One hand held her husband's over the shower door. The other was between her legs, her fingers circling her clitoris. He asked her if she wanted to have sex—he'd read that it'd alleviate her contractions. She laughed, "F*ck no."
It was early, about 6 a.m., when Angela Gallo went into labor. She was dancing around her kitchen on the Mornington Peninsula of Victoria, Australia, eating strawberries, twirling her firstborn daughter's hair, and petting her dog. Hypnobirthing tracks lulled in the background while Angela sat to labor in a birth pool blown up in her living room.
But at around nine or 10 centimeters, her contractions intensified. "I was in transition and I felt like I was in a fog," Angela remembers. "My birth pool exploded; I didn't have water anymore…I was thinking, shit, shit, shit."
Masturbating in a warm shower was her primal response to substantially mitigating the pain, moving her from a place of panic to a safe space in which she felt wholly connected to her mind, body, and spirit. It allowed her to feel, something she wasn't afforded in her first pregnancy, which she describes as a "highly medicalized" procedure—draped in a hospital gown with an IV pricked in her arm, given an epidural, and, after 45 hours, a birth vacuum.
"I wanted my muscles to feel like I was working with them and not against them, so I tried to work with every ounce of energy, make every single contraction count," she says. "Touching myself took the edge off, helped me to focus, get clarity, and regain control over what I was feeling."
It was also an intimate time for Angela and her husband, her "beacon" during labor. Due to his job as a mineworker, at 36 weeks, the couple had moved far west from Angela's midwife and the plans she'd had for a home birth. But, with her doula, best friend, and husband beside her, Angela felt comfortable laboring at home and heading to the hospital only when she was ready. Unable to get in the car after six hours of contractions, they called an ambulance to escort them to the Frankston Hospital, 45 minutes away.
"The paramedics ended up being the rudest, most intrusive, unkind people—super patronizing so, right away, the energy was shocking," Angela says. "I went from touching myself in the shower in an amazing zone and frame of mind, to then getting in the ambulance, forcing myself not to give birth. I could feel him about to come out. I literally held the baby in the whole time."
She realizes paramedics are trained to treat birth as an emergency, but she was determined to birth her way. Her baby was born within 15 minutes upon arrival and remained attached to the placenta for two hours.
"I honestly think if the paramedics hadn't shown up I would've had the baby in the shower and had an orgasm," Angela maintains, noting that masturbation worked to treat her pain. "We use it to cure headaches, when we have periods—it just makes sense—but it's taboo. We just can't put sex back into childbirth, which is counterproductive and counterintuitive to what women feel in this space."
Perhaps because, as a doula herself and an honorably mentioned birth photographer, she's attended 50 deliveries—many of which she calls "euphoric," and one in which a woman self-stimulated with a vibrator—Angela's kept an open mind.
Throughout her career she's studied the works of Elizabeth Davis, who co-authored Orgasmic Childbirth: Your Guide to a Safe, Satisfying, and Pleasurable Birth Experience with Debra Pascali-Bonaro, director of Orgasmic Birth: The Best-Kept Secret and founder of the online childbirth course, "Pain to Power."
"Think of the most open, loving, sexual experiences you've had, the most powerful orgasms, and see the correlation," Davis says. "[We] seek privacy, dim lighting, and freedom from interruptions, observation, worry, or stress when engaging in sexual activity."
Oxytocin, released during foreplay, orgasm, and the anticipation of sexual activity, peaks at levels 10 times higher during labor than at any other time in a woman's life.
"If oxytocin flows freely," Davis explains, "orgasmic birth is a natural result."
But the fear of childbirth still plagues as many as one in 10 women. Fewer than 2% give birth comfortably at home or in centers in the U.S., while almost 4 million birth in hospitals, where Pascali-Bonaro argues we too often overuse valuable technology—which attributes to our 32% Caesarian rate, more than double what the World Health Organization recommends—and underuse our body's innate capabilities.
"I see a system out of balance," Pascali-Bonaro says. "When you want to birth a baby, you want your vagina wet and open, but we know what our vaginas would do in a typical hospital with people yelling the four-letter word: push, push push!"
She instead calls for harnessing those physiological resemblances—the same hormones, muscle contractions and rhythms, vocalizations—and using more doulas, water, dance, and other efforts like Angela's to induce births naturally and bring the Caesarian rate and intervention down.
And while Angela didn't achieve an actual "orgasm," Pascali-Bonaro says she'd never want that as a performance standard, regardless. Rather, orgasmic birth simply indicates a range of pleasure that is indeed possible if women explore their options.
Angela's story helps expecting mothers of varying values, cultures, and religious beliefs do just that: find pleasure in the comfort of their own decisions.
"Orgasmic birth doesn't need to be the way I did it; it comes in all shapes and forms, which is exciting because women of all walks of life can tap into it," says Angela. "And I'm not trying to undermine the women who do have difficult experiences; that's a reality. But, [they usually] haven't had women tell them positive experiences...Was it challenging? Hell yes, absolutely. It's childbirth; it pushes you to the brinks of your physical limits. But it was awesome."
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