"I was in a trance, a sense of euphoria took over. As I exhaled I felt an immediate rush of absolute bliss. It left me with a sensation I can only describe as 'post orgasmic vaginal sensitivity' which lasted for a few weeks."
Sushmita Targett, 27, is retelling the moment that her son Roshan was born in Kent, England last month: Calm, pleasurable, and more like a sexual experience than the painful and frightening endurance test we've been conditioned (many through experience) to expect. Fear of childbirth appears to be on the rise, according to studies like Greater Expectations, which found that over a 13 year period there was a hefty increase in women reporting feeling 'out of control', 'detached,' 'helpless' or 'powerless' in birth.
Yet a recent survey by Positive Birth Movement and YouTube community Channel Mum discovered that a quarter of the 2,200 women surveyed 'loved' giving birth, 67 percent describing birth as 'a very positive experience' and an earth-shaking six percent saying that they'd had an orgasmic birth. The survey doesn't stand alone. In a French study conducted in 2013, midwives reported 668 cases of women reporting orgasmic sensations in childbirth and another 868 where they demonstrated signs of pleasure. Surprised? It's little wonder that Deborah Pascali-Bonaro, a US childbirth educator and doula who made the film Orgasmic Birth, calls pleasure in childbirth "the best kept secret."
When Targett gave birth, she hadn't anticipated sensual feelings. Having practiced self-hypnosis to prepare for labor, she was able to manage the intense first-stage contractions by "moaning and groaning in a controlled manner." This first birth experience was "by no means pain-free" but she adds that, "given I managed without any pain relief, and was eventually left with a pleasurable sensation, I can safely say that I found it easier than anticipated."
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In my other life as a doula, I've witnessed birth across the spectrum of pleasure and pain. I've spoken to those who were deeply traumatized and others who described their birth as ecstatic. The differentiating factor, anecdotally and according to a range of studies, largely appears to be whether women feel in control and well-supported. Leaving orgasms to one side, it makes sense that those caring for pregnant women should listen to them and be kind in order for birth to be a good experience.
Though sensual or orgasmic birth isn't common, the experience of a positive and enjoyable birth is perhaps more common than the usual birth narrative permits. Becky Dickerson, 28, is currently pregnant with her fourth baby. She hasn't had an orgasmic birth and "can't imagine describing it that way" but adds that "there is definitely something pleasurable about it." Dickerson loved giving birth "because I felt so in tune with my body. Physically it felt painful but manageable." She says she's feeling excited and grateful to get to experience it all again soon.
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Despite the common ground in anatomy and physiology between birth and sex, sensual pleasure in childbirth is something we find it hard to get our heads around. In the anthropologist and renowned birth expert Sheila Kitzinger's book Birth and Sex, she sets out the relationship between childbirth and sex, drawing parallels on a physical, emotional, and practical level. Characterizing childbirth as a "psychosexual experience," she describes labour and birth as a series of rhythmic sensations, muscle contractions, and rush of blood to the genitals. Along with an accompanying dance of hormones, it's a combination that works best when a woman feels relaxed, unobserved, safe, and quiet.
Despite these similarities, orgasming during labour is rare. Critics of those who promote 'pain-free' or orgasmic birth sensibly point out that women don't need to have another high-pressure goal during an already emotionally loaded time. Kitzinger herself is the first to say that "adding orgasm to the wish list is a pretty tall order" and tells partners not to expect the birthing woman to produce an orgasm on command. "She may be faking it in bed," Kitzinger adds, "but don't expect her to fake it in childbirth."
Wendy Idel, 34, went into labour in December 2015 with only the goal of a good, safe birth on her terms. Her labor was even better than expected. "I sat up suddenly during a contraction and my waters broke in the most unbelievable release I have ever felt." Giving birth in a busy London teaching hospital, Idel was able to develop a trusting relationship with her midwife Anna. "Finally, nearly two hours into pushing, Anna said, 'Touch here, you can feel your baby's head.' The feeling of that little body tumbling out of me was exquisite. The exhilaration was such that I couldn't sleep."
If it makes sense—and pregnant people are actually experiencing it—why do we have such barriers up around childbirth and pleasure? Kitzinger points to the de-personalizing of the body in healthcare, the general discomfort around female sexuality, and the lived experience of so many women who've had deeply traumatic births in a maternity system increasingly hostile to respectful and compassionate care.
Compounding—and perhaps because of—these factors are the hushed tones in which a good birth is spoken about. When orgasmic birth comes out into the open, discussions can swiftly move to the vicious, judgmental end of the spectrum. Dr Rebecca Moore, a consultant perinatal psychiatrist, meets many women who have had simple, easy births and feel "ashamed or embarrassed" to admit to them.
Milli Hill, who founded the Positive Birth Movement to give women a network through which to share and prepare for good births, adds that we aren't really supposed to admit "that birth can be positive, or even feel good. That's not to say that birth can't be negative, or painful. Usually when this happens it's because of a lack of decent support—but women often end up blaming themselves and feeling they've failed. Yet if no-one knows there's another way how can we change things."
Does any of it matter if childbirth is simply one day in our lives? Dr Moore believes that it does. A lonely experience, where the birthing person feels neglected and isn't making decisions about their own body, can have profound consequences for future physical and emotional health. Moore feels that "experiences of birth can have a huge impact beyond birth," pointing to studies that show that positive feelings about childbirth can strengthen a sense of self-confidence and trust in others, as well as promote a sense of empowerment in the long term.
When Shalome Doran from Melbourne, Australia had her third baby, she had an intensely pleasurable birth in which every fiber of her being "was engaged and pulsing. It was the most incredible rush, more sensual than sexual." She says the sounds emitting from her body were "orgasmic."
Doran is keen to tell her story without "pushing it on other women" as a way of offering an alternative "to the standard Hollywood view of birth where the women is a screaming out-of-control mess." If we can find a way to listen to Doran—and to all women across the spectrum talk about birth in all its many forms—we might find that the idea of a pleasant, and even pleasurable, birth might be more normal than we think. Maybe then we'll be hearing more "yes, yes, yes" from birth rooms in the future.