Monday, September 14, 2009


After a lot of buildup (don't say 'foreplay', Anne, don't do it, resist the temptation, resist . . .), having heard about it for many months with many rapturous reviews, I finally got to see "Orgasmic Birth" over the weekend.

If you haven't heard of it, it's a documentary on natural, or to be even more specific, undisturbed birth, going into the potential for ecstatic experiences during childbirth. Yes, you read that right, some women actually do have orgasms while giving birth. A small percentage, true, but it really can happen, and is more likely to happen when optimal support and minimal intervention take place. A lot of the physiological processes that take place during normal childbirth ARE similar to the processes that take place during sex, in fact. And encouraging the parents to engage in affectionate intimacy can, unsurprisingly, help the labor along. What gets the baby in, gets the baby out, as the great Ina Mae has noted.

The timing may have been off, though; throughout the film, I couldn't help thinking about the very recent Today Show piece and the wake of outrage it left in the birth advocate community (see the previous post for my own letter to the Today Show). Anyway, as a result, I found myself watching it through a skeptic's eye. One of the remarks in the Today piece that has inspired the most chagrin was the comment from a doctor, quoted by Andrew Goldman, that home birthers were seeking a "hedonistic experience". It seemed, to so many of us who made the decision based on research and much self-reflection, the most completely outlandish thing we had ever heard. Excuse me? HEDONISTIC? Are we on the same planet?

But there I was, watching a movie titled "Orgasmic Birth".

And I couldn't help thinking that maybe, just maybe, this is where the anonymous doctor got the idea. Now, it's not a BAD film, don't get me wrong, and contrary to the title, is hardly some birth fetish porno filled with scene after scene of women having orgasms. There's good information in there, and some really excellent commentary by experts. Christiane Northrup was absolutely wonderful, and Elizabeth Davis and Sarah Buckley were great too, along with many of the doctors and other professionals included in "The Business of Being Born".

But side by side with "The Business of Being Born", I think "Orgasmic Birth" is just not as strong a film. Mainly, I found it much less organized than "Business", and lacking the drive and flow that a narrative arc provides, and, more nitpickingly, lacking in humor and variety. I am most definitely part of the choir they're preaching to, no question. *I* get the point they're making. The fact that birth can be pleasurable in a way is a valid point, and one of the ways it is most relevant is in how the things that encourage pleasure are the very things that allow labor to function optimally. Yes yes yes. But I wonder what kind of an impression this film would give to a skeptic, an undecided mother, or even to someone opposed to home/natural/undisturbed birth altogether, to get back to my main point.

And I’m going to say it: One of my least favorite things about it is the title itself. A very common accusation from such opposing people is that women who are seeking an out-of-hospital birth are putting the birth "experience" above the safety of their child. Now, again, I get that they're trying to explain that the two do not have to be mutually exclusive, and that an ecstatic experience may be a by-product of such a supported, intimate birth, but through the skeptic's eye, I can see how the impression of "hedonism" might be given by the film.

Like I said, there are far fewer orgasms on display than you might think, and the emphasis isn't nearly as strong as the title suggests. If you already have a library of birth films going, this is definitely worth adding - especially for the "Birth By the Numbers" segment included in the special features. And, again, the contributions by Northrup and several others are worth the entire film - I particularly liked her comments on epidurals.

Scout's honor, when I first saw "The Business of Being Born", I remember saying (or at least thinking), "Now, if only Christiane Northrup had been included in the interviews, it would have been just about perfect." I wish I could edit my own pirated version of "The Business of Being Born", with Northrup's segments from "Orgasmic Birth" spliced in. Maybe a bit of Elizabeth Davis and Sarah Buckley's parts, too. Best of both worlds!


Two other notes on the Today Show piece: Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein have since weighed in with their own response. It's worth reading for their words alone, but in the comments I found a very interesting post by a woman who claims to know the couple whose tragic stillbirth was featured in the piece. She says:

The main reason that Riccardo and Catherine McKenzie decided to do that story was not to become anti-homebirth advocates, but to become pro-regulated out of hospital provider advocates . . . I will defend anyone who is worthy of defense but have to note that Catherine and I met as mothers who are in the slim majority- we lost our babies at home birth with , ahem, credentialed providers present . . .

They came forward in an attempt to continue to protect every mother and their partner that chooses home birth. Many perinatal organizations seems to be back peddling now- this organization is flinging mud on that one- is flinging mud and on and on it goes. Never forget please that on that day home birth did not lose a baby. A young couple lost a baby and that is what the story was supposed to be about- how if an out of hospital provider (any for that matter) is not practicing in compliance with the standards held by their peers, held by their profession, and as a matter bound by regulation that tragedy can strike. This was a tragic outcome on a day that was supposed to be joyful for this young couple.

Rather a different picture than the one painted by the Today Show, don't you think? I have mixed feelings about speculating on much beyond this, knowing that we're debating about a very real loss in an incredibly impersonal way, but I thought it was worth considering. If true, this does lend credence to the opinion that the couple's story was very much manipulated to fit the story's anti-homebirth agenda.


  1. Oh I fullly understand now, when I watched it I had not even heard of it and perhaps it is why it impacted me more. But yeah see your point 100%

  2. Similarly, I confess to having had qualms, at times, when the "ultimate high" of hormones after a natural birth is over-touted as a benefit of normal physiological birth. I mean, *I* get that this is something that nature intended, that it aids in immediate postpartum bonding, which in turn cues and speeds subsequent crucial hormonal processes like lactation . . . but when looking through a skeptic's eye, promoting the "rush" has often rubbed me the wrong way. Possibly this has also contributed to the "hedonistic" perception of normal birth advocacy.

    I'm not AGAINST mentioning this, but I think it should be clear that it's a side product, not a goal in and of itself, and is best discussed in the context of all the other processes working harmoniously under optimal circumstances. Hope that makes sense.

  3. Why would an orgasmic birth be a very supported one? I would think that privacy from all watching eyes would produce that feeling in the body more than having supporters.

    Re the couple on Today. Of course, the media is going to spin their story whatever way they've decided on. It's NOT news, it's infotainment. The big TV stations are funded by big pharma, big medicine and big money. By running stories about homebirth (pro or con), they get a lot of people writing in and sending links around the internet. We should be using the same strategy with these things as we do with Dr. A---ignore and don't push them up in the search engines by responding and reacting. It will all blow over in a few days and we'll all be on to the next drama.

  4. Ah, see, I didn't mean to give the impression that a big gang of cheerleaders was the best idea; that's what I meant by "optimal support" rather than, say, plentiful support. It would depend on whatever the individual mother needs to feel safe and uninhibited - say, her partner in close contact with her and a midwife and friend nearby but not intrusive save for intermittent listening. Quality, not quantity. Good point, though, I should have defined my terms up front.

    And those are wise words on the 'infotainment'. Thanks for the food for thought, Gloria!

  5. I star your posts in my google reader so I can wait to really have time to read and respond, and then it takes me days to get back to them! Argh.

    Anyway. I agree with your that Orgasmic Birth isn't as strong a film, at least for the uninitiated, as BoBB. And I understand why the filmmakers chose the title, which was to generate attention. Which it certainly has! But it pigeonholes the movie for people who, without having seen the movie, say things like "Oh god, this movie's just going to give women one more thing to be disappointed about, that they didn't have an orgasm". The true message of the film, as you noted, is about having a birth as undisturbed as possible, to make space for the possibility of more physical pleasure during birth. So was that helpful attention the title drew, or did it just make a movie with a good message that much easier to slam?

  6. Good way of putting it in that last question - I think it's probably both, as so many things are. Depending heavily on the prejudices of the viewer in most cases.

    (And no worries, I do the exact same thing with a bunch of blogs, and then it gradually builds into this insurmountable to-do list . . .)