"Get the epidural!” pregnant women are routinely urged by other moms, doctors and even the media. In fact, more than 50 percent of women choose epidurals during labor, and it’s easy to see why. Media images make childbirth look painful: sweating, screaming women lie flat on their backs waiting for that baby to emerge — and that’s during a sitcom! But can you imagine the idea of skipping the edpidural and having an all-natural orgasmic birth?
Debra Pascali-Bonaro, childbirth educator, doula, and documentary filmmaker, asks women to consider labor and birth differently. What, she wonders, would women choose if they knew that birth could be miraculously pleasurable — even orgasmic?
“Our cultural messages are leading people down the path of pain,” says Pascali-Bonaro. “I would like to open a vocabulary of pleasure and possibilities. That’s not to say that some people will not experience pain, but they might experience pleasure, bliss and transformation as well.”
While there is no doubt that epidurals are a useful tool — and some laboring women truly need medical intervention — Pascali-Bonaro says they also deny women the possibility of feeling the breathtaking pleasure of an orgasm.
Pascali-Bonaro’s new film, Orgasmic Birth, explores what she calls “the best-kept secret” about childbirth: the idea that labor might actually be incredibly pleasurable. Pascali-Bonaro has traveled the country for screenings of the film, and has found that “in every screening, the audience is stunned by how many people raise their hands and say that they have had an orgasmic birth.”
A secret bliss
Orgasmic Birth follows a handful of couples through intimate experiences and discussions about childbirth, sexuality and the idea of having an orgasm. Experts draw the connection between sex and birth based on the similarities in the hormone cocktail that the body produces in each. “Birth is part of a woman’s sexual life,” says Pascali-Bonaro. While most of the couples in the film are depicted as having a very sensuous and blissful birth experience, only one woman appears to enjoy a toe-curling orgasm.
Seattle mom Brenda experienced an orgasm during the birth of her son. Brenda labored for about 11 hours without pain medication, though that wasn’t necessarily her plan. “I was terrified of pain,” says Brenda, “so I sought out a hypnotherapist to help deal with the anxiety. My goal was simply not to have immobilizing panic attacks. Since it was my first birth, I had no idea what to expect.” And Brenda had never heard of orgasmic birth before.
When her baby crowned, she was amazed to experience an orgasm. “I breathlessly announced this fact to everyone, in an incredulous but embarrassed way,” says Brenda. It’s possible that her orgasm announcement shocked everyone in the room; but nobody said a thing. Even today, Brenda feels shy about sharing. Stories like hers are what inspired Pascali-Bonaro’s work; while it’s no secret that birth can be painful, women who experience orgasms often keep them private, even from their partners.
This secrecy can lead to cultural skepticism about the pleasurable possibilities for birth. Pascali-Bonaro recalls that during one screening, a doctor stood up and said that he had been delivering babies for decades, but he had never seen anyone have an orgasmic birth. “A woman jumped up and said, ‘You caught my baby three years ago, and I had an incredibly orgasmic birth, but I didn’t feel the need to tell you.’”
Many women have birth experiences that, while not exactly orgasmic, are blissful and highly transformative. Hypnobirthing practice helped Seattle mom Jennifer have a blissful birth experience. After two prior traumatic births, one of which ended in cesarean, Jennifer used her hypnobirthing practice to experience the vaginal birth she always dreamed of. “That birth was probably the best day of my life,” says Jennifer. “It was a culmination of everything I’d learned about birthing. It all went well, and I had a beautiful healthy baby boy to prove it.”
Edmonds mom Cynthia Heckman’s first birth involved medical interventions she didn’t really want, including an epidural. “By the time I had beautiful Raymond in my arms, I felt like a failure. Madly in love with my baby, but completely worthless.” Wanting to avoid a repeat performance, Heckman prepared for her next birth by researching and choosing care providers who would support her priorities. “When I arrived at the birth center, I told my midwives that I was scared, and they said, ‘Yes!’ which made me not scared. Their voices encouraging me and reassuring me were like a balm.
“It was not free of pain,” says Heckman, who had the rare experience of a tailbone fracture during this birth, “but it was free of fear and anxiety. It was beautiful and a hundred times less painful than my medicated birth. Remy’s birth was like a redemption after the horrors of Ray’s.”
Teaching women to achieve blissful birth is a priority for Pascali-Bonaro, who teamed with California midwife Elizabeth Davis to write a book, also called Orgasmic Birth. But for all women to achieve this potential, Pascali-Bonaro says that a major overhaul of the maternity care system is needed, with emphasis away from medical intervention and towards supporting the “mind-body connection” that Pascali-Bonaro says can help bring about orgasmic births.
“We are learning in all fields of medicine the mind-body connection,” she says. “If you come to a screening of Orgasmic Birth, and I tell you there was a chemical used to clean the auditorium that may cause some of people to itch, and I check in with you regularly and see how much you are itching . . . I guarantee that some people will start to itch. I do this during screenings and I see people itching right away.”
Instead, says Pascali-Bonaro, pregnant women and their care providers can use this mind-body connection to try to inspire a more positive perspective on the birth experience. Maybe, for some, birth will be mind blowing.
Tera Schreiber is a freelance writer who has had three overwhelmingly blissful births, though not of the toe-curling variety.