When I first met Caroline, a French yoga instructor and mother of three, we rambled about ayurvedic medicine for a while, and then – feeling like we were getting to know one another – we began to talk much more intimately, about our common perception of women’s sexualities made taboo still to this day across the world.
“I know this is going to sound crazy. But I actually felt pleasure when I gave birth to my second child," she told me. "The midwife arrived late. I was alone with my partner at home and despite feeling some pain, I also felt these waves of ecstatic pleasure passing through me. Once I let go of all my preconceived assumptions and just listened to my body, I felt these overwhelming blissful sensations, which eventually lead to an orgasmic peak just as the baby came out. It was sensational.” “That’s fucked up.” A friend of mine tells me as I share Caroline’s story. “How would you feel if your mother had an orgasm while giving birth to you?” Actually, my mother gave birth to me in hospital feeling excruciating pain, where she was monitored and drugged constantly, with limited options and very little labour support. She wasn’t given the option to breastfeed, and was instantly separated from me at birth as I was put into an incubator due to my slightly below average weight. My hands were tied for three weeks after I began refusing to eat and drink. All this while my mother continued to be drugged and confined to a hospital bed – still not having seen me. Somehow that story didn’t feel right either. I couldn’t stop thinking about what Caroline had said to me. What was it that made her personal experience so shocking, I wondered, while my mother’s was so unexceptional and tolerated? It’s hard to imagine birth as anything other than women screaming, in tears, forced to endure the long and painful process that gives life. And yet I met another woman who told me she experienced an “ecstatic birth”. Maria Llopis, a Spanish feminist activist artist, and author of the recently published book Subversive Motherhoods explains: “The idea that you can have a pleasurable birth, and even reach an orgasm, is not some hippyish fairy-tale myth. It's physiologically and anatomically logical.” Llopis explained that when you’re pregnant, you produce way more oxytocin, prolactin and beta-endorphins which are the molecules of ecstasy. It’s also been known that the intense stimulation of the vaginal canal in childbirth blocks pain. Apparently, the problem with hormones like oxytocin, is that it diminishes very quickly if you produce cortisol, the hormone you produce when you’re afraid. Whenever you expect pain, your muscles tense up, your stress hormones go up which then increases the pain. “This is all scientific,” Llopis tells me, “It’s not like I am talking about UFOs from outer-space. All gynaecologists know this.” In fact, this has been demonstrated by a study published in 2013 by French psychologist Thierry Postel, who is one of the very few (if not the only) who tried to put hard numbers on how many women experience moments of ecstasy in birth. Postel contacted French midwives, asking them to complete an online questionnaire about orgasmic birth. He got 109 complete responses from midwives, who, combined, said they had assisted 206,000 births in their careers over a period of 1,767 years of practice. The results proved that obstetrical pleasure does exist, with midwives reporting 668 cases in which mothers told them they'd felt orgasmic sensations in birth. Postel also interviewed mothers, and found nine confirming they'd experienced an orgasm during birth, which makes up 0.3% of the deliveries accounted for in the interviewed. It was also found that more than 85% of the midwives knew about the possibility of reaching an orgasm during birth. “I had no idea that my study would attract such massive worldwide attention,” Postel tells me over the phone. “But what’s weird is – it hasn’t really changed the way we envision birth. I think that’s because the idea that mothers can experience intense physical pleasure during childbirth still conflicts with popular beliefs and cultural taboos.” So why exactly do we feel so uncomfortable with the idea of women having an orgasm during birth? “It’s only natural,” Llopis says. “People will think it crosses the margins of decency because the idea of sexual feelings during childbirth takes us immediately to thoughts around paedophilia.” She then tells me that we need to broaden our concept of sexuality, that it doesn’t only include the act of penetration, and that birth can be sexual but not in the way we envision adult sexuality. “Anyone who’s had an overdue pregnancy knows that midwives recommend nipple stimulation or sex to bring on contractions. Why is that not shocking if orgasmic birth is?” As Caroline and I discussed, in many parts of the world, women are also made to feel shame when they experience pleasure, especially when the expectation is pain. To suffer and be beautiful. It’s even written in the Bible that women are cursed with a painful birth. Debra Pascali Bonaro, the widely acclaimed international childbirth educator and doula, who made the 2008 documentary Orgasmic Birth: The Best Kept Secret tells me: “When we don’t allow sexuality talks in our education, when society barely acknowledges women’s sexualities, how can we honour it in birth?” She also says that in many of her worldwide workshops, she worked with women who had suffered from sexual abuse: “When you have that many women as survivors of sexual abuse, we must really work hard in childbirth not to re-traumatise them. It can also be an experience of healing and of reclaiming your body.”
Why don’t more women experience a pleasurable birth?
To acknowledge orgasmic birth could therefore be a way to empower women and embrace their sexual agency. But despite the initial jolt, if this is physiologically possible, why don’t more women experience a pleasurable birth - reaching this "birthgasm"? Llopis argues that this is because we are completely disempowered from our own bodies – putting all the power and trust in the medical system, “outside our bodies” which is ironic since the baby is coming from inside. This is echoed by Pascali Bonaro, who voiced her thoughts on how for the last 100 years, we have over-relied on science as superior to the natural ways in which women's bodies can make labour easier, and forgot practices that our great grandmothers knew. “We’ve clearly known from science for about 30 years that women should not be lying on their backs. It makes birth longer and more painful. Not being able to move freely because of foetal monitoring devices and a lack of labour support also increases a mother’s fear. I don’t feel that babies deserve to come into the world in that environment.” After telling my friend that I’d like to give birth at home and not in a hospital, she questions the safety of it all, asking what would happen if something went wrong. “This type of reasoning frustrates me,” Llopis tells me. “It’s not like we’re saying you can go on top of the Himalayan mountain and deliver the baby on your own. If something goes wrong, the midwife can call the ambulance and you can be at a hospital in no time. A paediatrician should also come see your baby as soon as possible wherever you are. Of course there are births that can go wrong, but we are making out of the exception, the rule. We are treating all births as problematic. It’s time for a change. We can honour the benefits of science, use technology when needed and equally respect the humanisation of birth.” I asked if there was a perfect recipe to having an orgasmic birth? Llopis, Bonaro and Postel were unanimous. Whether you choose to deliver in a hospital or at home, the most important is to have a “good one”, Llopis says. “You can feel pain but you shouldn’t have to suffer. Women need to be respected, empowered and supported in all of their decision making processes. We’ve also lost community support, the sharing of knowledge and experience.” Women can be taught to lose their fear and inhibition by talking to other women who’ve had pleasurable births, by watching videos of such experiences and by practicing relaxation techniques. It also depends on the woman and her relationship to her deepest emotions and to her sexual self. “Ever since my orgasmic birth, it’s completely altered my path,” Caroline says. “I’m now a prenatal yoga teacher which is a great way to prepare women for labour and promote the baby’s health through stretching, mental centring and focused breathing.” But most importantly, I’m told not to have expectations of a 'birthgasm'. “If you experience an orgasm, fantastic, but, never do we want people to feel that this is the only part of orgasmic birth, nor what should be put in their birth plan, as so to speak, all that matters is that they’re happy,” Pascali Bonaro says. In other words: No pressure.