Think for a moment about all the ways you've heard childbirth described. If I were a betting woman, I'd throw down good money that "orgasmic" probably isn't at the top of the list, if it's even on the list at all. And yet, a movement directly focused on women having orgasms while giving birth does indeed exist.
But can birth really be orgasmic? And perhaps more importantly, how does one achieve it? The answers to these questions may lie less in focusing on the almighty climax, and more in the way we approach the process of labor and delivery, according to some experts. Here's what you need to know.
Illustration by Ana Celaya
Orgasmic birth is about the connection between birth and sexuality, says birth and postpartum doula trainer Debra Pascali-Bonaro, the woman at the very center of the movement. Pascali-Bonaro wants to make it clear though that the idea of achieving an orgasm during birth is not about placing a new performance pressure on women (they have enough of that already, she notes). Rather, it's about challenging one's current belief system related to birth, and being open to the idea that birth is in fact, "a sexual act."
Sexual act? Yeah, that part made us pause, too. But what Pascali-Bonaro is referencing is the fact that during labor and delivery, the baby is moving through the same parts of a woman's body involved with sexual pleasure. The baby is opening the cervix, moving into the vagina, and potentially touching the g-spot. (Eek.) As such, she believes that educating people on the possibility of sexual pleasure during labor and delivery allows more mothers to view their births as joyful experiences. She believes a shift in mindset may even help to decrease the need for medical interventions to manage pain.
- RELATED: 10 Tips for Avoiding a C-Section
Medicine vs. Movement
From a medical perspective, Dr. Alyse Kelly-Jones, an OB/GYN based in Charlotte, North Carolina, finds the concept of orgasmic birth "fascinating," though she says in the 20 years she's been practicing that she's never seen it happen (that she knows of). She believes it's plausible that a woman could experience orgasm during delivery but notes that since all women experience orgasm differently, and all women experience childbirth differently, she believes achieving orgasm during delivery would largely depend on the type of orgasm the mother is able to achieve when not in labor. In other words, how much clitoral stimulation is needed in order to climax?
- RELATED: Signs of Approaching Labor
However, when it comes to using masturbation or partner-assisted intimacy as a means to manage pain during labor, Dr. Kelly-Jones says she is "totally curious" about that and would love to explore the idea further in her own research. She points to the fact that oxytocin, the hormone released during labor that makes the uterus contract, is also the same hormone released during orgasm.
"And we know that orgasm can be pain-relieving… which is probably due to the hormonal effect of oxytocin," says Dr. Kelly-Jones.
Overcoming Sexual Stigma
The relationship between the hormones created in both birth and orgasm is what Pascali-Bonaro feels has largely been ignored because of the over-medicalized nature of birth in the U.S. She admits it's been challenging to gain the support of the medical community in the past—publicly at least. When she released her groundbreaking documentary film, Orgasmic Birth: The Best Kept Secret in 2008 she received calls from medical professionals who would tell her how much they enjoyed the film, but that they "couldn't come out and support birth and sexuality publicly."
"If our own caregivers can't honor the sexuality of birth, we're in trouble," says Pascali-Bonaro. She also notes that in other parts of the world, she's experienced more openness to the concept of birth and sexuality (though the U.S. isn't the only place she's faced challenges in spreading the movement).
Still, she wholeheartedly believes that by using natural hormones and our own bodies' resources during labor, there is a stronger likelihood of better outcomes in birth. She acknowledges the need for medical intervention in some cases, but stresses that with the "overuse" of drugs, technology, and "altering everyone's hormones" we haven't improved birth in the U.S. In fact, she argues, our outcomes are getting worse citing the steady rise in maternal mortality rates in the U.S., as well as a recent study which revealed one in six people reported mistreatment during childbirth in our country.
"We now know from science that the less we disturb our natural hormones, the safer and healthier labor is for mother and baby in the short and long-term," says says Pascali-Bonaro.
Ways to Use Pleasure to Manage Pain During Childbirth
When it comes to actually experiencing an orgasmic birth, Pascali-Bonaro says the key step is to be mindful about where and with whom you're birthing. "Even though it sounds cliche, you should have the same kind of environment where you can have a nice, comfortable sexual experience," says. Pascali-Bonaro.
In other words, you should choose a labor an environment where you have privacy and feel safe among the people present. Whether or not that can include a hospital setting is largely going to depend on the individual hospital as well as the birthing mother's comfort level and support system. But if you do plan on giving birth in a hospital or birthing center, one way to do this could be requesting a private room.
And if you're not quite ready to commit to trying to climax in the birthing room? Massage is another way in which pleasurable sensations can help manage pain during labor. Touch conveys reassurance, caring and understanding—whether it's someone holding your hand, stroking your cheek or hair, or patting your hand or shoulder. Have your partner or doula massage you with light or firm strokes using oil or lotion to help soothe you.
You could also place three tennis balls in a tube sock and have your partner roll them up and down your back to relieve back pain. Or have them rub your back with the heels of their hands.
The Bottom Line
Whether you believe you can achieve orgasm during delivery or not, Dr. Kelly-Jones says she can't think of a downside in attempting pleasure as a means of managing pain during childbirth. "Think about it," she says. "When you have an orgasm, kind of nothing gets in the way of that… and for a good while after you're feeling euphoria. I'd love to see that happen in labor."