“The place a child is going to be born must be as similar as possible to the place he/she was made.” -Sheila Kitzinger
Often I hear of couples who opt not to homebirth for fear of the risks of birth and the possibility that they may need medical assistance (despite the fact that about 90% of women are capable of safely giving birth without anyone present, let alone intervening). To an unhindered birth advocate like me this kind of fear of birth is almost laughable. When I think of birth I think of a normal physiological process women were perfectly designed to do. For someone to suggest women need help birthing is like saying the majority of human beings require help pooing. To highlight what I mean read the following play from Spontaneous Creation 101.
"HUSBAND and WIFE passionately take off each other's clothes. WIFE reacts with alarm to HUSBAND's potbelly.
WIFE: How many French fries did you eat tonight?!
HUSBAND: Oh, about 200 . . .
WIFE: How many have you eaten since childhood?
HUSBAND: Uh, I don't know.
WIFE: You could die of a heart attack at any time! You could die tonight while we're making high-aerobic love! And I could die from a broken rib, you're so heavy!
HUSBAND: I've gained a lot of weight since high school.
WIFE: I don't think a heart attack for you or a punctured lung for me sounds too good, do you?
WIFE: I think our lovemaking has become just too risky, dear. I've been thinking . . .
HUSBAND: You have?
WIFE: Actually, no. I haven't been thinking. I've been talking with my friends. And my friends say that the best thing to do in a high-risk lovemaking situation is to go to the hospital.
WIFE: We're talking about life-threatening love, here, honey! Our home has become too dangerous for us safely to engage in our usual acrobatic sacred union. What better place than the hospital to make worry-free gymnastic love?
HUSBAND: Uh . . .
WIFE: We'll pack our things, bundle ourselves in the car, and drive to the hospital! It'll be fun, like a camping trip! We'll rent one of those hygienic operating rooms for two or three hours. Professionals will be bustling about on errands of mercy, and you and I will descend into our animal selves. Are we a zebra? Are we a lion? Nurses to take care of our every need! "Have a glass of water" . . . "Have some anesthesia." I think it would be just plain foolish to suffer painful injury just because we didn't bite the financial bullet and hire the necessary technicians to stand guard over our chandelier-swinging copulations.
HUSBAND: Uh . . .
WIFE: And once we feel truly safe – as one always does in the hospital – we can plumb the deep depths of our sexual natures! We can push the envelope of the sexual experience in a way that's impossible for fearful home-bound lovers to do! We can create our own Kama Sutra! We'll call it Calmly Sutured! Wow, I just made that up! I'm a neologist as well as an ideologue! ha ha! I've always loved the feel of starched sheets on my bare bottom! Talk about primal! I'm getting excited just thinking about hospital love!
HUSBAND: Uh . . .
WIFE: Could you hurry up? Our sex lives are ticking away!
HUSBAND: The thing is . . . I don't know if I can make love with strangers watching.
WIFE: Strangers!! They're not strangers, dear, they're professionals! Anyway, if you can't get it up, we'll just have you induced.
WIFE: Jody's husband gets shots. But you can have pills. Whatever. Any drug will do to get the "engine" running! Just stick your butt in the air or lie on your back and open your mouth, and five minutes later you're ready to roll! And if the drugs don't work, one of the surgeons can make a little cut in your penis . . .
HUSBAND: Uh . . .
WIFE: Not a big cut, dear, just a little cut. A little cut to insert a state-of-the-art inflation device. Some quick stitches, pump you up, and you're ready to go! There are all sorts of things doctors can do these days to keep your pathological shyness from ruining our sex lives. It's the technological age!
HUSBAND: You know, honey, the more I think about it, the more the idea of making love in our own bed sounds pretty good.
WIFE: But we're high risk, darling! Can't you see? We shouldn't have to miss out on all that safety just because you want to make love in your comfy old bed! Why do you think lovemaking technology exists in the first place? So people can ignore it and have sex at home? We have to take advantage of our high-tech culture's arsenal of drugs, tools, and procedures for the betterment of the health of love! We have to be modern!
HUSBAND: What if I get an infection from that "little cut"?
WIFE: Don't worry about it!
HUSBAND: Oh. Okay. But how risky is my potbelly, really?
WIFE: It's not just your potbelly, dear, it's the whole gamut! Anything can happen! We could fall off the bed and get concussions! We could die! There are all sorts of ways to see home-based love as high risk.
HUSBAND: Okay, well, let's say we did make love in the hospital. Do you think the staff would let us dim the lights?
WIFE: Of course not! How would they know when to intervene if they couldn't see every inch of our flesh at all times? How would they know what tools to ready, what machines to switch on, what lotions to warm, if they couldn't witness every detail of our lovemaking sessions from every angle, acute and obtuse? Call me an exhibitionist, but I think you'll have to agree that it would be downright dangerous not to have the brightest possible fluorescent lights illuminating our deepest crevices and offering for public view our every conjugal entanglement. Do you remember that night when you hit me in the eye with your elbow?
HUSBAND: I regret it to this day.
WIFE: It's just not safe to make the beast with two backs without some serious medical technology around! Even the Bible says sex is dangerous!
HUSBAND: It does?
WIFE: Phyllis said so. Anyway, if we're able to avoid the perils of high-risk lovemaking, we're not just helping ourselves, we're helping others. Think of our children! Where would they be if we got injured or died during one of our nightly cucarachas? Black eyes! Broken ribs! Cardiac arrests! In the hospital, if my heart stops during one of my myriad bone-cracking orgasms, the nurses can just jam one of those big needles into my chest! Don't you see? The hospital institution is our culture's answer to the phenomenal dangers of hot sex! They have ice packs and everything! I can honestly say that I look forward to atrial dysfunction, and its attendant loss of consciousness, so that I can be magically revived by cutting-edge technology!
HUSBAND: Dear, I guess I just have to say that, after much thought, I'm not really ready for hospital lovemaking.
WIFE: Then we're never having sex again.
HUSBAND: I'll pack my jockstrap.
WIFE: The sweaty one from high school? I adore it! I'll pack my cheerleading outfit! Remember that night?
HUSBAND: It burns in my mind.
WIFE: I truly admire your newfound devotion to copulatory technology, honey. You're a man of your age.
HUSBAND: You're my inspiration, darling.
WIFE: I can't wait to find out what the nurses think of your jockstrap! Now, let's get to the hospital and have some really hot, really safe, sex!"
While this play is amusing there is also some truth to it. It is easy to laugh at the notion that you need to have sex in the presence of medical professionals in order to be safe. This is because as a society we trust our bodies to know what they are doing and we understand that sex is a normal function of the body. The reality is that birth too is a normal function of the human (female) body. Marsden Wagner MD MS says that having a highly trained surgeon (which is what an obstetrician is) present at a normal bith is "analogous to having a pediatric surgeon babysit a healthy 2-year-old" (Wagner). It is a fear-based choice that makes no sense.
Having sex under flurescent lights, surrounded by strangers wearing surgical attire, machines hooked up to you to monitor your every move, professionals coming and going as they please, interupting you and your partner to check how you're doing, measure and rate your sexual progress (as they have been doing for tens of couples down the hall for their entire shift), is hardly conducive to a pleasurable experience. It is the same for birth. The majority of women require certain conditions in order to let go, open and enable an orgasm to ocurr, during sex and during birth+. Scientific evidence supports this.
Research with mice shows that births are longer and harder when mice birth in unfamiliar environments and it is similar for human women (Davis). When a woman is in unfamiliar surroundings, lacks privacy and stability she becomes tense or afraid (Davis). This tenseness/fear causes the body to release high levels of adrenaline which divert blood flow from the contracting uterus which in turn causes the cervix to become rigid (Davis). Adrenaline also reduces blood flow to the baby's placenta, thus reducing the amount of oxygen the baby receives (Buckley). During the first stage of labour adrenaline inhibits the production of oxytocin, which is the hormone that stimulates contractions (Buckley). This is because, like any other mamal, humans are designed so that if a threat or danger is perceived during labour the body naturally reacts by stalling the labour and allowing the mother to find safety again before bringing her young into the world (Buckley)*.
In the 1920s Grantly Dick-Read OB discovered the fear>tension>pain cycle. He attended a woman's homebirth and noticed that she experienced no pain during the labour. He asked her about this and the woman replied that she wasn't aware of the social belief that childbirth should hurt. Dick-Read went on to write a book in which he argued that it is the fear of childbirth which creates tension in the woman's body which leads to pain in labour. Today this belief underpins the work of hypnobirth and calmbirth practitioners around the world who focus on relaxation techniques for labour.
Just like during sex, the hormone oxytocin is released during birth. Oxytocin is the hormone of love, it has been shown to increase feelings of love, altruism and trust (Buckley). The levels of oxytocin increase throughout labour, peaking around the time of birth when mother and child first "meet" (Buckley). The oxytocin peak is caused by the stimulation of receptors in the vagina during second stage labour, if the mother has been unmedicated and is able to feel and respond to this stimulation (Buckley). One of the roles oxytocin plays is aiding human ejection relfexes such as those experienced during orgasm and second stage labour (Buckley).
Physiologically and hormonally birth is obviously very similar to sex in what happens during each process and what women need in order to let go and enjoy themselves. But birth and sex are even more similar than most people realise because both experiences have the potential to illcit an orgasm in a woman. Laura Shanley's Unassisted Childbirth website includes a page full of quotations from women who have experienced orgasms while giving birth, this is just one:
"It was then I began to scream, but not with pain - with joy. With release. I felt an enormous all-body orgasm as I bore down, again, and again, and again, crying out with lust and happiness. The baby was coming, and so was I."
Thanks to women's bodies being perfectly designed for birth and specifically the hormones released during labour every woman has the potential to orgasm at birth. This is explored at length in the documentary Orgasmic Birth. In an interview about the documentary, director Debra Pascali-Bornaro stated:
Birth is a continuation of a woman’s sexuality. So a woman who is in touch with her body, who gives birth in a private setting, feeling safe, protected and without disturbance is more likely to experience birth as orgasmic. With only those people with her that she trust and who trust her ability to give birth. Creating an environment that you might have for intimacy, dim lights, soft music, nice smells, and a safe, sensuous environment. When we are intimate we secrete oxytocin the “love hormone”. This is the same hormone we need to have flowing in labor and birth, so as Sheila Kitzinger, world-renowned writer and speaker says, “The place a child is going to be born must be as similar as possible to the place he/she was made.”(Pascali-Bonaro)
Birthing a baby into the world is an act of love, just like the act of conceiving a baby, sex. Just as is the case for sex, if you create a loving space and only invite someone you can trust into that space, there is little to fear and you can experience an intimate and orgasmic birth experience.
The Sexuality of Birth by Elizabeth Davis BA CPM
Ecstatic Birth - nature's hormonal blueprint for labour by Sarah Buckley MD
Orgasmic Childbirth: the fun doesn't end at conception! by Laura Shanley
Orgasmic Birth - an interview with Debra Pascali-Bonaro
Fish Can't See Water: the need to humanize birth by Marsden Wagner MD MS
+"As Ina May Gaskin a famous midwife says in the film, “Orgasmic Births are one of the best kept secrets.” In a poll she conducted in Tennessee she found of 151 women, 32 reported having at least one orgasmic birth."
*This applies to first stage labour. In second stage labour adrenaline plays a positive role in giving the birthing woman a surge of the hormone so that she has the energy to push her baby out. Adrenaline also plays a role in activating the foetal ejection reflex in unhindered birth. If a threat is perceived during this later stage of birth adrenaline acts to expel the baby from the mother's body as quickly as possible.