Thursday, March 01, 2007

Is Birth Sexual?

Yesterday I attended a workshop on writing for publication on the topics of pregnancy and childbirth. The meeting took place in the home of one of my midwives named Christy; sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman was our guest speaker. The participants were mostly midwives, doulas and other homebirth advocates, along with three breastfed babies who happily suckled at their pleasure, while their mothers brainstormed ways of storming the world for natural childbirth. And then there was me. I'm the middle-of-the-road, don't-fit-in-anbody's categories girl; the person who seems drawn to stirring up new ideas (often controversial) made from combining old opposites into something fresh and different.

A big conversation emphasis during the workshop was, not surprisingly, the skyrocketing Ceserean rate and the best ways to help women discover paths to healthy natural births through our personal stories, as well as more political and academic writing. Barbara emphasized the need to meet people in their worldview and find a way of communicating about a holistic approach to birth that resonates with a given audience's needs, rather than trying to convert folks to a totally different style of worldview. On the topic of finding a "hook" for getting holistic pregnancy and birth articles into mainstream publications, I couldn't resist a mostly-joking comment about getting Brittany Spears to have a homebirth next time she becomes pregnant, in hopes that giving birth at home might turn into a hip celebrity thing.

A middle aged woman jumped in and reminded us of the contrversy over the birth statue made in Brittany's image. I expressed my appalled reaction that conservative pro-lifers construed the statue of Spears birthing on all fours as sexual. Okay, it was Brittany Spears, but c'mon, we all know nobody, not even Brit feels sexy all the time, and I don't recall feeling especially like a seductress when I gave birth to my son last year -- on all fours. Primal, yes. I enjoyed pushing, yes. Were there some analogies to a sexual experience? Sure. But sexual?

Many of the women surrounding me rushed into to effuse dramatically, "But of course birth is sexual!," commencing a lively discussion of an upcoming movie called, "orgasmic birth," and the rampant discomfort out culture has acknowledging anything so natural and bodily as birth, much less the sexual nature of what is clinically named "labor and delivery."

Sexual is such a funny, fluid word. Where is the line between sensual and sexual? Between primal and horny? Between carnal instinct and sacred passion? Between physical sensation and biological metaphor? Lines. Lines. What lines?

Is birth sexual? By some definitions, perhaps. By other perspectives it might better be described as primally sensual, pointing toward longing, ache, release and bliss in an analogous, but utterly unique brand of passion. And for others, birth might be more like writing, or running a marathon or surviving an earthquake and realizing something beautiful came of it.

But however you look at it, birth is sacred. Giving birth is so very pro-life, as the statue of Brittany was aptly titled. And life is sexual. Is that so hard for pro-life people to accept?


Jamie said...

I'm interested in learning more about the workshop you attended. I'm hoping to begin research this summer documenting Kyrgyz folklore surrounding childbirth. It sounds like I could learn a lot from these women. As I've never given birth, I'm trying to learn just about anything about the process that I can! Will this workshop meet again in the near future? Where at? Thank you for sharing!

Jemila Monroe said...

Hi Jamie,

What culture is Kyrgyz folkflore from? The workshop was a one-time deal, but here's my midwives' website, which has their contact info. I imagine they'll have some useful information for you. Goodluck with your research

Jamie said...

Thank you so much for the website! The Kyrgyz are from Kyrgyzstan. It's a country about the size of South Dakota in Central Asia.

Amy said...

Jemila, such an interesting thought.

I have to say that although all three of my kiddos were vaginal births, I did the whole epidural thing, so cannot speak for a full-on natural birth.

I would go with you on the analysis that birth is a very sensual experience, and amazingly spirtual. pushes it a bit to far for me.

There's something amazing about birth. The anticipation, the pain as it begins and increases (the lovely relief with an epidural for those of us who are not the brave souls), and the imminent entry of that new life in the world and the first incredible touch. It's difficult to even describe in words...

Jamie said...

Wow...facinating post, considering I'm another of those "birth junkies" that you were hanging out with the other day :)

I think you are right when you say it depends on how you define sexual. Sexual: pertaining to or of sex. Yes. birth is sexual. Did I feel sexy when I was pregnant? NO! Did I feel incredibly powerful and feminine when I gave birth? YES. Especially with my third birth, which was an unmedicated birth. There was something just so...potent.

Perhaps the problem lies with our definition of "sexy" and sexual? Maybe our culture has indoctrinated our views of what sexual is, to such a degree, that we don't even understand the true meaning anymore. I don't know...just a thought from a crazy mind at 4:30 in the morning.

Nancy said...

I'd say that birth is a "sexual" experience in that it is a creative process. As is the conception that starts the whole journey.

I'm reading Rob Bell's "Sexgod" right now and he posits that our sexuality is more than just what happens between two people engaging in physical contact with one another. He states, "Our sexuality is all of the ways we strive to reconnect to reconnect with our world, with each other, and with God."

I recommend the book. It is really, really good.

Jenell said...

I think it's important to not assume that one's natural birth is more spiritual, healing, or potent than others. I have one friend who did natural midwife homebirth without a spiritual experience - says it was just a healthy way to get the babies out, and she mostly just endured it.

Me? I had triplets, induced under the threat of all of us dying, and they all died. Then twins, under high-tech surveillance and absolutely no control or empowerment. Now I have a singleton coming in a few weeks. It will be in a hospital, mostly under conditions not of my choosing, in hopes of health for the baby. I'm asking to not be on an operating table under spotlights - that will be empowering and healing enough for me! It's not how I thought this part of life would go for me, and much of the healing has been through acceptance -- not through orchestrating the birth experience I would like (which is what I always wanted).

I'm glad it's better for others, but we need to always allow for a wide range of experience... Aand I'm not criticizing anyone who's posted - it's a challenging conversation. The trauma of my first birth experience interfered with my sexuality in many ways, and it's never even occured to me to think of my subsequent birth experiences, or that one, as 'sexual' in any way.

Jemila Monroe said...

Jenell, I'm so sorry for all the trauma and loss you've been through. I would never invalidate someone else's birth experience. Natural birth is not inherently more spiritual than any other birth, although I do think it has certain health advantages IF the woman has an uncomplicated pregnancy, and the pain part CAN be a powerful physical metaphor for the pain that can bring forth beauty and life. The sacredness of birth can be found in acceptance, surrender, allowing God to be part of that experience, whatever it is, whether it feels spiritual or not, whether it is one's dream birth or the farthest thing from from it. I wish you joy and blessing in your upcoming birth, that you will find grace and healing in new ways.

God Bless!

Jenell said...

Thanks! I'm enjoying the conversation and finding it encouraging.

lisa said...

Wow, sexual? I don't think I ever would have tagged it as sexual. Earthy, powerful, amazing, wonderful, real, functional, exhilerating and spiritual... these are words I associate with birth.

I was blessed with four natural and complication-free deliveries. I'm in some bizarre catagory of women who would love to give birth one more time just for the sheer high of it.

My oldest is 20 and my youngest is 8. When my oldest was born, natural childbirth and home births were very popular and everyone knew that drug-free delivery was a really healthy choice for mom and baby. I am so sad all these years later to find c-sections and epidurals the norm. I met one young mom this weekend who had natural home births and I was so pleased to find ONE left out there!

I would love to write about my experiences so it would be great if you could pass on any good ideas of where to submit stuff.

Lydia said...

Two ideas, Lisa:

If your birth story is (even distantly) related to faith and culture, you could always submit it to The Ooze.

There's also

Lydia said...

This reminded me of a family story.

Did I feel incredibly powerful and feminine when I gave birth?

My mother gave birth three times. Her first two births were at home with a midwife, and the last one was basically a "home" birth at a hospital - that is, her doctor was very hands-off. She wasn't hooked up to an IV or given any pain medication, and she walked out of the hospital a few hours after giving birth.

(She felt fine and didn't see why she should stay when she had two other children to look after at home.)

I was her first child. A few minutes after my birth, she turned to my father and the midwife with endorphines surging through her blood and told them that she was completely ready to give birth again.

The midwife laughed and suggested that she enjoy me for a little while first. :)

lisa said...

thank, lydia, and i love the story about your mom :-)