As a doula, I hold sacred space for women as they transform into mothers. It is an indescribable privilege to watch the bodies of women open as new life emerges in birth. As a mother, my body too transformed. The memory of the primal power of labor and birth stays with me to this day. Two years later, I find refuge in a profoundly peaceful space as my son continues to receive comfort and nourishment from my breasts.
The awe-inspiring and life-giving power found in a woman’s vagina and breasts cannot be denied. A mother’s body is the very source of life and nourishment. Indeed, ancient cultures venerated the female form as sacred and divine.
Today, we also see images of the female form present throughout our culture. Yet, rarely are words like “life-giving, sacred, or divine” used to describe the scantly clad women in billboard advertisements or sexual images found in pornographic magazines. Sexually explicit art has existed in some form or another throughout human history. Yet, our modern, multi-billion dollar pornographic industry transforms the female body into a sexual commodity in a manner unprecedented.
Pornography features an endless barrage of women’s vaginas, anuses, and breasts being touched or penetrated in a myriad of ways primarily for the pleasure of a heterosexual male audience. Today pornography continues to spark important debates about ethics, sexuality, consent, beauty, sexism, and patriarchy. There is no doubt that pornography certainly impacts our lives. Yet, one key aspect of this impact has been overlooked.
How does pornography impact birthing women?
Even though there is a specific genre of fetish pornography featuring “pregnant sluts,” as far as I’m aware, images of birth have not been co-opted by pornographers. The intensity and beauty of a healthy, vaginal birth serves as a stark upset to the libido of a voyeur. Birth reminds us that a woman’s body is the gateway to human existence and worthy of respect. In birth, the ancient veneration of a woman’s body still shines pristine. Or does it?
In preparation for this article, I drew upon my work as an ethics and philosophy teacher. I read articles and books written by men and women about pornography. I also reached out to thousands of midwives, mothers, and doulas. Sadly, key observations reported to me highlight how a pornographic attitude towards the female body– internalized by many women– distorts the nature of birth, bonding and breastfeeding. I present my findings to you below in the hope that it will inspire reflection on this difficult subject– even if your reflections differ from mine.
Not long ago, routine shaving of the pubic hair was standard to hospital procedures that involved unnecessary episiotomies and forceps delivery. Today, many midwives note that a growing number of birthing women shave their entire pubic region. An action, once associated with harsh hospital procedures, is now voluntarily embraced. Why?
Today, most of the women in pornography are completely shaved. Heterosexual men masturbate and fantasize about hairless women. A friend of mine in her 50s told me that her boyfriend wanted her to shave her entire pubic region. Why should a 50-year-old strive to look like her preteen self? Certainly a hairless body doesn’t impact the power of a woman to birth with dignity and strength. Yet, it does highlight a dominant vision of beauty in our culture, a vision largely shaped by pornographers.
A doula colleague reported working with a woman who wore make-up and lingerie in the delivery room because she “always wanted to look sexy”. Such behavior is rare, yet the underlying concerns are shared with other birthing women. As a doula, I’ve worked with women who are afraid of “looking ugly” in birth. They don’t want their partners or husbands to watch the delivery of the child. They fear the vision of vaginal birth will forever disrupt future desire for their body. Sexuality and birth, so linked by nature, are completely separate in their minds.
Future anthropologists will look back with interest on the contrast between our culture’s unnaturally high cesarean rates and the plethora of sexually explicit material focusing on vaginal penetration. Removed from its function in birth, the vagina is associated with sex alone. Some pregnant women so profoundly fear vaginal birth they choose a cesarean delivery, even though this entails a much greater impact on the body overall. Such a choice may be due to previous sexual trauma, or to the erroneous belief that birth is a significant threat to a woman’s sexual value– pornographically reduced to the tightness of her vagina.
Since the birth of my son nearly two years ago, I’ve spent hours offering and receiving support in breastfeeding groups and online breastfeeding forums. Two themes relevant to the topic of pornography come up consistently. One relates to the confusing mix of our culture’s hypersexualization of the breast and the disdain women fear when breastfeeding in public. The second relates to the heartbreaking and intense pressure many breastfeeding mothers face from male partners to wean their child before the child is ready.
Throughout human history, children naturally weaned at some point in the later toddler years. While breastfeeding rates during the first year of life are steadily increasing, few modern women breastfeed toddlers. Most little ones are weaned before their natural time. The absence of federally mandated maternity leave laws, our culture’s pornographic presentation of the function of the breast, and pressure to wean are all culprits at work in explaining our disjointed breastfeeding practice in light of human evolution. “She’s too old to nurse,” my friend’s husband told her. “You need to stop.” Women facing this intimate and difficult situation have shed many tears. Men certainly can feel sidelined in the breastfeeding relationship. Rather than focus on supporting this vital contribution to the health of their child, in many cases, a possessive sense of the woman’s breasts results in demands to wean. Certainly the sense of male control and ownership over the female body, portrayed in much of pornography, plays a role in this dynamic.
In fact, the themes of control and overt disrespect for women are purposely portrayed in much of pornography. Jackson Katz, author of “The Macho Paradox”, quotes long-time porn actor and director Bill Marigold: “I’d like to really show what I believe the men want to see: violence against women. I firmly believe that we serve a purpose by showing that.”
All of us involved in birth work know that the legacy of sexual violence plays a significant role in undermining a woman’s power to face the trials of birth. As a doula, I’ve worked with survivors of rape or sexual violence. I’ve witnessed first hand the specific challenges they face in birth. The fact that key elements of the pornographic industry fuel and glorify men’s violence against women is haunting. Certainly this impacts how women birth the next generation.
Healthy childhood attachment bonds are central to development of the limbic brain, the part of the brain associated with the capacity to experience empathy. A pornographic representation of the female body as a sexual commodity to be controlled–or even violated–hijacks the natural course of birth, breastfeeding, and the development of a healthy mother-child attachment. With the energies of sex and attachment torn asunder, we raise a generation with a weakened capacity for kindness and an unnamable hunger for connection. These characteristics make people prime targets for companies marketing endless images of ever-increasingly explicit depictions of anonymous sex. The cycle then repeats.
The summer I was twelve, a group of preteen boys in Plain City, Utah started a tree house feud. My cousin explained the details of the conflict while we climbed into his fort. “Greg stole these from his father’s collection and I took them from Greg,” he told me. “I am going to use them for a ransom.” He opened up a box full of pornographic magazines. I never had seen pornography before. I don’t know how long we sat there leafing through the glossy colored photos of naked adults. The images were strange and disconcerting to my twelve-year-old mind. I only remember one photo. The woman wore a singular of clothing, a small red and white Christmas jacket. Her breasts were exposed and her finger was in her vagina.
Today, young people no longer need to hide magazines in tree houses. They simply bypass whatever safety setting may block adult content on their phone or personal computer. A generation is coming of age having been exposed to an unprecedented amount of sexual content. Most of this content makes my first memory of pornography one that is very benign.
We owe it to birthing women to examine this topic. We owe it to all twelve-year-olds with cell phones.
We owe it to the next generation.
Author: Judith Cook
Judith Cook earned her MA in Religion and Education from Teachers College at Columbia University. Judith Cook is a Kripalu Yoga teacher, a (CD)DONA birth doula, and a hospital chaplain. She is the voice for Motherhood, Spirituality, and Religion on Philly.com and frequently blogs for Attachment Parenting International, Doula Trainings International, and The Birthing Site. Judith Cook is a regular columnist for Holistic Parenting Magazine and recently published her first highly acclaimed book: Birth, Breath, and Death: Meditations on Motherhood, Chaplaincy, and Life as a Doula.