On first reading, the term ‘birthgasm’ probably evokes a strong reaction. But of what?
After all, while having an orgasm and childbirth do have ‘sex’ as a common denominator, they also seem worlds apart.
Director of award-winning documentary ‘Orgasmic Birth’, Debra Pascali-Bonaro is a childbirth educator and doula trainer who has made birthgasms and having a pleasurable birth an area of expertise.
Debra, who has appeared on numerous programmes and publications, acknowledges there are misconceptions about the terms, as well as mistrust – and even distaste.
“There is a huge divide in our minds between birth and sexuality,” she explains, “and our cultural beliefs dictate a preoccupation with pain and fear.”
As part of Debra’s campaign for a more positive approach to labour and body-image, she talks to Mirror Online about her mission, the misconceptions around orgasmic births and, above all, empowering women.
Orgasms and the science behind them
The reason women who experience a ‘birthgasm’ can disassociate from it is because it is a physical and neurological reaction to stimuli – and nothing to do with anything erotic.
Debra has forged relationships with noted researchers, such as Dr. Sarah Buckley, who has researched and published reports on childbirth which uphold the science behind birthgasms.
“It makes neurological sense,” Debra continues.
“The mother is creating a hormonal cocktail. To open her body and prepare for birth, she creates the same hormone (oxytocin) which her body uses to prepare for orgasm.”
“So, hormonally speaking, it’s the same criteria for birth as for sex.
Having worked so extensively to help women have a comforting and pleasurable birth, she has seen women take having a birthgasm into their own hands.
“I attended a birth where the mother was using a vibrator.
“When she WASN’T using it, she did feel pain.
Saying how an orgasm is a fantastic pain reliever, Debra points out the biggest path to an orgasm is between our ears – our brains.
“A lot of women will admit to having an orgasm in their sleep, purely because of what the mind conjures up.
“How fabulous if we can tap into that pain relief as a choice.”
As a staunch advocate of women’s rights, Debra acknowledges it’s not for everybody, and clarifies her respect for a woman’s choice to give birth however she chooses, be it naturally or via an elective caesarean.
Orgasmic birth and birthgasms
Debra highlights a common misunderstanding between the two terms: “An orgasmic birth is a heightened physical and emotional sensation.
She goes on to clarify how ‘orgasmic’ is used in conjunction with lots of positive experiences, like eating chocolate.
“For me, it’s childbirth when a woman has a joyful birth and takes birth back.”
When it comes to both childbirth and having an orgasm, it’s a subjective experience. Debra points out the same applies to ‘orgasmic births’ and birthgasms.
“It is different for every woman. So there will often be moments of pain, but a lot of women do manage to concentrate on the pleasure.
“Everyone can have an orgasmic birth – but only a very small percentage of these women will actually have a birthgasm.”
When asked why it’s such a small number of women who birthgasming affects, Debra cites several possible reasons.
Smiling, she makes a fair point for the first one: “Imagine, do you think the delivery room is conducive to having an orgasm? ‘Here, let me slap this heart monitor on you!'”
A second possible factor is the medicalisation around childbirth, with the effects of pain relief measures, such as an epidural, preventing women from taking ownership of their birthing experiences.
Shame and misconceptions
But arguably the biggest reason for women coming forward is a sense of shame, which Debra explains stems from several things.
“There is a deep cultural divide between motherhood and sexuality.
“So if a woman does experience a birthgasm, they don’t know what to do with it, and they often don’t tell their partner.”
It can also be attributed to knowing birth is often painful, and sometimes even traumatic, meaning it’s viewed with fear and there is no place for anything ‘erotic’.
But of the mothers Debra knows have had a birthgasm, she says: “The women having this experience AREN’T associating it with mothering and motherhood.”
Debra talks about the many doctors, midwives and caregivers she has encountered who don’t realise it’s happening to their patients.
“How would they know? It’s not shared publicly, and is it any of their business?”
Words associated with childbirth may also contribute to a reluctance to embrace a more positive experience.
For example, Debra prefers to use ‘surge’ instead of ‘contraction’, and suggests how a change of vocabulary can give women choices and a language to move past the pain.
The mum-of-three conducts many educational talks about the subject of childbirth, and having the most joyous experience possible.
But even in this safe environment where all the women have a shared experience, when Debra poses the birthgasm question to her audience, only a few women will raise their hands.
“There was one instance when a doctor present at a talk stood up, declaring in all the thousands of labours he’d been present at, he’d never seen any evidence of women having orgasms.”
About what happened next, Debra remembers: “You couldn’t have made it up. One lady sprang up said, ‘Doctor, I had the most INTENSE birthgasm when you delivered my baby!'”
Being passionate about the Pain to Power Childbirth Experience, Debra has encountered some women for whom the effects of a birthgasm have lasted long after childbirth.
Happy and proud about these stories, Debra says: “A few women I’ve spoken to had never orgasmed prior to going into labour.
“They’d have a birthgasm, and found it opened them up to knowing their bodies better.”
With her mission being ‘to give birth back to women’, Debra has also met mothers who have taken her teachings on board and say their birth experience empowered them.
During the many years she spent as doula, Debra has seen every aspect of childbirth, and she points out:
“For all women, there’d be moments we laughed, and so many joyous and ecstatic emotions.
“Where are all these positive words when we prepare people for birth?
“It makes me sad we’re comfortable with pain but not a pleasurable birth. Birth has become a war story.”
Debra agrees part of the shame and hesitancy in coming forward about an orgasmic birth may also be caused by a wish to be tactful around mothers who’ve had a difficult birth.
“But women who’ve had a positive birth deserve a voice too. And every woman deserves and should have the possibility of a pleasurable birth.”
Debra’s passion comes from her years as a Lamaze International childbirth educator, and birth and postpartum doula trainer with DONA International, where she has worked with and taught women, men, midwives, nurses, doulas and physicians in over 30 countries bringing comfort, love and pleasure to birth and life.