Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Is it coming? 'Cause I am

Viv Groskop writes in The Guardian today about women who climax during labour. The writer talks to Amber Hartnell, a mother whose natural, water-birthing process is featured in the documentary film Orgasmic Birth, and who says she did not actually experience pain during labour, but rather, intense [orgasmic] sensations. The film examines such experiences in the broader context of ""undisturbed birth" - natural labour in a home setting, without drugs, or even gas and air."

According to the article, and as one would expect, the notion of orgasm during birth is meeting with disapproval and opposition in several places [emphasis mine]:
The response to the film has been one of both fascination and horror. For many women the idea that childbirth can be orgasmic is at best hippyish and possibly offensive - a notion that at once piles pressure on to women to find pleasure in giving birth, and seems to deny the pain the vast majority experience. One heavily pregnant blogger writes that she "can understand pain being natural in childbirth and letting your body take over and making it as enjoyable as you can. But orgasmic? No. Whoever finds that orgasmic needs help, in my opinion." Another suggests that they "wouldn't like to think my mother had an orgasm while giving birth to me."

I'm not sure why this would be a problem. What does it mean that my mother may have climaxed while giving birth to me? Does this writer feel like she had sex with her mother? Because if we're counting being forced out of someone's uterus, I need to change the date on that "had sex for the first time today! w00t!" entry in my diary.
The film's producer, birth educator Debra Pascali-Bonaro, says a woman's ability to feel intense physical pleasure during childbirth is "the best-kept secret". So well-kept that many women would argue that the phenomenon does not exist. There is debate over whether these women have really been experiencing a sexual climax, or are simply having some form of sado-masochistic response, mistaking intense pain for pleasure. After some critics in the US wrote the idea off as a "fairytale", one of the film's orgasmic subjects, Tamra Larter, a mother of two from New Jersey, clarified that she "felt something resembling an orgasm" and that the sensations she experienced "were something different than sex, but similar enough I feel OK using the word orgasmic."

G-spots were a 'fairytale' too. In any event, I don't see that this precise definition matters, or why we feel the need to invalidate what women say they experience because it makes us squirmy. Is it that we would only like a woman to achieve orgasm during a narrow set of controlled circumstances in which she is 'being satisfied by' a man either directly during partner sex or indirectly while presumably thinking of a man during self-pleasuring? (People who think this way tend to account for lesbian relationships as man-haters trying to approximate the heterosexual act of sex, so men are pretty much central to that orgasm too.) If so, there are some spin bikes in various gyms around the world that may have to be brought in for questioning.

Or is it that childbirth should hurt, g-dammit. Otherwise, without the fear of (i) being forced to give birth (which is the 'children as punishment' agenda that some pro-life advocates advance) and (ii) the accompanying excruciating pain, what's to stop women from having all the sex they want? The earth would descend into madness!

Perhaps some of us are just plain uncomfortable with mixing sex and childbirth. It's not like they are in any way associated with...oh wait.
Women in the documentary have been criticised online for kissing their husbands too much during labour, which some viewers find distasteful.

So in a scenario where people are coming out of my vagina, it's kissing my partner that you find too intimate to watch. Got it. I'd imagine these are the same people who find swearing during contractions unladylike. You would think that further partner bonding during labour would be encouraged.

British birth specialist Sheila Kitzinger, who was also interviewed for the piece, has an explanation for the discomfort people feel over the issue:
"It crosses the margin of decency - which I think is wrong," says Kitzinger, "We're told that sex is different from childbirth. In the same way, it is considered indecent to experience intense physical satisfaction from breastfeeding."

I agree, as the article acknowledges, that orgasm during childbirth should not be held up as some standard for women to achieve, and of course we don't want to encourage the "Well my ex-wife orgasmed during labour. She loved it. What's wrong with you?" dialogue. That would be insane. But people need to get over the policing. If I ever find myself in labour, and happen to climax when all I'm expecting are paroxysms, rings of fire and general torture, then I say bring on the O.


  1. I think the response to orgasmic birth is not a matter of discomfort but of millions of women calling bullshit. I had two kids, totally different labors but not an orgasm to be had. If a few women are enjoying the heck out of childbirth that's cool but women have enough pressure put on them during pregnancy and beyond. Trying to grab an O during labor is just not a priority.

  2. Aftercancer: If a few women are enjoying the heck out of childbirth that's cool

    I think that's the way I feel about it, without the need to call bullshit on anyone's experience. As both I and the original article acknowledge, it's not about trying to grab an O, but if it happens, then why try to make people feel dirty or guilty about it, as some do? It need not be either one way (no one should be having orgasms) or the other (everyone must have orgasms!), you know?

    I should say that I've not given birth, but this is my instinctive reaction to this conversation. As long as we're smart about things and establish that this is the exception rather than the rule, and it's not something that women HAVE to aim for, then I think we can let it be.

  3. "(which is the 'children as punishment' agenda that some pro-life advocates advance)"

    Some pro-choicers, too. Obama used exactly that phrasing.

  4. This line: "So in a scenario where people are coming out of my vagina, it's kissing my partner that you find too intimate to watch."

    made me laugh out loud, in a library - thanks!

  5. I have to agree with after cancer. I have given birth twice and I am hear to tell you that the ring of fire was far from pleasurable. Most women experience some form of main during labor and I think the worry is that by focusing the discussion on orgasm the changes and the trauma that the body undergoes during labor will be further ignored. There is already so much policing of mother during pregnancy do we really need just one more example of the ways in which we are not performing correctly?


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