I’ve been thinking a lot lately about pain and birth. Or actually, pleasure and birth. Kimberly Bobrow’s website is what first got the wheels turning. In addition to the article on the language of breastfeeding that I was raving about last week, I also discovered this very interesting discussion about the eroticism of birth (a discussion that was so controversial it needed to be removed from the forum board it was originally on, and placed somewhere else). It’s so rare to even hear about stories like this! Almost invariably, when people talk about birth in this country, the focus is on pain. First time mothers spend sleepless nights worrying about it, birth education classes spend most of their time trying to prepare you for it, nurses measure your painscale while you’re in labor, modern obstetrics (and modern anesthesiology) is devoted to providing you with modern pain relief so that you can enjoy labor while numb up to your waist, and even celebrities like Britney Spears are so concerned about pain that they’d rather undergo major abdominal surgery than labor. Our culture can’t dissosociate pain from birth; they’re nearly synonymous, the horror story that grandmothers scare their grandaughters with (“just wait until you’re in labor someday”) or the guilt-trip sometimes used to keep children in line (“I went through 36 hours of excruciating pain for you”).
However, apparently it’s not painful for everyone! For some women, labor is an intensely sexual experience, amazingly erotic, and sometimes quite pleasurable—the ultimate turn-on. What an amazing idea that is! The sexual and erotic aspect of birth is something that is not even acknowledged in most of the literature I’ve ever seen, let alone something you would ever encounter in the hospital, which has been carefully designed to be as frightening, clinical and un-sensual as possible. This is something Robbie Davis-Floyd touched upon in her book, Birth As An American Rite of Passage: the cultural necessity of removing the sexuality from the obviously sexual process of birth. She writes:
- It is precisely female sexual functions that the technocratic model finds threatening and labels both “defective” and “tabu”. So effective are hospital routines at masking the intense sexuality of birth that most women today are not even aware of birth’s sexual nature. For example, stimulation of the laboring woman’s breasts and clitoris has been proven to be extremely effective in strengthening labor, yet is utterly tabu in most hospitals, where the snythetic hormone pitocin is administered intravenously instead. The routine performance of episiotomy is another excellent example of the desexualization of birth in the hospital: an effective alternative recommended by many midwives is perineal massage with warm olive oil, far too overtly sexual a procedure for most obstetricians.
She goes on to discuss how this desexualization was something that was consciously desired, partly to avoid the embarassment of women performing sexual acts and acting sexually towards doctors or hospital staff during birth, and also partly to avoid the embarassment of something other than a penis giving a woman pleasure…in this case, the baby’s descending head! You could see how many people would find this not only controversial, but outrageous, bordering on sinful, and evoking ideas of incest. One nineteenth century doctor even went so far as to suggest that the purpose of the pain was to keep women from experiencing the underlying ecstasy of birth, and that birth should always be unmedicated in order to prevent women from discovering just how sexy it really was.
I think that my own thoughts on this subject need some time to ripen; pain and birth has been hardwired into my brain as well, and it will take some time to undo the pattern. Women are capable of experienceing birth as erotic and pleasurable. I know that Ina May has been quoted several times as saying something about how the same sexy energy that got that baby up there in the first place is the same energy needed to get the baby out. I wonder if this is something you see more often in a homebirth, becuase this is certainly something you’d never see in a hospital! I wonder how many of the sensations of birth are interpreted as painful just because that is how we’ve been socialized into thinking about it. I wonder if there are ways to keep a woman open to the possibility that birth may not necessarily be painful.