Orgasmic Birth certainly is a grabber of a title. Those aren't two words normally found close together in a sentence. In our culture, other adjectives are more common. Painful Childbirth. Traumatic Childbirth.
So it's no surprise that Debra Pascalli-Bonaro's film Orgasmic Birth has become the center of some controversy. It was featured on a segment of ABC's January 2nd episode of 20/20 about "Extreme Birth" and a few weeks ago The New York Times picked a up story on the movie, which caused a flurry of comments and sent a small shockwave through the blogosphere.
Pascalli-Bonaro says she wishes some critics who just seem to see the title would actually see the film.
"It's really about the range of choices women have for experiencing birth, some of which most women aren't even aware of. There are eleven couples featured in the movie. Some use words like 'pain' and 'fear' to describe their experience but others use 'transformative', 'blissful', and 'spiritual'. Two of them use the word 'orgasmic'. This sounds strange in our culture because we're used to seeing birth dealt with on an illness model, rather than a wellness model. Birth is part of a woman's sexual life."
Laura Shanley, author of the book Unassisted Childbirth was also featured on 20/20 and agrees with the premise of the film.
"There are benefits to the mother beyond helping them rid themselves of shame, fear and guilt. An orgasm is 22 times more powerful than a tranquilizer and during sexual arousal a woman's vagina can widen as much as two inches. When women find their power during the birth experience and learn to ride the contractions, it can be an incredible, even healing experience."
The 'normal' way that women in the United States give birth - laying prone in a room full of strangers - is not the natural way. It might even be the cause of some birth problems. Shanley cites a study that showed that when a stranger enters a room where a pregnant monkey is housed, :both the heart rate and the blood pressure of her fetus goes down. Of course, in the delivery room a drop in the heart rate of the baby often triggers a Cesarean section."
Shanley says that stress and 'fight or flight' reactions cause huge changes in a woman's body. "There's a reason that animals seek seclusion in birth. Everyone understands that being in a brightly lit room with a group of people watching you wouldn't make a comfortable environment for someone going to the bathroom or having sex. But for an equally intimate, personal activity like birth, people don't make the connection. Woman don't need to choose between drugs, epidurals, and Cesarean sections on one hand and fear of a natural but painful childbirth on the other. There really is a third way and it's more natural."
Pascali-Bonaro says that many changes to make birth a more pleasurable, healthy experience for women are simple and inexpensive. "Americans spend more money than any other country on medical care but that doesn't mean we're getting the best care. Simple things like dimming lights, allowing the mother creative space to move around and having music, natural sounds or even just silence can make a huge difference."
Ultimately, Pascali-Bonaro says that she's an advocate of mothers making informed birth choices. Since making the film, she's learned orgasmic birth is more common than she thought. "We've screened the movie in 28 countries and women always come up to me and 'You know, I never thought about it before...but I think I had one, too!'"
Lee Stranahan is writer, filmmaker and teacher who blogs at LeeStranahan.com. His wife Lauren gave birth to their two children as unassisted, at-home births.