Ashley James: Retaining Your Sexuality During and After Birth

It’s no secret that female pleasure is riddled in shame and taboo, and none of that goes away during pregnancy or after childbirth. I mean, it seems weird that you can have a baby, a product of sexual intimacy between two people, and yet sex, specifically female pleasure, is still kept hush hush. Or worse still, it’s only spoken about through the misogynistic lens of keeping a man happy so he doesn’t stray.

Female pleasure is not just an important way to stay connected with ourselves and our partner as we go through the major mental and physical changes that pregnancy and childbirth entail, but it’s also essential for the safe arrival of both our baby and our milk supply. Sexual arousal and orgasms help release oxytocin, and oxytocin is the hormone that helps to start labour and is released during skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding.

It’s for this reason our midwives tend to awkwardly instruct us to enjoy clitoral and nipple stimulation in our final weeks of pregnancy.

Despite all of this, pleasure and sexual fulfilment is shrouded in mystery during pregnancy, and I know from speaking to women online that sex is one of the biggest things we fear after childbirth. We fear our bodies because of the lack of postnatal physical checks, the fear of pain - especially if we’ve had stitches or traumatic births. But the gender health gap is a blog post for another time, right now I want to use the Pleasure Positivity Project to discuss the gender pleasure gap.

Let me begin by pointing out the obvious stuff. Pleasure does not have to mean sex and the sexiest part of intimacy is communication. We should never feel pressure to have sex, and speaking from experience, pregnancy brings with it a world of valid emotions for both partners. There’ll be moments throughout your pregnancy when you don’t feel sexual, perhaps you just want to protect that precious cargo inside you, and there’ll be moments where you’ve never felt more sexual. The same applies for your partner, and these moments of arousal don’t always coincide. I remember feeling somewhat deflated when a pregnancy book would promise me the highest libido of my life, yet I was suffering with pelvic girdle pain and severe lack of sleep and had never felt less sexual. My advice to you is, don’t let any pregnancy book dictate your sex life to you. There’s nothing wrong with you, and however you’re feeling is valid.

Now we’ve got the formalities out of the way, let me just say that pleasure and pregnancy go hand in hand once you take the pressure off. Yes, it goes without saying that pleasure can deepen and nurture our relationships, but pleasure also brings confidence, connection with yourself and a host of health benefits too. So regardless of how your libido is during pregnancy, let me set this scene: the sun is setting, the candles are lit and your pouring lavender Epsom salts into your bath. What a way to unwind and connect with your body. You get out of the bath, and either ask your partner for a massage where things might get you in the mood, or you enjoy time to yourself.

We hear about the benefits of pelvic floor exercises and perineum massages a lot throughout pregnancy; building these muscles is essential for childbirth and your postnatal recovery, so why not make it pleasurable? Invest in some vibrating Kegel balls, so you can strengthen your pelvic floor whilst connecting to your ever-changing body. Stronger pelvic floors also allow stronger orgasms so it’s a win-win really. If you want your partner to take charge of the remote, or even better get the massage oil out then it’s a nice way for you to connect and enjoy intimacy together. And remember it’s all about oxytocin! Your pleasure literally keeps your baby calm, and later in your pregnancy brings about labour. I just think it’s so wonderful that patriarchal society has scandalised female pleasure, yet Mother Nature demands our pleasure for birth. Now if that doesn’t tell you how beautiful and natural female pleasure is, I don’t know what will!

Now let’s talk postnatal pleasure. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that a cocktail of dirty nappies, sleepless nights, and postnatal recovery does not exactly put you in the mood, but for me pleasure has been a crucial part of self-care as I get to know my new identity, and bonding with my body. Now I’m not a doctor but it goes without saying that penetration with a partner or device shouldn’t happen until you’ve made a recovery, and there’s no timescale on that. My advice would be to keep communication open with your partner as the chances are they’re as nervous as you about getting intimate again, so as I said before; take the pressure off yourself. Intimacy with your partner can be as simple as holding hands and kissing, lighting candles, giving each other massages. But pleasure is an important part of your postnatal recovery, whether that’s with a partner or with yourself. Long baths help you to unwind, stimulation can help to relax scar tissue, and pelvic floor training is an important part of recovery, especially if you have suffered from prolapses. Now I know incontinence and pleasure don’t seem to go hand in hand, but whilst the former takes away your self-esteem, the latter restores it. So, whilst sex is off the cards, enjoy the massage candles, lavender baths, pheromone body mists, and clitoral massages. You might not feel your sexiest during your recovery, but nurture your sensuality, because you’re still that same person who got pregnant in the first place, and you deserve to feel good.

Whilst you’re on this unique and life changing journey, pleasure and sexual fulfilment in pregnancy and after is not only essential for you and your baby (oxytocin), but also for your mental and physical health. The stronger the pelvic floor, the stronger the orgasm, and the stronger the orgasm, the more oxytocin is released. Hopefully by taking the pressure away from sex, you get to connect with both yourself and your partner.

You can find out more about your looking after your sexuality in the Ann Summers Sexual Wellbeing Guides

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