormones that prevent ovulation and thicken cervical mucus. The patch needs to be replaced every three weeks. It unfortunately only comes in one color: beige. However, it can be placed on non-visible areas of your body.
  • The cervical cap is a small, cup-like piece of silicone that is inserted deep into the vagina in order to cover the cervix. A doctor will fit you for sizing and it is most effective when used with spermicide.
  • The ring is a small, bendable ring (it kinda looks like a glow-stick bracelet!) that is inserted into the vagina for three weeks at a time. The ring prevents pregnancy by releasing hormones into the body that thicken cervical mucus and prevent ovulation.
  • Withdrawal (AKA Pull-Out Method) occurs when your sexual partner withdraws their penis from the vagina before ejaculation, and only works when the penis is pulled out of the vagina before any ejaculation happens, away from the vagina—the right way, at the right time, every time. Withdrawal does not prevent STIs, and is most effective when paired with another form of birth control, like condoms.