What Orgasm and Birth Have in Common
(And how to get more of the former in the latter.)
Sex makes babies. That much we know. And while sex and childbirth don’t seem to have too much in common other than one preceding the other, in fact, there are several noteworthy similarities for those who are expecting. Just like breathing, orgasm and birth are events which happen in large part beyond our control, but in which we can actively participate and have an impact on the outcome.
Surrender and Engagement
Two seemingly opposed qualities enhance both the orgasmic and the birth process and those are surrender and engagement. Surrender is one of the most challenging qualities to embody as a human. Life is, ultimately, out of our control, but we make concerted efforts to keep our bodies looking a certain way, to do our best work and succeed, to maintain safe living spaces. In other words, we are working very hard everyday to control our circumstances. We cannot, however, prevent injury or a layoff or a catastrophic flood.
This is where Engagement comes in. By engaging with the physical sensations as passing events, multi-layered experiences, and curious albeit harmless phenomena, we can more easily surrender to uncomfortable (in the case of labor) or overwhelming (often in the case of orgasm) experiences. This psychological surrender is crucial to staying present. Getting clear with oneself about what the “hang-up” is–maybe it’s the mess that we’re worried about, the strange sounds uncontrollably pouring from our bodies. Whatever it is just notice that it’s happening and engage with it.
The way we experience sensation is subjective. All of the senses are subject to individualized chemical combinations, tolerance, genetics and experience. While you might think Sriracha is way too spicy, your spouse douses it on everything for “flavor.” Now rather than them being “wrong” and you being “right,” you’re each having an individual experience. Sex is the same. And, yes, even birth is subjective. You have to know your body intimately in order for orgasm and birth to be empowering.
Anxiety is the number one inhibitor of sexual pleasure, and the reason for that is the body tightens and movement is restricted when we experience anxiety. Physiologically, anxiety is a manifestation of stress over something we cannot control. Whenever we are “bracing” for something we are restricting normal biological patterns of movement, impulse and response, a category to which both birth and orgasm belong. If there has been physical pain or emotional shame around sex or the sexual organs, orgasm and birth are going to be complicated. Muscular tension is the nervous system’s response to stimulus (aka stress,) and chronic tension can indicate an internalized, frozen stress response. The defining characteristic of both orgasm and birth is muscular contraction AND release. If our musculature is not supple enough to release, we won’t experience climax, we won’t release a baby from the womb. Pleasure decreases and pain increases.
The emotional reality of orgasm and birth must also be addressed. In her book, “Sex That Works,” self-professed Loveologist Wendy Strgar posits that the foundation of lasting pleasure and satisfaction is feeling. A willingness to feel is tantamount satisfaction because what feeling really is presence. A willingness to feel means one is willing to be here, now, with exactly what is happening. This way of being is actually quite rare and hard to come by, because it means feeling it all–the good and the “bad.” Losing control and expressing whatever fear or need or frustration that arises is fundamental to experiencing freedom in the body and in the mind. The more we restrict ourselves from fully expressing our needs and emotions, the less available we are to deal with the present moment, because at a primal level we don’t feel safe.
In a scientific study about the physiology of orgasm, researches reported that not only did certain areas of the brain light up, but several areas of the brain shut down. “‘Shutdowns in the brain’s prefrontal cortex appears crucial… ‘It’s the seat of reason and behavioral control. But when you have an orgasm, you lose control.’ Regions called the temporal lobes also showed damped activity. In fact, the less activity these regions showed, the more sexually aroused the women felt.” In order to experience release and deep pleasure, the prefrontal cortex (reason, judgment, rationale) must be turned off. Sex and birth are not intellectual experiences, they are beastly and beautiful and body-based.
A great deal of the work of orgasm and birth is done for you physically. The proper hormones (oxytocin and adrenalin) are released at the right time, and contractions are paced for optimum experience, as long as we are willing participants. The arduous task of both experiencing sexual fulfillment and having a fulfilling birth experience is to get out of our own way psychologically and emotionally. The human body is fairly ingenious, and learning to trust the body’s cues is no small task in a culture obsessed with “mind over matter” and “grin and bear it.” When pain becomes a part of sex and pleasure is no longer a part of birth, we have to ask ourselves where the obstacle exists in the mind and in the heart. In order to have a sense of freedom and empowerment in both our sex and birth experiences, we must learn to trust the body, to feel it all and let go.
We don’t have to be feeling “good” in order to feel love. In fact, a lot of being in love has to do with realizing you don’t always feel good–relationships are complicated–but there is an underlying commitment and desire to be with another person. Love is not easy, but it is a powerful bonding agent, and it shows up in your body as oxytocin.
Orgasms are difficult to define, let alone reverse-engineer. A few blueprints, however, have already been sketched out.
First, stimulating the genitals sends electrical impulses along three main paths–the pelvic, hypogastric and pudendal nerves.
Next, these titillating signals enter the spinal cord at the base of the spine and zip up to brain regions that respond to genital sensations.
Then other parts of the brain leap into action. Some send signals back down to the body with certain instructions–lubricate the vagina, stiffen the penis, pump blood harder, breathe faster. The intensity builds to a crescendo, and just like a long-awaited sneeze, tension is released in an explosive rush. The heart rate doubles. In women, the uterus contracts rhythmically; in men, sperm-carrying semen is propelled out of the body. And somehow, by mechanisms not yet understood, the brain perceives all this activity as a darn good feeling.
They found that orgasms elicit strong activity in the nucleus accumbens, the reward center, which also lights up in response to nicotine, chocolate, cocaine and music; in the cerebellum, which helps coordinate muscle tension; and parts of the hypothalamus, which releases oxytocin, the trust and social-bonding hormone. Intriguingly, areas of the cortex that respond to pain also responded during orgasm. “Perhaps it’s related to the fact that people often have pained expressions at the time of orgasm,” Komisaruk says.
The amygdala, the brain’s emotional center, and the hippocampus, which deals with memory, light up too. Holstege’s group has also studied the sexually stimulated brain, and his findings suggest that orgasms are not just about how the brain lights up, but also about where it shuts off.
There were several regions of activation, but the most striking result, Georgiadis says, was how certain regions in the front of the brain shut down during orgasm, especially one just behind the left eyeball. Researchers have long noticed that damage to this area–the lateral orbitofrontal cortex–can leave people with wildly antisocial and impulsive tendencies, including hypersexuality.
Shutdowns in the brain’s prefrontal cortex appears crucial, Georgiadis adds. “It’s the seat of reason and behavioral control. But when you have an orgasm, you lose control.” Regions called the temporal lobes also showed damped activity. In fact, the less activity these regions showed, the more sexually aroused the women felt. These deactivations might explain the appeal of autoerotic asphyxiation, the researchers say. Depriving a brain of blood during sex not only provides a dangerous thrill, but also shuts down key brain regions, leading to addictive orgasmic euphorias.
Feeling is not just in reference to emotions, but also sensation. We often experience a physical response to external circumstances before registering emotion or even conscious thoughts about a situation. And because of our cultural priority on achievement and consistency, most of us have learned to become less sensitive to physical sensation. How else would we be able to sit in office chairs and withstand fluorescent light and restrictive clothing? The HeartMath Institute has stated that the body responds seven times faster than the brain to stimulus–both internally (endocrine system) and externally (motor function.) This means that when we shut down that pathway, our brain is not getting the information it needs–it may actually be getting incorrect information. Muscular tension in the hips and shoulders, for example, may indicate to the nervous system a threat is imminent as opposed to, “I’m tired of sitting in this chair and have poor posture.”
In general, we think orgasm is the result of penetration, build up, climax. For men, this is generally the case. Women’s bodies, however, operate–well, differently.
Birth is a whole lot more than a gush of water, writhing in pain, and then a baby. What we need to be talking about is the fact that the same exact parts, hormones and psychological techniques are required for a woman to enjoy her body’s capacity to roll through several orgasms in a row, and her ability to ride the waves of contractions during labor and birth a child without excessive pain.
“An orgasm is a major event for the body in either gender, involving huge coordination between the genitals, the organs, the hormones, and the brain. The mechanism of female orgasm is actually a series of rapid, rhythmic contractions. And they’re not just in the vagina: an orchestra of pulses go through your genitals, anus, uterus, and pelvic floor all at once, extremely rapidly.” (Ref.)
Not only are these sensations out of the ordinary, but the body parts put on high alert, the body parts having the experience are those which are the most covered up, clamped down, least discussed, at least with any sort of rawness or realism.