I had no idea how many sex-negative beliefs I’d internalized about pregnancy and motherhood until my husband and I found out we were expecting our first child.
The assumptions instantly flooded my mind in the most surreptitious manner I expected to wake up one day, repulsed and uninterested by any mention of sex, with nothing but the well-being of my future child on my mind.
No one is going to find this new body desirable, I thought. If I was smart, I would use that nine-month sentence as preparation for the life of servitude that is motherhood. A good pregnancy is one filled with sacrifice and discretion, regardless of cost. And quality motherhood carried the same expectations.
So, when my partner’s flirting, offering to please me, or sending me that look from across the room were uninterrupted by my growing bump, I felt conflicted. And to make matters worse – come close because I have to whisper this one – I liked it and even desired his attention.
Burdened by my unevaporated sexuality, I looked for any representation of pregnant sex outside of parody or fetishization. Google let me down; all the search results centered on fears of pregnancy complications, preterm labor, and “How do I get my partner to stop asking for sex?” Those concerns, while valid, didn’t help me.
Am I a deviant? I wondered anxiously. Did my willingness to risk pregnancy complications for sex reveal a larger truth about me as an unfit mother who was unwilling to adjust to my new life of perpetual sacrifice?
Research has consistently indicated that under most circumstances it’s safe to have sex through all stages of pregnancy. (Folks with a risk for preterm labor, significant vaginal bleeding or leaking amniotic fluid, or who have been put on pelvic rest, are notable exceptions to this. Of course, it’s best to chat with a doctor about the specifics.) So why was I being so hard on myself?
Our failure to discuss pregnancy, sex, and pleasure contributes to a cycle of being uneducated about sex.
Five years and one additional pregnancy later, I now understand that what I was picking up on was the lack of access to images of pregnant people as dynamic sexual agents. It’s a vacuum that intensifies depending on the marginalized identities one may hold. It felt like a natural conclusion after absorbing decades’ worth of pregnancy-negative jokes and bare-ass-minimum sex education. Our society often reduces pregnant people to vehicles and vessels – we exist to bring life and pleasure to others. The reality, despite a lack of discussion, is that an interest in pregnancy during sex isn’t a sign of failure.
“We rarely see pregnant women in society being sexual or receiving sexual pleasure outside of a comedic sense,” says Dr. Lexx Brown-James, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, author, and sex educator. She notes that society characterizes the changes [the] pregnant body experiences as “icky” or non-sexy.
In many ways, the experiences individuals have during pregnancy exist at an intersection of fatphobia, heteronormative/cis-centric, and often racial scripts. As a Black woman, for instance, my desire to have sex made me fearful that I was straying too far from the narrow depictions of acceptable motherhood.
Brown-James says the dearth of positive images contributes to existing myths on pregnancy and mothering, which suggest motherhood is the end goal of sex, and that pregnancy marks the end of desire. She believes that our failure to discuss pregnancy, sex, and pleasure is larger than millions missing out on good sex while pregnant; it also contributes to a cycle of being uneducated about sex.
“By not showing pregnancy in sexy ways in the media, lack of education for medical professionals regarding sexuality during pregnancy and lack of education for pregnant people and their lovers helps perpetuate this idea that pregnant people are [nonsexual],” she says.
Brown-James, who believes that nurturing one’s sexuality during pregnancy is important, offered a few tips that she believes will help facilitate a solid foundation for sex in the journey towards parenting.
Trust Your Body
It might sound cliché, but the network of changes that occur during pregnancy requires leaning into oneself to make sense of a new normal and trusting what your body tells you.
“The first thing I like to tell pregnant people is to trust your body. Your feelings of sexual desire are valid, and if you don’t have sexual desire, that is okay, too,” she says.
“I like to remind people that their bodies are phenomenal and capable of great pleasure that can be enhanced because of all of the blood flow around their genitals right now.”
For some, trusting the body requires giving oneself permission to experience sex and pleasure during pregnancy. For others, this means feeling comfortable and affirmed in the decision not to have sex while pregnant. It can also mean being comfortable riding the waves of interest and disinterest instead of trying to secure oneself in one position or the other.
Don’t Lean Into Negative Messaging
Often, when we discuss sex during pregnancy, we do so from a vantage point that highlights the negative aspects, like being tired and having limited access to our favorite positions from pre-bump days. These are certainly real issues, but Brown-James says those who are comfortable having sex during pregnancy might be surprised at the positive impact the physiological shifts – namely the increase in blood flow – can have on their sexual experiences.
“I like to remind people that their bodies are phenomenal and capable of great pleasure that can be enhanced because of all of the blood flow around their genitals right now,” she says. “The more blood flow, the more pleasure.”
Don’t Limit Yourself to Penetrative Sex
Brown-James explains that sex and pleasure can be useful in alleviating negative symptoms of pregnancy. Still, she is clear that there are plenty of aspects of sex to explore if penetration is uncomfortable or undesired, despite its general safety.
Non-penetrative pleasure, like oral sex or mutual masturbation, “can help alleviate anxiety, help bring on a shift in mood, or even relaxation,” she says. “The baby is fine and well-protected, so there are no worries there, either.”
Establish Postpartum Boundaries Around Sex
While Brown-James wants individuals to be sex-positive during pregnancy and beyond, she also says that the postpartum period of body reacquaintance, which she refers to as the 4th trimester, requires that we be intentional and loving with our bodies through the establishment of boundaries around life and sex. “Often there is an expectation that because the body has healed from giving birth (however that birth happens) that the birthing parent is now ready and willing to have sex,” she says. “This is not the case for every person. Please, please, please do not have sexual play if you are not into it, no matter what your partner is begging for at the time. This is a very fast way to build resentment in a relationship.”
In hopes of avoiding the resentment that can accompany being pressured into sex, she has advice for partners, as well. “If you are a partner and desire your birthing parent sexually, try supporting them in the nonsexual things first so that they are able to make room in their minds and have less fatigue in their bodies to enjoy sexual pleasure.”
Keep Normalizing Sex During Pregnancy
Brown-James believes that increasing the dialogue on sex and pregnancy we gain from normalizing sex during pregnancy and parenting contributes to better pregnancy health care but also notes that the benefits can make things better for the entire family.
“Ideally we gain happier and healthier pregnant people! Not to mention happy relationships with less stress and fear,” she says. Also, parents “might start to realize the toxic beliefs they have been taught and want to prevent passing on to their children. Pregnancy can be a great time to explore these beliefs before a little one comes into the world.”