Orgasmic childbirth on 20/20

A documentary argues that sexual pleasure during labor is "a neglected human right."

Topics: Broadsheet,

Uh-huh, yep, yes. We are actually talking about an orgasm caused by a baby passing through its mother’s birth canal, and it’s the “best-kept secret” of childbirth, if we are to believe a documentary airing tonight on ABC’s 20/20. (Way to one-up  Diane Sawyer’s interview with Spitzer’s escort!) The film,”Orgasmic Birth” by childbirth educator Debra Pascali-Bonaro, reveals labor “as an integral part of woman’s sexuality,” and argues that pleasurable childbirth is “a neglected human right,” according to its Web site.

One of the documentary’s subjects, Amber Hartnell of Hawaii, who gave birth to her son in a tub in her yard, told ABC: “All of a sudden the orgasm just started rolling through and rolling through, and it just kept coming, and my whole body was spiraling and rolling, and I was laughing and crying.” Similarly, Tamra Larter of New Jersey said: “It was happening, and I could hardly breathe, and it was like, ‘oh, that feels good.’ That’s all I could say really.”

So, how, exactly, does this work, you might ask? Is there, er, manual assistance? It doesn’t appear so. Dr. Christiane Northrup, a certified OB-GYN who appears in the film, explains, “When the baby’s coming down the birth canal, remember, it’s going through the exact same positions as something going in, the penis going into the vagina.” Uh, only with a much, much bigger head! And, as a commenter on the New York Times’ Motherlode blog noted, “Not all women have orgasms from a having a penis go in their vagina — in fact, I’d venture to say that most of us don’t!”

However, there is also some chemical assistance: “Labor itself is associated with a huge hormonal change in the body, way more prolactin, way more oxytocin, way more beta-endorphins — these are the molecules of ecstasy,” says Northrup.



The 16 pages of comments (or at least a sampling) on the Motherlode are a serious must-read. They range from confessional (“I didn’t even tell my husband, because … I was afraid it would make him feel really insecure!”) to sarcastic (“I heard it feels good to have your head chopped off too. Really”), and everything in-between. But, the following is one of the more salient points: “No one’s saying you have to experience it, but just because you haven’t, does not render the experience of other moms invalid.”

Interestingly enough, the trailer of the film — which, is definitely NSFW, given that it opens with a series of ecstasy-filled moans — gives the impression that its focus is the sensuality of birth: women in labor are shown getting a rub down in a tub of water, being embraced by their partner and having water delicately poured down their back. All in all, it looks awfully nice, and isn’t exactly the sexpert-directed journey to orgasm that the film’s title might suggest. Kudos to Pascali-Bonaro for clarifying to ABC that she isn’t suggesting that “every woman should have an orgasmic birth” but that there are “options out there, to make this a positive and pleasurable experience.”

Ultimately, though, I think think this Motherlode commenter puts it best: “I’m sorry that ABC doesn’t air a show that simply talks about the beauty and benefits of unmedicated/non-surgical childbirth. To use an extremely rare event such as an orgasm during childbirth to advocate for natural birth seems sensationalistic and will only repel some who might otherwise be swayed by a rational scientific/cultural argument.”

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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