Pregnancy Begins With Sex -- And For Some Women, It Ends With Some Sexual Feelings, Too
"It's a glorious experience. I know there are a lot of people who say, 'Oh, I hated being pregnant.' I felt exhilarated and really wonderful. ...[My second birth] was two days of labor, but not bad, not hard -- it was easy." Actress Demi Moore, Oprah Winfrey Show, 1991If you're like most women, you think of childbirth as a necessary experience of pain and exertion in order to get the end product -- the longed-for baby. But while birth is these things, a seldom-discussed fact is that it can also be a time of great pleasure. Biologically, women are designed to receive physical pleasure not only during lovemaking, but during birth and breastfeeding as well.
If childbirth is supposed to produce pleasure, why are so many women dissatisfied with their birth experiences? Standard hospital birth practices, from the shaving of your pubic hair to routine episiotomies, destroy much of this pleasure potential. Another reason is that we've not been taught that our reproductive functions -- all of them -- are designed to give us pleasure.
Sexually, women are not carbon copies of men. Our sexuality involves far more than just making love, important as that is. Part of it can be the increased sexual energy a woman can feel before menstruation, the relaxing spurt of milk from her breasts when her milk lets down, and the tug of her baby's rhythmic sucking on her nipple.
Most sexual research concentrates on the study of intercourse. But while women's other sexual functions have been overlooked in comparison, enough research has been done to help us describe some of the similarities between sexual arousal and women's reproductive functions.
Sexual arousal and pregnancy
In both sexual arousal and pregnancy, breasts enlarge and nipples become sensitive. There's also extra blood flow and lubrication in the vagina, and hormone production soars. And, according to sex researchers Masters and Johnson, among others, masturbation is common during pregnancy, even if never experienced before. However, not all pregnant women are hovering in a permanent state of sexual arousal. Many other influences -- such as fatigue, nausea, and worry -- can affect a pregnant woman's sexual desires.
Your sexual interest during pregnancy probably fits one of the following four descriptions:
Whichever description matches your experience, you're in good company -- other women have felt the same. An unchanged sexual response is the least likely, while increased desire in the middle trimester is the most common. But whether you're turned on or turned off, want an orgasm or not, your feelings are normal, and may vary from pregnancy to pregnancy.
Oxytocin: the "caregiving" hormone
Researchers have found another parallel in sexual arousal during intercourse, birth and breastfeeding. A seldom-studied hormone, oxytocin -- which we label the caregiving hormone -- flows in a woman's body during all three stages. In intercourse, this hormone's release is triggered by orgasm; in labor, by the onset of contractions; and in breastfeeding, by each letdown of milk.
Unlike many other hormones, oxytocin is generated in sporadic bursts rather than in a steady stream. With orgasm or milk letdown, an oxytocin burst can produce a euphoric sensation. Its release, however, is easily inhibited. Just as orgasm in lovemaking can be stopped by sudden noises, many a labor's progress has been halted by an inhibiting hospital environment. Nursing mothers sometimes report their milk letdown slowing or stopping when they're criticized, fatigued, or unhappy.
Parallels between the birth process and intercourse
During sex, women do not want their concentration disturbed, and in undrugged and uninhibited labor, their reaction is the same. Social inhibitions decrease as orgasm nears, and unmedicated labor progresses. The uterus rhythmically contracts, and a tense, almost tortured, look appears on the face. In both intercourse and labor, there's deep breathing, sensations of pressure and stretching, sighs, groans, and sometimes screams.
"I bellowed gloriously as I pushed her out. It felt great to yell, but it freaked out the nurses and doctors. Lamaze teachers aren't supposed to 'lose control.' I didn't. It just felt right to yell, sort of a war cry." -- Mother from ColoradoMasters and Johnson data demonstrate that the uterine contractions in orgasm have the same recorded pattern as those of the first stage of labor -- differing only in intensity. Caressing the breasts, in fact, can get a slowed labor going again by stimulating uterine contractions.
More pain, more pleasure?
When women are not fearful or anxious and have a supportive environment, passionate emotions are released and sensory perceptions are heightened -- just as they are during intercourse. Regardless of how much pain is endured, once into the second stage of labor -- the pushing stage -- many women report pleasure. In the early 1980s, British researchers confirmed that women who give birth without anesthesia suffer more pain than anesthetized women do, but they also experience greater pleasure.
As Northwestern University's Niles Newton, PhD points out, pain and pleasure are not opposites. It's quite possible to experience intense pain and pleasure at the same time. Clearly, reactions to labor vary from woman to woman, pregnancy to pregnancy, and one woman's pleasure will be another's unrelenting pain.
"In my first birth, I was literally screaming for something, but my doctor told me it was too late -- the baby would be born in 5 to 15 minutes. Bless his heart! The euphoria and high after that was something else. Better than after the best sex!" -- Mother in Washington
"I think you have too much emphasis on how pleasurable childbirth is without a proper balance of the reality of pain. I didn't find it so wonderful physically. Emotionally, yes, but physically sometimes it can be really hard and hurt." -- Mother in Texas
Just as more sexual experience will enhance your physical capacity for sexual pleasure, pregnancy all by itself -- regardless of what kind of labor and birth you had -- will do the same. M.J. Sherfey, MD reports that in all women, as long as obstetric damage doesn't intervene, pregnancy brings an increase in the volume of blood flow in the pelvis, enhances the capacity for sexual tension, and improves orgasmic intensity, frequency, and pleasure.
Other links to birth pleasure
Vulnerability. This increases both physically and psychologically during pregnancy and birth, just as it does during sex in a mix of risk and trust. In pregnancy, it's likely you'll experience feelings from high spirits to low. Though you may be criticized for being "too emotional," these feelings are a necessary preparation for caregiving, because they make you feel more responsive to your baby and help you experience more pleasure in this role. As your pregnancy progresses, you look for calm reassurance and support from those who care for you as well. Many women, accustomed to managing their lives, are amazed by this need for support. Perhaps more than at any other time of your life, you now feel that you want someone to take care of you.
Need for Touching. Researchers stress that the sexual pleasure derived from childbirth requires a calm, nurturing environment. An optimal birth is more than careful and caring hospital procedures and loving supporters, however. It's understanding the need to be touched during labor. Studies show that laboring women cope better with pain when there is constant support that includes touching. A laboring woman in pain might recover her equilibrium through a sympathetic hand on her arm, or a caress may blunt the stress of a contraction and give her new strength. Ensure that your vulnerability and need for touching will be met by loving supporters. Have not only your mate with you in labor, but a helping woman as well. (See Chapter 11 of this book for more on this subject.)
Rewarding Brain Chemicals. As in marathon races, birth requires enormous physical, mental and emotional energy. Labor, like a long race almost over, can cause excruciating pain, but our bodies offer a reward -- brain chemicals -- for this exertion. These chemicals, called endorphins or beta- endorphins, are narcotic-like pain killers that circulate in the bloodstream. These natural opiates are released by hard exercise, which can be, for example, vigorous walking, running, and cycling. Some researchers speculate that this chemical release explains the euphoria that joggers call "runner's high." The cramping pains of childbirth release endorphins, and the grimacing and grunting many women do, according to research with weight lifters, release endorphins as well.
Sexual feelings will vary in any woman, whether during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding. In any case, it is important to broaden your knowledge about your sexual self, and expand your appreciation of your body. But remember that whatever you feel, whatever you want, is right for you.