There are many wives tales we tell to make childbirth more palatable. Generations ago someone got the bright idea to tell young children that a stork delivered babies to their new homes. Those scarred young children are the ones talking now, espousing the benefits of natural childbirth — including multiple orgasms. Even though I didn’t experience an orgasmic natural childbirth, doesn’t mean they aren’t real. And impressive.
First widely revealed through personal anecdotes in the 2009 documentary “Orgasmic Birth: The Best-Kept Secret,” a new study conducted by French psychologist Thierry Postel concludes the phenomenon is real.
Postel is among the first to try to put hard numbers on how many women experience “moments of ecstasy in birth.”
The results “established the fact that obstetrical pleasure exists,” Postel wrote. Midwives reported 668 cases in which mothers told midwives they’d felt orgasmic sensations in birth. In another 868 cases, midwives said they’d seen mothers demonstrate signs of pleasure during childbirth. Finally, nine mothers completed questionnaires confirming they’d experienced an orgasm during birth.
Childbirth educator Debra Pascali-Bonaro, who directed the documentary that brought orgasmic birth into our vocabulary, believes these hard numbers drastically underestimate the number of orgasms experienced during childbirth because mothers often don’t tell their midwives about the sensation.
Barry Komisaruk, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey who studies orgasm, doesn’t need anecdotal evidence. He says anatomically, orgasmic birth makes complete sense. Even if not described as an orgasm Komisaruk’s research shows that he intense stimulation of the vaginal canal in childbirth may work to block the pain.
In 1988, Komisaruk and his co-researchers published a study in the Journal of Sex Research that found when women stimulated their vaginas or clitorises, they became less sensitive to painful stimulation — but not to other tactile stimulation. In 1990, the researchers followed up with a study that found women in labor had reduced pain sensitivity during labor compared with before and after.
In rats, Komisaruk has found that vaginal stimulation blocks the release of a pain transmitter called Substance P right at the level of the spinal cord. In other words, the sensory neurons tasked with transmitting their message of “ouch!” to the central nervous system are stymied from the get-go.
“It’s an actual physiological, very primordial system of the genital system blocking pain input,” Komisaruk said.
In addition, two regions of the brain that become active during orgasm, the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula, are also active during painful experiences.
“There’s something very intriguing going on between pain and pleasure,” said Komisaruk.
Even though the female anatomy lends itself to orgasmic birth, the frame of mind isn’t always in line.
“There are so many factors that could make the difference between a pleasurable response and a terribly stressful, aversive experience that you can’t generalize it,” he said. “There’s no reason to try to generalize. Different people have different pain thresholds. Different people have different attitudes. If a woman has a fear of sexuality, if she starts having a pleasurable sensation she may feel this is completely inappropriate psychologically, and that itself could be an aversive effect.”
Pascali-Bonaro agrees that the reaction to linking childbirth with sexual pleasure prevents many women from enjoying the experience they are designed to have.
“It’s such a culture where some women actually feel shamed that they have pleasure, because the expectation is pain,” Pascali-Bonaro said. “We have to change that.”
My first birth was induced due to low amniotic fluid and from the first pitocin drip through the bloody aftermath, my labor and delivery was a series of unwanted but probably necessary interventions. At that point, the thought of orgasmic birth was so beyond my comprehension it seemed ridiculous.
My second birth came far closer — I had a quick and easy all-natural childbirth. When pressed, I admit I have trouble explaining the sensations I felt during that delivery. It was less painful than the contractions I experienced on pitocin, but the sensations were far more intense. I would never say it felt good, but it wasn’t the pain I was expecting or even had experienced in my induced labor. What did feel amazing was the feeling when the baby was fully delivered, however I wouldn’t the feeling orgasmic or even pleasurable. It felt a lot like an intense wave of relief.
Even though I didn’t experience any orgasm during childbirth, I no longer think the phenomenon sounds out of the realm of reality — unlike the old stork delivery story we were told when we were young. To those who have experienced orgasmic birth and are telling their stories, I say keep ’em coming.