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  • Writer's pictureKaren Law

Birth and Sex

Someone shared an article, (Why This Mum Thinks All Women Should Masturbate During Labour), recently in a Facebook Group I am a member of. Sadly, the idea that women might masturbate during their labour was met with horror! As a doula I am acutely aware that the hormones required for a smooth labour are also produced during lovemaking. This is because the act of sex, or lovemaking, is just one end of the reproduction spectrum whilst birth is towards the other end.

reproductive cycle

Type: Term

Definitions: 1. the cycle that begins with conception and extends through gestation and parturition. (parturition is the medical term for child birth)

I was dismayed to see such a disconnect in women about birth and their bodies. So I thought I'd have a go at explaining Birth and Sex.

Firstly, here is an amusing video portraying the difficulty couples would face if they tried to have sex in conditions commonly found in many medical maternity models.

You can see that it's not ideal. Do you think you could make love with your partner in such conditions? Why, then, should we expect labour to progress in these conditions? Unfortunately, there's a lot of truth in this video when relating to some maternity settings. And so, women are told they are not progressing, that they need a little help and commonly drugs are offered.

But their own bodies can produce much of what they need if we can provide the right environment in which they can feel safe, warm, loved and respected.

Keri Jarvis explains quite simply in her article printed in iHealth "Oxytocin is key to the progression in labour. It's the hormone that stimulates the uterus to contract... ... and its levels depend on the woman feeling safe, calm, confident, supported, and loved. When this oxytocin is flowiing through her, she is more readily able to produce endorphins (endogenous morphine - the body's own pain relievers), and so she is more comfortable. She therefore continues to feel safe and calm, lovely productive oxytocin flows feeely, and labour progresses well."

The late, great Sheila Kitsinger tells us during the film, Freedom for Birth, that Birth isn’t something we suffer, but something we actively do and exult in." I can almost hear you scoffing, that wasn't your exerience, right? Or maybe you did? Then please share your story in the comments.

Sheila also writes in her book, Birth and Sex, "Birth should not be summed up in terms of sheer pain, as a demonstration of self-control, or as a physiological performance in which a woman puts on an exhibition of athletic breathing skills. In an environment where she knows that she is free to be spontaenous, supported by relationships which enable her to release and trust her body, hormones flow in her bloodstream with the same energy as in ecstatic lovemaking. Birth and sex mingle to becme one in the thrilling, sweet, intense and overwhelming experience of creation. It can be mindblowing and orgasmic."

Well, wouldn't that be fabulous?

Mark Harris (author of Men, Love and Birth) agrees that "Female orgasm and birth can be viewed as one event separated by time."

Is it wrong to think that birth can be something enjoyable, something pleasurable, something like sex? Why do many still think of sex as something completely disconnected from the birth of the baby?

Again, I go back to Sheila: "Pain and pleasure are often very similar. Orgasm can bring a bitter-sweet pain." Amongst the quotes from women she uses is 'Sometimes the pleasure is so acute it is almost too much to bear, almost painful.' If orgasm can be almost painful, couldn't birth be pleasurable? Why shouldn't it be?

I asked amongst my colleagues in the birth world what they thought about birth and sex. This generated a fascinating conversation! I am pleased to say that many of the midwives, doulas and birth educators I spoke to will often encourage a women to use her own body in labour and, indeed, Mark says 'respecting privacy and birth are inseparable, the environment suitable for a woman to release herself into orgasm is a similar one suitable for birthing into....if she feels like she had to ask for privacy, the midwife isn't doing her job.'

Others commented that they found that women would often unconsciously reach down and stimulate their clitoris during labour, just as Angela Gallo describes in her blogpost mentined in the article above. I love that some women ARE being provided with a birthing environment which allows them to feel safe enough to follow their instincts. I wish all women were!

A fellow doula, Maddie McMahon (author of Why Doulas Matter), shared that she "once sat in the kitchen with a midwife looking very uncomfortable as we listened to the buzz of the vibrator during every contraction. It was a quick and apparently painfree birth," and it was pointed out that clitoral vibrators do come in fully submersible versions. Ideal for those who wish to birth in a pool ...!

Virginia Howes, Independant Midwife, shared an that she remembers the wonderful Mary Cronk telling her years ago "that if labour stalls use the clitoris!"

However, this appears not to be something that our student midwives are being taught in their core curriculum. This is the kind of ancient wisdom we've been losing over the last century. It is the enlightened and eager student such as Miriam who thinks "it's striking how we live in a world that is so sexualised yet a lot of women feel shame for their pleasure. Then there is a whole group of women that feel shame for not experiencing orgasm for whatever reason either alone or with a partner. I've heard a lot about self pleasure during labour for oxytocin." Miriam continues: "I would love to be able to look into this more. I think its so important. But in 2.5 years of training so far we've not even had a mention of this in lectures, nor any issues surrounding this (not even talking about how to approach sex and pleasure postnatally which is surely part of the postnatal follow up??)" Thankfully, although she finds that in her midwifery training "ALL the reading is medical text" she does her "own additional research and attend workshops etc." I am, for one, thankful to know that student midwives, and qualifed midwives, do exist that think outside of the box and actively seek to find out how birth works instead of just learning about the pathology. These midwives would agree with Miriam and Mark that the topic of Birth and Sex is "an area that is under investigated for sure."

"But not all women can/do experience arousal/desire/orgasm...." admits Miriam, as well as others. How will these women experience labour? Will they be alarmed or confused if their birthing body experiences sensations they have not discovered before? Will they experience these sensations during abour if it's not their experience in sex.

"Women are so frightened of their bodies changing during pregnancy and tearing during birth" was the contribution from Anthonissa Moger. "Nobody talks about how powerful, liberated and free you can feel after birth. I always tell my clients a little secret, that sex can feel so much better after having a baby!"

Virginia Howes agrees with me about the reaction I saw in the group I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, "We are so uptight about women's bodies when it comes to reproduction... Add some scanty underwear, a man or a vibrator in the hands of a sexy model and masturbation comments would be "go girls " all the way ...." And boy! Is she right!!

So, the midwifery schools are shying away from discussing the sexual side of birth, and women often have inherited hang-ups about their bodies and sex (something we can thank the Victorian era for), while too many are living with the consequences of sexual abuse. Is it any wonder that many women really struggle with being truly in touch with the reproductive side of their body?

confident girl learning

Sadly, not every one of those women will experience a sensitive midwife, obstetrician or doula who will provide her that safe space to grow into her sexual reproductive self. This is something we must strive towards! But we really need to start much earlier than when women enter their childbearing years. From the moment a toddler starts exploring her body parts we need to tell her she has a vulva and a vagina (not a flower, or a front bottom, or any of the myriad of silly euphemisms), that it's ok for her to touch herself in private, to explore her body and get to know it but that no-one, I mean no-one, not even a medical care provider, is allowed to touch her without her express permission. (Sadly, sexual abuse happens in many contexts, including within maternity settings. That's a whole other blog post). We need better Sex Ed. in schools with a quality birth component that is not inadvertantly designed to scare our children. If little girls grow up confident about their body and its ability to grow, birth and feed a baby we would have women who already instinctively know how to tap into the sexual side of birth.

However, more women are now taking back birth and the rise of gold standard antenatal education, such as the Wise Hippo Birthing Programme, as well as the growing numbers of doulas, means that birth no longer has to be that awful painful thing we have grown to expect to endure. More and more women are learning that they can take charge of their own births. They are beginning to believe they can have empowered births. That they might have orgasmic births. They might have painfree births even. They are hearing that it's ok to explore their body. That it's ok to touch themselves during labour. And why they should!

If you'd like me to tell you more about this, during the Wise Hippo Birthing Programme courses I teach, with honesty, sensitivity and a little humour, or how I can support you and your partner as your Doula, contact me here.


Recommended reading!

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