Q: I am a sexually active grad student in search of a natural form of birth control. I am very health-conscious and do not care to ingest birth-control pills that alter the balance of my delicate female hormones. Spermicides and the sponge are out because I don't want to put harmful chemicals into my vagina. Intrauterine devices and diaphragms seem intrusive, and let's be honest: Condoms just aren't all that enjoyable. Although at times I have employed it, I am not interested in the pull-and-pray method (a k a withdrawal)! Are there any options for me that don't involve playing Russian roulette with my body?

-Elizabeth, 27

A: Ah yes, the search for the anti-pregnancy panacea. A magic potion, pill, patch or apparatus that won't mess with a woman's hormones, pH balance or ability to procreate in the future. Nice to just sit back and daydream sometimes, isn't it? Well snap out of it, sister, because until somebody throws an assload of money at male birth-control development, we ladies will continue to suffer from the side effects and potential longterm effects of messing with our estrogen levels.

(By the way, they're getting closer to that male pill. There are chemical compounds that will render sperm unable to swim to or penetrate the egg. The effect is easily reversible, but side effects are still a little risky. Sure, your boy can't knock you up anymore, but he may drop dead from chronic renal failure at age 32.)

Have you heard of CycleBeads? They're a loop of plastic beads representing the days of your menstrual cycle, and you move a rubber marker each day to remember where you are in the cycle. The beads are grouped by color; if the marker's in the white section, you're at your most fertile time and should probably not be hitting anyone up for sex. Brown beads represent your least fertile days, and the lone red bead marks the first day of your period. The developers claim a 95-percent effective rate when the beads are used correctly by women with a regular menstrual cycle. If your periods are ever irregular, the beads may not be effective. Consult your doctor or visit www.cyclebeads.com for deets, including which metro-area clinics sell them.

The copper intrauterine device (IUD) is the Ron Popeil Food Dehydrator of birth control -- just set it and forget it for up to 12 years. It's the most popular form of nonhormonal birth control worldwide, rightfully so with a failure rate of about 2 percent over 12 years. It is intrusive during insertion and removal and the most common side effect is heavier periods (like 50 percent heavier). However, copper is hypoallergenic and an IUD user will absorb only harmless amounts of the metal -- far less than from food and water intake. Complications are rare. Your doctor can help you decide if it's a good option.

My last suggestion is the female condom, which has regained popularity not only among women, but also among gay men who prefer its soft, clear polyurethane sheath over the latex male condom. If you're going to use barrier protection, this is the way to go. It can be inserted before foreplay, eliminating the awkward, fumbling moments that totally kill the mood. It's nonallergenic and can be used with any type of lubricant. If your man is of blessed endowment, he'll love the female condom because it sits comfortably inside you without constricting his penis. He'll love it anyway because polyurethane is much thinner than latex, making sensations that much better for both of you.

Female condoms are marketed under various names, though they're all made by the same company. FC brand female condoms go for around $3 each and I found them on walgreens.com, drugstore.com and eBay.com.