As a mother and director of porn for women I have wanted to address this for a long time and I’m happy to announce that I have released an explicit sex documentary about sex and pregnancy featuring adult performer Tiffany Doll & her husband Bruno. In the upcoming weeks, the Erika Lust Blog will host a number of highly experienced women’s health and sexuality professionals to discuss everything around the topic of Pregnancy & Sexuality.
Psychologist Dr. Karen Gurney debunks myths about pregnancy sex and the impact of pregnancy on our bodies and minds. She also talks about how restrictive attitudes towards it impact on pregnant people and their partners
Pregnancy is a common and often profound life event experienced by many women, trans and non-binary people. Pregnancy comes up in conversation often, but there is a striking absence of talk about pregnancy sex. It’s also rare to see the sexual expression of pregnant people portrayed in film or TV where the pregnancy itself is incidental to the storyline. Outside of the fetishisation of pregnancy in some mainstream porn, being sexual and also happening to be pregnant is just not something that we often see represented in an encouraging way. It’s as though as soon as the pregnancy test shows positive, the shutters of societal restrictions come down and displays of sexuality, at least publicly, fade into the distance.
It’s possible that this lack of media portrayal and conversational black hole is one of the reasons for our contradictory views about pregnant people being non-sexual. I say contradictory as the act of sex, for many at least, was probably responsible for the pregnancy in the first place. But given that we know that we learn about what ‘normal’ sex is from what we see and hear about in the world around us, and that much of this learning comes from the media, we can start to speculate on what the absence of sexual images or portrayals of pregnancy sexuality have on our collective psyche. How comfortable can we learn to be about something which is rarely represented to us?
When I was preparing to write this piece I asked people to share their stories with me and I was inundated with responses. There was a strong feeling that they wished there was more talk between friends, in ante-natal care and in society about the good, the bad and the surprising. They expressed that knowing this would have made them feel ‘more normal’. As a clinical psychologist who specialises in sex, I’m not surprised that we struggle to talk openly about pregnancy sex as a society as we struggle to talk about sex full stop. Furthermore, we place so many restrictions on sexual expression generally that it’s no surprise that pregnancy sexuality is even more taboo. It doesn’t need to be, of course, but it can be a challenging path to negotiate with no information about what might happen, no reassurance that your sexuality is still valid, or no open talk about what lies ahead.
It is well known in the field of sex science that sexual satisfaction has an impact on psychological health and relationship satisfaction. Given that we don’t talk about sex during pregnancy, myths about pregnancy sex or restrictive attitudes towards it impact on pregnant people and their partners in a way that can create a stifling, guilt ridden and inflexible sex life. The impact of which can affect a relationship at a time of great transition, a time where sexual satisfaction can be essential for wider relational and personal well-being.
What is fascinating to me, as someone who focuses on sexual satisfaction and expression for a living, is that pregnancy is a time of golden opportunity in so many ways. Opportunity to break free of predictable societally dictated sexual scripts (such as ‘sex = penis in vagina’) and habits we can easily fall into with the same person over time dictating a set pattern of how sex will happen (‘you do A, I do B then we do C’). The change that pregnancy brings to our bodies, minds and relationships allows us the opportunity to experience new sensations, new ways of being, or to bring new definitions to what sex is. In my opinion, these aspects of pregnancy sexuality don’t get the airtime that they should in terms of the potential impact they could have on revitalising sexual expression and satisfaction. These experiences can change the way we relate to sex and benefit our sex lives long after the pregnancy is over.
Hormonal changes, nausea and fatigue can lead to decreased sexual function particularly in the first and third trimester. Common sexual problems in pregnancy include pain during penetrative sex, difficulty reaching orgasm, lack of vaginal lubrication and reduction in desire. This can be particularly challenging for couples who have never had any problems in their sex life up until this point, or whose sexual repertoire is more fixed and predictable, as they have not had the opportunity to develop strategies for overcoming obstacles, talking frankly about sex, or thinking flexibly about their sex life thus far. For these couples, the best short-term solution is to practice talking frequently about sex rather than avoiding it as the pregnancy progresses. As difficult as problems with sex in pregnancy may seem, they provide an opportunity to develop good sexual communication, a skill proven to be associated with long term sexual satisfaction in couples.
Despite how common sexual problems are during pregnancy, there can also be a positive impact to sexual functioning such as increased sex drive, heightened genital and nipple sensitivity and more powerful orgasms. These experiences are linked to physical changes in the body (such as increased blood flow) and can provide opportunities for novel experiences of pleasure, expression and desire. For some people, experimentation in pregnancy can lead to the discovery of new sexual preferences that would otherwise have gone unknown.
Having children is only one of the 237 documented reasons that humans have sex, but for some people the period of time leading up to a positive pregnancy test might have been heavily focused on pregnancy as a key driver. For these people or couples, especially if they have struggled to conceive, sex can be something that they can feel quite happy to take a bit of a break from and this might show itself in a sudden drop in desire. Others might be glad of an opportunity to finally take the focus away from penis-in-vagina sex and return to more variety in their sex life, which can bring with it a novelty-induced spike in desire. How much sex we feel like in pregnancy is related to how our bodies are responding but also (and very crucially) what’s going on in our minds and relationships too. There is no right or wrong when it comes to changes in desire during pregnancy, but it can be worth reflecting on whether cultural perceptions of pregnancy as a non-sexual time are partly to blame.
Sexuality is part of all of us, but the visual cues of a bump or the reminders of pregnancy in other ways can bring this new identity as a mother to the fore, and these two identities- sexual and maternal- can feel challenging to integrate. There’s a strong idea in our society that mums somehow aren’t, or shouldn’t, be sexy or sexual and this can bring feelings of guilt or shame in enjoying sex or letting go.
Given that body image and sexual satisfaction are strongly linked, it’s not surprising that pregnancy body image plays a big part in how pregnant people feel about being sexual. Stretch marks, breast changes or increasing body size might not feel problematic in themselves, but the way people feel about or relate to these changes can impact on their ability to connect with the sexual side of themselves. For some, the changes that their body goes through during pregnancy places them at greater risk for body image concerns, as our society has such narrow and fixed standards of which body sizes represent ‘beauty’. For others, pregnancy can be a time of really being able to let go of these societal constraints, as having a large abdomen no longer holds this unhelpful negative connotation. The opportunities of this for sexual expression, desire and pleasure are huge, as it’s well documented that being less pre-occupied during sex frees us up to focus more of our attention on sensation and arousal. For some, this experience can be empowering and perhaps the first time they’ve ever felt free of such concerns, opening a new world of psychological investment in sex.
There are variations culturally and within relationships about the degree of anxiety related to the perceptions of sex causing harm to the baby and the appropriateness of sex during pregnancy. It’s important for couples to be aware that penetrative sex is safe unless the pregnancy is high risk and they have been advised to abstain by their medical team. Nevertheless for some, especially those who have been affected by miscarriage, or who are feeling anxious about the pregnancy, having penetrative sex or orgasms can temporarily lose its place in the priority list.
Sex is often a way to connect, so a change in ability to do this can create challenges in relationships. One study found that 42% women reported sexual distress during pregnancy which was connected with lower levels of relationship satisfaction. I often suggest that if sexual contact feels difficult for whatever reason, it can be useful to prioritise other types of physical intimacy so that couples can find other ways to feel desired and connected and there’s plenty of ways to do this without sex.
Given that pregnancy is a time of intense physical and psychological transition which can have such a big impact on sex, it’s disappointing that we don’t talk about it more. How can we prepare people for the opportunities and challenges of changing bodies, changing relationships and new experiences without open and honest discussion about it?
Being forewarned about the kinds of changes mentioned above can be enough to be prepared for them and to make adjustments or allowances to lessen their effects on sexual well-being. Knowing that there might be changes coming allows us to understand that these changes are transitory and not indicative of a problem within us or our relationship. This understanding and normalisation can be vital at a time of such transition. Celebrating and normalising pregnancy sexuality brings opportunities to explore and perhaps even expand sexual expression which is a much unsung and overlooked aspect of pregnancy.
*anonymised quotes from people wanting to share their pregnancy sex stories to demystify the highs and lows of pregnancy sex for others