Sheila Kitzinger and the ultimate first world problem: I didn’t have an orgasm in childbirth

Childbirth activist and social anthropologist Sheila Kitzinger has helpfully identified the ultimate first world problem:

I didn’t have an orgasm during childbirth.

That’s what I took away from today’s piece in The Telegraph entitled Is childbirth orgasmic? I think not, Sheila Kitzinger.

Don’t be misled by the title. The article is a puff piece (“Would you like a cocktail?” she twinkles. It is 11.50am. I immediately soften.” “She has an impish gleam in her eye, and I can’t help but smile …”), but it serves to highlight many of the themes of this blog.

1. First world problems

What are first world problems? As the website First World Problems explains, “It isn’t easy being a privileged citizen of a developed nation.”

Consider:

The sun is too bright for me to read my iPhone screen.

Or:

I can’t find the remote.

Sheila Kitzinger is deeply concerned with first world childbirth problems:

“Poor, poor you! I hear from women in their sixties and seventies who are still unable to recover emotionally from the terrible births they went through half a century previously.

Kitzinger cites the example of a distraught woman, a teacher who could control a class of 30 unruly 10 year-olds, but was “powerless” when she had her baby because agreeing to pain relief led to a cascade of other interventions.

“Because women are terribly self-critical, if a mother has a bad birth experience at the hands of an overwhelming technocratic system, she feels in some way responsible and is tormented about whether or not she did the right thing,” says Kitzinger.

2. Problematizing childbirth interventions

As Madeline Akrich and colleagues explain in Practising childbirth activism: a politics of evidence:

What do childbirth organisations in Western countries do? A review of existing literature reveals a degree of similarity in their causes which cluster around four key goals: (1) problematising medical/technical intervention in birth; (2) promoting “natural”/”normal” or “mother friendly” birth; (3) demanding birth practices and settings that are attentive to and respectful of the desires of birthing women and their families and (4) championing women’s right to make informed choices about type and place of birth.

Or, as Kitzinger explains:

“Doctors use threats that undermine women’s confidence in themselves and their bodies. They say, ‘You must think of your baby,’ even in cases that are low-risk, and once a birth is medicalised then the woman becomes a vessel, she is treated like a child – and a not terribly bright child at that.”

3. Re-enchanting childbirth

Rutherford and Gallo-Cruz in an article entitled Selling the Ideal Birth: Rationalization and Re-enchantment in the Marketing of Maternity Care describe the re-enchantment of childbirth:

In many ways, the contemporary scene of childbirth services can be characterized as one of cyclical rationalization, re-enchantment, and rationalization. In the first half of the 20th century, childbirth was subject to intense rationalization and birth was culturally transformed from a potentially risky even to a pathogen-like state to be medically managed and controlled…

As is often the case, rationalization came with dehumanizing consequences … The birth experience was stripped of many of its subjective qualities… [A] techno-scientific approach to birth often denied — and at least downplayed — the sense of mystery, spirituality and aesthetic beauty that have accompanied childbirth throughout most of human history. Scientific rationalization, in Weber’s words, meant that the birth experience was “disenchanted.” …

However, the natural birth movement attempts to re-enchant birth by allowing nature — unpredictable and uncontrollable — to have free reign and by recapturing the subjective experience of birth with its sensuality and mystery. This is most clearly seen in the emphasis by homebirth advocates on the spiritual and/or symbolic meaning of birth…

[I]t is also seen in the emphasis on the birthing mother’s individual empowerment as well as the important of birth being a shared family experience, as these themes reassert the power of human autonomy and interpersonal connection over the dehumanizing aspects of birth in the technocratic model.

Hence Kitzinger’s instance on the intimacy of birth.

[Midwives] can draw on their own knowledge and experience to help the woman have the best, most intimate birth possible.” …

There are few more intimate places than the house, possibly even the room, where the baby was conceived…

“Too many women end up giving birth in a roomful of people, which doesn’t make for an intimate experience,” says Kitzinger. “If they crowded around when you were making love, you wouldn’t have many orgasms then either, would you?”

4. Lies

When all else fails, childbirth activists resort to lies like “orgasmic birth.”

Orgasmic birth was never described in the long history of human birth until the 1990’s and still is to be restricted only to upper and middle class white women in first world countries who have read the natural childbirth literature. In other words, it is a complete, and self-serving fabrication of childbirth activists. Sheila Kitzinger is no exception:

In … her 34th publication, Kitzinger celebrates the eroticism of childbirth, and likens the second stage of labour to “a multiple orgasm that comes in great rushes with each longing to push” and “the most intensely sexual feeling a woman ever experiences”.

 

The amalgamation of problematizing interventions, re-enchanting birth and outright lies is undoubtedly seductive. The author of the piece, who came to the interview angry with Kitzinger, left appropriately devastated by her “loss.”

Would reading Kitzinger’s book before my second baby have changed my view of childbirth? If I’m honest, no. I was too damaged. But I do wish I’d called her Birth Crisis helpline.

She says she would have recommended that I seek out the services of an independent midwife, not just to care for me, but to be my advocate.

I had fully intended to be in control when I brought my babies into the world, but having ceded a little power, I somehow lost it all. And looking back I realise that sometimes what women truly need in childbirth isn’t drugs, but a voice. A voice a little like Sheila Kitzinger’s, perhaps.

Kitzinger’s voice may be seductive, but what she whispers is poison.

“Poor, poor you.” You shouldn’t be happy with a beautiful child; you have been robbed; it was fear, not childbirth, that caused your excruciating pain.

“Poor, poor you.” You gave birth all you got was a healthy baby … and you didn’t even have an orgasm.

  • Nicole

    Amy there is still much to discover about birth, don’t you think it reasonable to have an OPEN forum on this subject? Hence why remove comments that don’t support your agenda?

    • Amy Tuteur, MD

      I don’t remove comments.

  • orgasmicbirth

    Realitycheque- you may be surprised to learn that the same hormones you release when making love (predominantly oxytocin) is exactly the same hormones you need to release in childbirth. Birth and sex whether you like it or not are much the same thing. When this complex cocktail of hormones is interrupted by your thinking brain (neocortex) ..i.e I don’t want any sexual feeling E-V-E-R to have anything to do with my kid…your primal archaic brain where these hormones originate switch off. This leads to ‘failure to progress’ and a cascade of intervention,making birth less escatic and less safe.

    Now when a woman is giving birth by herself, without medication, there is a time when she looks like she’s on another planet. She dares to do what she would never dare do in her daily social life, eg. swear or scream. She can find herself in the most unexpected postures, making unexpected noises. This means there is reduced neocortical activity. And this is the most important aspect of birth physiology and since we are on the topic orgasmic birth.

    Rule no. 1 of obstetric and midwifery practice
    Don’t stimulate the neocortex of a labouring woman!
    Yet we do it every day and especially on an obstetric led unit (Labour ward)

    1. Use of language- is like you being in a pre-orgasmic state and your partner asking whats for dinner!- neocortical
    activation can undoubtedly interfere with physiological process.

    2. Bright lights- darkness increases
    melatonin which reduces neocortical stimulaton

    3. Observation by clinician and/or
    electronic fetal monitoring

    4. Unfamiliar environment

    5. Perception of danger

    6. Lack of privacy
    Its true its highly unlikely to have anywhere close to a pleasurable birth on labour ward. But believe me, it certainly is possible in privacy of your own home, where you feel safe and empowered. Film ‘Orgasmic Birth’ and ‘Business of being born’ may shed some light on this for you. Given the right conditions a lot of women can have an orgasmic birth. And do! Many feel shame and don’t want to share their story. But now with forums and discussions like this more women are finding their voice. A birth like this is better for baby and for mum. I think we all better get use to the idea, as orgasmic birth is here to stay. It is the best kept secret of childbirth!