It was the night before the harvest moon that appears every September. I was 38 weeks pregnant, my large pregnant belly as round and full as the glowing satellite in the sky. I had just slipped into bed with my husband when I felt a large gush of fluid flow from between my legs onto the sheet. In elation, I woke my husband and said, “I think my water just broke.” I was right — I was in early labor. Contractions followed about an hour later. I labored slowly, pacing myself, sleeping through the night but waking for contractions, releasing sweet lungfuls of breath when they surged through me. Little did I know I would call so thoroughly on my understanding of kink and sexuality to get through childbirth.
I masturbated with my Hitatchi Magic Wand, grabbing my breasts and stroking my nipples, wishing on my rolling orgasms for active labor to kick in.
The following evening I was still at it — slow, gentle contractions preparing my body for birth. The warm up. Now the moon was past full and I held my husband’s hand as we walked around the neighborhood staring up, that glow in the sky magnificent and orange. I looked up at my partner of 11 years, still so very in love. We were having a romantic labor, a much-needed date night amongst the star-lit sky and in between contractions. That night was calm; I masturbated with my Hitatchi Magic Wand, grabbing my breasts and stroking my nipples, wishing on my rolling orgasms for active labor to kick in.
The next day I continued to labor. I walked with my husband up through the Berkeley hills, stopping as needed. Two women, who have taken on the role of mother in my life, performance artists and filmmakers Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, came to our home and performed a blessing, a ritual in which we took breaths together and talked to our little baby to let them know it was OK to come to this world now.
I was familiar with surrender. These sensations made sense to me. I knew what to do.
I drank a castor oil vegan milkshake and less than an hour later I was in the midst of active labor. I was ready. I was familiar with surrender. These sensations made sense to me. I knew what to do. My body knew what to do, I just needed my mind to get out of the way. It reminded me in many ways of my amazing sex life.
As a very sexual woman who is a sex educator and active in the sex-positive and kink scene, I was practised in using my breath and visualizations to direct intense sensation through my body. I also knew the power of pleasure in the face of intense sensation. In the same way that a vibrator on my vulva during a flogging or whipping is a pleasurable distraction from intense sensation, making out with my husband or his hands on my breasts during or in-between contractions similarly created large rushes of pleasurable endorphins in my body while processing the surges. Birth and sex require us to listen to and trust our bodies, to open ourselves, to relax our bodies and make room for something greater than ourselves.
I started to wonder, do other women also experience this intersection between sex and birth? Does being a sexually empowered woman influence and inform someone’s birth experience?
For people who are very connected with their sexual identity, there seems to be a heightened awareness of your body during childbirth. Writer and poet Arielle Greenberg reflects on her birthing experience, “I think that there's a direct connection between my ability to be tuned into my body during sex and my ability to be tuned into my body during birth. I've always been someone who is most present during enthusiastically consensual sexual activity and really finds grounding in sexual expression."
The torture of a prolonged labor is also, in some cases, more tolerable for women accustomed to waiting for a long pent-up release. Greenberg says that she has always enjoyed "tease and delay" sexual play. “I love that feeling of staying right on the precipice of pleasure in a way that almost causes a kind of delicious discomfort. I think that was useful during birth, because there is so much waiting and lack of control and need to stay present through uncomfortable sensation for something blissful on the other end!”
Greenberg admits that the way that she approaches sex is to go toward the sensation, even — especially — if the sensation is intense. “I try to dig in and embrace the experience and just really be in it in the moment. Likewise, this was the way I tried to birth — fully present, grounded, embracing of everything that came at me.”
Speaking with my friend, Philadelphia-based writer Katy Chatel, about her 36- hour labor and home birth experience, she tells me that, “Even the most supreme sexual experience only aspires to the intensity of birth.”
She goes on, “Being in touch with my body and fertility as a sexually empowered woman helped prepare me to submit to the experience and endurance of birthing.”
She wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Oakland, California-based yoga instructor and founder of Mom Me Circle, Isabelle Bridges Boesch, tells me that she found profound similarities between the birth and sexual experience, and notes that both have distinct emotional phases that are related to hormonal fluctuations.
The moment my daughter was born felt summer hot, like everything I had worked so hard for culminated in this moment. I relate this to the moment of sexual climax.
Boesch saw in her labor the cyclical feel of the seasons. She tells me, “When my water broke I felt a sense of yearning, and waiting, and [the kind of] waiting that felt similar to the moment I knew a sexual activity was going to happen. This was also a very ‘winter’ experience. Then, early contractions began and I realized that soon my baby would be here. The anticipation was similar to the way I feel during early sexual arousal, full of ‘springy excitement. The moment my daughter was born felt summer hot, like everything I had worked so hard for culminated in this moment. I relate this to the moment of sexual climax. The satisfaction of holding my child felt autumnal, like the afterglow of a sexual experience.”
Author and coach Eri Kardos believes sex and birth are closely tied together, yet we work really hard in our culture to separate them.
“The first time you give birth has a lot of parallels to the first time you have sex, like you don’t know what to expect," she tells me. "Most people have this idea that it’s going to change them in some way, maybe in some big way."
Kardos goes on, “Giving birth is not what you see on TV, and neither is sex. Giving birth is so intense and graphic, you may be on all fours and making crazy sounds you never thought you would make and you may be calling out to the god of your choice and all those things are exactly the same with sex! They are so similar. But we don’t talk about it as a culture.”
There is a tenderness in Kardos’ voice as she talks about the intimacies of birth and sex. “When your really connected with someone else it brings you to a different world. And I think that’s what is going on with birth,” she says. “You are so deeply connected with this other creature, this other being, and you’re so deeply connected to yourself that you can’t help but be fully present and fully in your body.”
Kardos says that at one point she tracked down women in the sex-positive and BDSM/kink community to see what these women had to say about their birth experiences, because these women had such intrinsic raw understanding of what it is like to need to process pain and intense feelings on a scale that most people do not understand or that they don’t practice on a regular basis.
I’m a submissive sexually... If you can go into the discomfort or intensity of birth and relax/surrender to it while staying present, I think that helps a lot.
I think that if you are someone who is really in touch with your sexual pleasure and feel very much in your body during that kind of experience, you are likely to be able to do the same during birth.
Greenberg echoes this. “I’m a submissive sexually," she says. “I know how to surrender to intensity, how to embrace it and go toward it rather than resist it. Resistance makes physical discomfort more difficult. If you can go into the discomfort or intensity of birth and relax/surrender to it while staying present, I think that helps a lot. Those of us in kink are used to embracing the pain/pleasure continuum. We seek intense physical experience, and that’s what birth is! I experienced it as intensity, not pain.”
As a society, we have been taught to fear pain and intensity. I questioned over a dozen mothers about how they believe society perceives birth and the number one word used in their description was pain, the second most used word was fear. But what if like Greenberg, we choose to surrender to the pain, to the intensity, rather than fear and resist it?
Kardos believes that these women are gifted with the ability to handle dealing with these intense situations. That if you’re already involved in the world of kink, you’re going to be so much more prepared than the average woman, who has not had a chance to practice breathing techniques, or learn how to focus and let visualizations help guide you through intense feelings. Kardos also recognizes that women in the kink scene know the difference between something that is doing your body harm and something that is transformational and merely uncomfortable.
“Your body knows what it is doing,” says Kardos. “I think a lot of times in the sex-positive world there are so many amazing experiences that come out of being authentically in the moment that give you the tools for later on in life giving birth. It’s really important for women to step into this place of empowerment as mothers (or soon to be mothers) through embracing their own sexuality, which will help them embrace their birth on a whole new level.”
If you are someone who is really in touch with your sexual pleasure and feel very much in your body during that kind of experience, you are likely to be able to do the same during birth.
The release of my baby during my unmedicated water birth was ecstatic — a climatic release like I had never felt before. A warm wave of pleasure was followed by the surreal moment I reached down between my legs into the water, grabbed my baby, and brought her to my chest.
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