Sex During Pregnancy
by Sheila Kitzinger
“Should we make love or not?” . . . “I’m not enjoying it anymore. Will it always be like this?” . . . “He says I can’t love him or I’d want intercourse when he wants it.” . . . “The doctor says no sexual intercourse in case we lose this one! He doesn’t know Don. Already we’re getting on each other’s nerves and we have another five months of it.” .
. . “He’s been put off sex by my pregnancy. Last night I tried to get him to make love. He began to get excited and came inside, and the baby moved, and he said ‘Oh! It’s alive in there!’ and after that he just couldn’t.” . . .
Pregnancy involves emotional and social, no less than physiological, changes. Moreover, the psychological and social changes exist for both partners. Having a baby can either disrupt the relationship between a couple or can deepen and strengthen it.
These are some of the things women can worry about during pregnancy and there is often an implied conflict between sex and parenthood, as if it is all right to start the baby off, but after that you must settle down to being a mom and dad with only maternal and paternal feelings of tender protectiveness toward the baby; sexual passion is considered to be a bit risky, even endangering the developing life. But mothers and fathers are also partners and lovers and have a right to their sexual identities.
It is usually a good idea to share your thoughts with your partner. Talk together about what each of you feels and discuss any changes that it has meant in your life together. What would you say is the best thing about this pregnancy? What do you think is the worst thing about it? Some couples find it difficult to share this way, but if you don’t talk about these things, it can be even more difficult to tell each other how you feel about sex—what gives you pleasure, what does not—and work out together how you can enjoy each other more.
The ban on intercourse during pregnancy—or when the hunter is about to set out on a big hunt, the fishermen on an important fishing expedition, or warriors are going into battle the next day—is familiar among some (but not all) primitive and peasant peoples. They often believe that by prohibitions of this kind they guard something vital that is going to happen, whether it is the birth of a new member of society, the killing and catching of animals and fish for food, or victory in war.
One idea behind these beliefs is that vital forces must be conserved. If a man is to become a father, for instance—with all that this implies of responsibility and power—he ought not to waste his substance in ejaculation. In this it is the father who is the central figure; he is the hero of the drama. Another idea is that because the mother is unclean, or perhaps sacred, she is removed from ordinary life. So intercourse may be banned because the expectant mother, the prospective father, or the baby may be endangered by intercourse. Many religions in different parts of the world regard the pregnant, like the menstruating, woman as being in some way threatening. In some African societies, a man must not even look at a woman when she has her menstrual period. Dire consequences are supposed to result from intercourse during the menstrual flow. For instance, in Jamaica, a piebald black and white child was thought to be the result. These ideas linger in our own society where notions of it being unclean may be based partly on hygiene, but often less so than they appear. They often have more magico-religious origins.
The pregnant woman is in a state of becoming—a state of transition between being just herself and being the mother of a child, rather like a person who is dying, who is on the road between being a member of society and a member of the spirit world, or a young person who is passing puberty rites (a girl having just had her first period, perhaps) who is in the transitional state between being a child and a full adult member of society. And of course, the baby is also on the bridge of becoming, and the expectant father too.
For people on these bridges between one state of social identity and another, there are rituals regulating their behaviour. One of the most important is that of avoidance—and an obvious expression of this during pregnancy is a ban on intercourse.
It pays to respect these ideas. What if a woman feels that she shouldn’t have intercourse—but does — and then has a miscarriage shortly thereafter? Will she ever forgive herself? One woman was desperately worried because she had lost her baby at about twelve weeks. She had remembered that they had made love just before it happened and wondered if that could have been the cause. Not only could this not happen, but if, as in this particular case, the woman is tense and anxious anyway, she may be more likely to hold on to her pregnancy if she can enjoy intercourse and learn how to relax in her partner’s arms.
But because it is easy to feel guilty, it is important that each woman should feel free to follow her feelings, and not be forced into a pattern of behaviour just because the books, or an expert, says so. If she has already had a miscarriage, it is reasonable to avoid having intercourse at the time when the first three periods would be due, for this is the time when she is most likely to miscarry again. So if you have had a miscarriage, find other ways of
making love for the first three months or so during the week when your period would have come. It does not mean that you cannot show your love at all. Just be a bit more inventive.
The penis is rarely so long that it touches the uterus during intercourse because, as the woman becomes sexually stimulated, not only do the accordion-like folds in the vagina open up to receive the partner, but the vagina also becomes longer. When she is very excited, it becomes tent-shaped. In this way, a woman with a small vagina can easily contain the erect penis, provided she is aroused.
The female orgasm involves rhythmic contractions of the uterus—usually between five and ten—which sometimes set off contractions which persist after the couple have finished love making. The fact that the uterus contracts is not so drastic as it sounds, because it does this throughout the childbearing woman’s life as part of its normal pattern of working. But if for any reason she is ripe to give birth, these can initiate real labour contractions.
Semen is also rich in prostaglandins, which ripen and soften the cervix. One way of inducing labour is to introduce a prostaglandin gel up into the cervix to prepare it for labour, and if the baby is about due anyway, this will usually start off labour contractions after some hours. (An unripe cervix feels like the hard tip of your nose when you press it with your fingers. A ripe cervix feels like a soft, relaxed mouth.)
If you notice bleeding after lovemaking and are not within 3 weeks of your due date, there is a good case to be made for stopping complete sexual intercourse and enjoying “pleasuring,” stroking and cuddling, instead. If you are near term or past the date when your baby is due, intercourse is not only harmless but may do good.
From Early Pregnancy On
Avoiding something she enjoys may make a woman feel virtuous, but the discipline involved won’t hold on to a baby. In fact, it may be more important for her to be relaxed, happy and casual about lovemaking, and life generally. This will help her embark on her pregnancy in the placid, contented and luxuriously self-satisfied mood, which seems to provide the best emotional basis for motherhood. It is important that she has ways of unwinding even before tension becomes obvious. If she walks around bearing her pregnancy, her tiny miracle of life, like a precious crystal vase she is carrying over the slippery kitchen floor, she is bound to be strained—and this is the last thing that will help her to carry her baby to term. So it is up to her partner to coax her into a more relaxed attitude, and spontaneous, easy lovemaking plays a natural part in this.
It is better to go to bed after lunch on Sunday and have intercourse in the afternoon, for instance, with the passionate tenderness that comes from being able to make love whenever you want to and with all the time in the world, than to hold off until he (or she) can’t stand it any longer. That can mean that you get caught up in frustrated and aggressive sex that turns the bed into a battlefield. (It is a most pleasurable battlefield when one is not pregnant, but this sort of lovemaking is not the best kind for either the first or last three months of pregnancy.) So spontaneous, affectionate and gentle lovemaking plays its part in helping a woman to relax—and to know what release is like. Women starting a training course for childbirth often wonder if they can relax, and think there must be a special sort of athletic neuromuscular control—different from anything else—which they have to achieve in labour. In fact, if one is really relaxed in childbirth, it can be very much like the complete release from tensions and the luxurious warmth and peace after happily making love. The expression a man sees on a woman’s face after a satisfying orgasm is in fact similar to that on the face of one who is enjoying her labour—glowing skin, flushed cheeks and shining eyes, damp and untidy hair, and a sense of deep contentment. Coitus and childbirth create their own sanctuaries from the cares and horrors of the surrounding world.
If You Don’t Want Sex
But what if you cannot stand the idea of sex or don’t get excited or, if you do, discover yourself unable to reach orgasm? At different phases of pregnancy, women can enter periods of being anorgasmic or uninterested in sex. The important thing to remember is that there are many ways of expressing love, and if you don’t want intercourse, find some other means of showing your partner how much you care. (Pregnancy is the perfect time to invent minor “perversions.”) Some men feel shut out of their partners’ pregnancies. Some are a little jealous of the coming baby who is interfering with their lives. Others are even jealous of their partner’s reproductive powers and the ability to carry developing life in their bodies. Freudian psychoanalysis has put a good deal of emphasis on so called “penis envy”, but man also suffers a deprivation; he is unable to give birth. Many men need reassurance—a ready ear to listen to their problems with sympathy, comforting food, laughter, cuddling, stroking, passionate seduction—a combination of any or all of these.
When a woman is wrapped up in her difficulties, the horrible time she had at the clinic, her own tiredness or mental wooliness, or mother-in-law problems, she is slow to realize her partner’s need, and exclaims indignantly—“But of course I love you! Why do you think I have been slaving all day in the house/toiling around the supermarket/putting up with your mother for three solid hours?” or whatever. It is not enough to love; we have to learn how to show love. And this is sometimes as difficult as learning a new language, the grammar of which has never been written.
In the first three months of pregnancy, terrific emotional and physiological adjustments have to be made by the pregnant woman. She is becoming a different sort of person, both in terms of her physical stuff (she may be tired,
suffering from nausea and bouts of vomiting) and in terms of her feelings about herself and her body. She may not want intercourse and may view it with distaste. Fortunately, sometimes the opposite happens and she enjoys making love more than ever before, and in as many different ways as she and her partner can discover together. In the last three months, she can be weary with the weight of her burden, unable to get long periods of sleep because of what feels like the drumming of football shoes inside, or because of heartburn, and she is impatient for the birth. Every day she goes past her due date feels like a week, and if people keep on coming up to say, “What, haven’t you had it yet?” she is quickly reduced to tears. If the baby is late, intercourse is one way which sometimes helps labour start, and a much more pleasant way than an intravenous drip to induce labour.
She may not be on good terms either with herself or her body—not liking this vastly pregnant woman into which she has grown. There may be another period of time when she is unable to concentrate on lovemaking, or enjoys it only to a point and then no more, or fails to participate in the recurring, mounting waves of desire which culminate in physical and emotional release.
When this occurs—if it does—at the beginning or end of pregnancy, she should be honest about her feelings. Her partner may need to learn that orgasm is not necessarily what she seeks, and that she can feel satisfied sometimes without it (just as she can have an orgasm sometimes without feeling emotionally satisfied, something which can be difficult for a man to understand). She may have to put this into words, and to explain that she is deeply happy and peaceful without having an orgasm every time—no matter what the books say. Because manuals of sex technique invariably emphasize the importance of orgasm for a woman, a man can feel a dismal failure, and deprived of his virility, if he is unable to give her one. Sometimes she passes through the whole nine months guarding the fats from him as if he were attacking or contaminating it. This may be related to feelings that sex is dirty or humiliating, or to hunger for a child, who makes her want to keep it securely locked inside her as her exclusive property, while denying her partner access either to her body or to her love. Either way, this is a problem for the relationship—and one that is more long-term than the pregnancy. A couple facing this sort of difficulty needs marriage guidance during pregnancy.
It is unlikely that a woman will pass through the whole of her pregnancy without wishing to vary her usual coital positions. It can get uncomfortable lying on her back, and when the baby’s head is low, still more so on the back with her legs raised, since it is in this position that penetration is deepest. If the woman gets indigestion or heartburn when she lies flat, she will prefer to have her head and shoulders well raised with pillows. The first prescription for intercourse during pregnancy is to go out and buy some pillows—more than you think you will need. They will also come in very useful afterwards when feeding the baby.
The position in which the man lies on top of his partner is unsuitable in pregnancy, anyway, and he should avoid weight on her abdomen and breasts, not because he could harm the baby, but because it is uncomfortable. Her breasts are not only extra sensitive—especially responsive to his touch and oral caresses (and this is the most natural and pleasant way of preparing the nipples for breastfeeding) — but also full and tender.
A side-by-side or sitting position is preferable. When the baby has engaged in the pelvis, it feels about to drop out and there seems to be little spare room. Then the woman can try lying, crouching or kneeling with her back to her partner so that he enters her from behind. Thus the uterus, which lies almost at right angles to the vagina, is free from pressure, and she can not only use her buttock muscles to grip him, thereby controlling the extent of penetration, but also give him pleasure by contraction of these muscles. In this way a couple, if they wish, can enjoy intercourse right up to the time when she goes into labour.
Most men recognize the importance of clitoral stimulation and know that they cannot expect to simply “trigger” a woman off without previous wooing. But it is not the clitoris alone which is responsive to touch; it is important also to remember the need for excitation of the mouth, breasts, small of the back, thighs and other erogenous zones, which vary with each person.
But not all men know that over-stimulation of the clitoris is possible, and this can result in irritation, boredom and a desperate feeling of “Oh, will he never get on with it?” Once the clitoris is firm and swollen, it is time for gentle penetration. If pregnancy is advanced, it may also be better for the man to ejaculate just before the woman enters the phase of accelerated rhythmic movements that result in orgasm. This may seem odd advice when books stress that the man must wait, but she may be unable to embark on free movement of her pelvis and the pelvic floor muscles when the penis is still erect and rigid inside her. Thus hampered in her movements, the chances of her reaching orgasm are reduced. So it may be best for the man to ejaculate first and then, with caresses, lead his partner onwards to her own orgasm.
Pregnancy is an ideal time for a couple to embark on a journey of discovery into the mystery of each other’s bodies and the patterns of response in which each take delight. It brings the opportunity for a new tenderness and passion in their relationship