I am seated cross-legged in an oppressively hot room, waiting for eight men to give birth.
To be clear: this is not the product of a fantastical scientific experimentation that has managed to successfully impregnate men. It is a meditative session designed to simulate the experience of labor for men, guiding them through the process until they have squawked a baby straight out of their imagination.
We are at a "Male Labor" class at the Really Good Sex Festival in Sydney. Its attendees are seated in a circle on the floor. Some appear to meditate, occasionally reaching out to touch one another. Everybody in the room is smiling very serenely.
I fantasize briefly about demanding a spiritual Caesarean.
Christine, the workshop's Danish instructor, takes her seat on a pillow in the circle and begins to introduce the concept of the class. She ruminates on the gender divides in society; the way we are constantly fighting to attain stability in our lives—a venture she defines as fruitless when "we have so little stability in our own bodies."
The class, she tells me later, had its debut at a festival in Berlin for gay, bi and trans men, but it was first devised as dance choreography. Sadly, the arts funding didn't go through, so "There I was, the only woman at the festival, guiding a room full of naked or half naked men through a process of birth."
"I encourage them to surrender," she explains. "To allow themselves to be moved. Essentially it is a process of opening up to the force of Nature to move through you. To clean you. To bring to consciousness what might be in your way, in order to live as a whole being ... male and female qualities."
Christine will often bow her head, close her eyes, and smile in contemplation mid-sentence. If men were to experience the physical changes and process of birth as women do, she muses as we listen on, perhaps society might change in some fundamental way? This class is a vouch for empathy in a world dominated by rifts and chaos, she adds, and in spite of my own painful lack of spirituality, I begin to understand and respect this ideology.
Of course, this is all at least an hour before I witness a bunch of men heaving invisible babies out of themselves.
As the session begins in earnest, we are instructed to lie down on our backs. A subtle chanting track begins to play, and Christine wanders amongst us, congratulating us on our nine months of gestation and assuring us that every labor is markedly different.
She informs us that we are now moving into the first stage of labour; that our cervixes are beginning to dilate and mild contractions are beginning. She clicks her fingers, and apparently we're now at 3 cm of cervical dilation. I do my best to recall feelings of period pain to incite the feelings of contractions but God only knows what the men are doing—attempting to recall the trembling of a rather painful shit?
He swears he was holding his ancestor's wart for comfort as he gave birth.
Christine clicks again, and we are instructed to imagine the mucus in our cervix loosening, and fluids trickling out of our vaginas as we approach 7 cm of dilation. Breathing is encouraged, as are noises, and steadily groans begin to permeate the stillness of the room. I pick my knees up in an attempt to imitate the birthing position I've seen in movies, and notice others are doing the same.
The chanting music gradually becomes louder, and Christine explains that as the contractions come harder and faster, the pain intensifies. A few men in the room begin to moan louder, and soon the din of supposed agony becomes overwhelming. One man stands with his legs wide and his back flat against the wall, sinking down to his knees as he sweats profusely.
When we reach 10 cm of dilation the cacophony becomes quite frankly intimidating. Meantime, Christine has taken to moving between individuals, massaging lower backs like a spiritual midwife. We are told to push, and some of the groans become outright wails. The man to my left is clutching his hands over his belly and lolling back and forth; the man to my right, I'm fairly sure, has managed to fall asleep.
The baby—or babies; Christine says we are entitled to twins if that is what we are feeling—is beginning to lower through our vaginal canals as we enter the final stage of delivery. I fantasize briefly at this point about demanding a spiritual Caesarean. We should take our time, Christine says, and only give birth when we feel it's right. It may happen quickly, or it may not happen at all.
"It's a girl and a boy!" a man hollers.
As we all finally give birth, we're told to hold our babies against our breasts and calm down in this refractory period. Christine comes over and begins to soothingly massage my tummy, which is honestly awesome, while I hold my palms to my chest and pretend I have a little baby between my breasts.
For the final 15 minutes, we rearrange ourselves in the original circle, after wordlessly disposing of our invisible children, and discuss how we felt about our labor. Some of the men are crying; others simply look disconcerted. One woman says that while she already has two children, she was forced to have a caesarean both times due to complications, and in that sense, this was a valuable experience for her. It is incredibly touching.
A man pipes up to discuss how he really felt the birth physically, and I can't help but fantasize about a woman who has literally endured the pain of a two-day labor walking into the room and decking him in the jaw.
Another discusses how he feels more deeply towards his partner, with whom he is currently trying to have children, and he begins to break down as he discloses this. Holding his chin, he also declares that throughout the session he felt he had a lump on his chin, and swears that he was holding his ancestor's wart for comfort while he gave birth.
I ask Christine about this later. "His ancestor had a wart on his chin and he was feeling that wart for comfort," she says matter-of-factly.
Christine, a self-labelled "light warrior", explains to me that the experience is really about connecting people to "a fundamental life force beyond gender and sexual orientation."
As for how her clients tend to receive the workshop, she tells me that men often find the process extremely valuable and emotional. In the words of one participant, Andreas, who emails her to express his thanks: "You crossed a threshold to bring in the new, and made the impossible possible."
And in the words of Christine herself, who emails me later to answer some remaining questions:
I am not here to teach you something new.
You already know.
I am just here to remind you.
And if nothing else, to show you, through my female body, through the process of birth that you are a man, you will never be physically pregnant, you will never give birth to a child in flesh.
And it is okay. You find your way. Beyond.