The concept of “orgasmic birth” first received mainstream attention in the U.S. in January 2009, when the documentary Orgasmic Birth: The Best-Kept Secret aired in primetime on 20/20. If you caught the showing and did a spit take, we don’t blame you. The film’s thesis that orgasms help induce labor is a wild idea if you’ve never heard of it. But really, decades-old research on masturbation shows that it can be a natural painkiller. So is it such a stretch to think that the release of oxytocin from orgasming could soothe contractions and move things along during childbirth? Maybe not. The idea of a climactic or pleasurable delivery seems to be gaining traction once again. It’s a sexy topic made sexier, perhaps, by the frank joy with which believers are happy to discuss their experiences and recommendations on camera. But seriously, when it comes down to the science, can orgasms help induce labor?
“I often recommend sex and masturbation before and during childbirth. Sex is safe in pregnancy right up until your water breaks,” says Sarah Winward, a Toronto-based doula. (She notes that after the water breaks, sex or internal masturbation is not advisable due to an increased risk of infection. “Clitoral stimulation is safe throughout labor and birth as it does not involve inserting anything into the vagina.”
Still, the science of orgasmic birth is murky at best. Although many midwives and doulas like Winward suggest sex, masturbation, and the orgasms that come with them might help induce labor, one 2012 study found that it didn’t make much of a difference either way. And some experts believe that using orgasms to induce labor can actually pose health risks. Though there is not a massive body of research on orgasmic birth, it’s already clear that sexual pleasure and childbirth are entwined in complicated ways (which isn’t exactly news to anyone who has had either sex or a child). Evidence for or against getting off in the delivery room remains largely anecdotal. So the discussion about the medical merits and demerits of this approach is typified by comment board discourse.
One thing is certain, however: Most pregnant people who want to try orgasming to induce labor only want to do it in the privacy of their own home. Winward blames this understandable impulse on orgasmic birth not becoming a norm in hospitals. Medical professionals don’t exactly disagree. There’s too much of liability risk for doctors to recommend something so sexual, says Barry Komisaruk, a psychology professor at Rutgers University who’s studied the topic. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists tacitly agreed, telling Fatherly they had no comment on the matter.
But Komisaruk is quick to point out that there are other, more serious concerns that prevent doctors from suggesting masturbation, or even sex, instead of a spinal block. Specifically, he argues that the research only supports that vaginal stimulation dulls pain and stimulates contractions through oxytocin secretion, not clitoral stimulation.
Clitoral stimulation could cause these effects tangentially, but only if a woman has an orgasm, which is probably unlikely in the throes of labor. The research does not indicate that clitoral stimulation in and of itself yields the same effects. “Clitoral stimulation itself does not produce pain blockage, and as far as I know it doesn’t promote oxytocin release,” Komisaruk.
The bigger concern is that if clitoral stimulation did promote oxytocin release, that could be bad news. Oxytocin can be instrumental in advancing labor once it starts and even effectively induces labor. If pregnant people masturbate or have intercourse and stir up the oxytocin before going into labor, they risk running out of the hormone since it takes hours to replenish the stuff. By using up oxytocin reserves needed to move labor along, pregnant people could put themselves at risk for more difficult deliveries. With sex, there’s also always a risk of inducing labor on accident.
The main reason pregnant would want to consider orgasmic birth is because childbirth is painful. Many are willing to try anything to alleviate that pain, even if it is a little creepy. And the data, though limited, does show vaginal massage can increase a pain tolerance by up to 100 percent, Komisaruk says. Though epidurals are also a common and effective way to treat pain utilized by 61 percent of pregnant people, the science is somewhat conflicted on the pros and cons of drugs. Some studies suggest that they increase the risk for C-section, but other studies challenge this. Research similarly shows that epidurals can slow labor down, and speed it up. Anesthesia can potentially increase the need to use antibiotics, which isn’t ideal, but not uncommon or dangerous. While there’s some evidence that vaginal massage through sex or masturbation may help, that doesn’t mean taking a less arousing approach will harm a pregnant person or their baby.
“I don’t think there is a downside of not doing it per se,” Winward says. “The downside is that a lot of people don’t realize that it’s a helpful option, or don’t feel comfortable enough in their birth environment to use it.”
Still, most pregnant people have never heard of orgasmic birth or actively considered the idea of rubbing a kid out. Masturbation and sex to induct labor will not become common, much less standard, until it receives support from doctors, who defer, quite rightly, to the latest research. Without better evidence, advocates of sexy delivery will remain an appealingly vocal minority. And that might be for the best.