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.
Images indisputably impact us. What we see forms mental impressions that trigger memories, desires, fears, and hopes. Our erotic template is malleable. While certain settings are fixed by nature, much of what we find beautiful or arousing is culturally constructed.
Psychologists study the formation of sexual addiction; specifically the way the brain is changed by the rapid and endless images of online porn. Ethicists debate the morality of treating bodies like objects that penetrate each other in myriad of ways for profit. American lawyers split hairs defining the difference between obscenity, which is illegal, and pornography, which is protected free speech. Sociologists reveal a significant percentage of “the talent” in the sex industry have a history of sexual abuse as children. Religious leaders concern themselves with sexual sins and human rights activists work tirelessly to end human trafficking--- an illegal industry that creates both obscenity and pornography.
In my Ethics classes, students often chose pornography as a unit of study. We read articles from multiple points of view and have important and honest conversations. More of this is needed in our culture. Yet, one significant angle of study has been overlooked.
How does pornography impact cultural visions of a birthing woman’s body?
In preparation for this article, I reached out to thousands of parents, midwives, and doulas. I spoke to my husband and trusted friends. Gathered reflections and stories combine with my own experience as a mother, scholar, and a birth doula. How does the pornographic attitude toward the female body-- constructed by a multibillion-dollar industry-- impact our collective vision of birth? Certainly, this is worthy of study. What I present below are my best thoughts to date on the subject. My hope is that they inspire you to reflect on the topic, even if you come to differing conclusions.
All of us are born of women. We each emerge-- either through her vagina or through major abdominal surgery-- from our mother’s body. Today, elective cesarean surgery rates in the US are beginning to decline. Yet, some pregnant women so profoundly fear vaginal birth they continue to 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.
Future anthropologists will look back with interest on the juxtaposition 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. Consider that a specific genre of fetish pornography even features “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.
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.
Birth transforms women as they move through the challenging rite of passage of becoming mothers. In labor, women cry, moan, sway, sweat, and enter very primal spaces of being. It isn’t “sexy,” but there are few things as real or beautiful. I fear for a culture where women are conditioned to see self worth as mirror deep or reduced to being a source of genital pleasure.
Once a child is born, a powerful biological system of bonding transforms a mother. Levels of oxytocin, the “love hormone” associated with care and intimacy, are at their highest in a woman after a natural birth. Oxytocin is essential in labor, delivery, and breastfeeding. Oxytocin connects people through attachment bonds. These bonds can be expressed through sex, but not exclusively. Human attachment and care play non-existent roles in porn culture. What does it say about our society that much of our collective sexual fantasy is divorced from attachment, so essential to our very survival?
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 American women breastfeed toddlers. Most little ones are weaned before their natural time. The absence of federally mandated maternity leave laws, our culture’s confusing 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 theme of male control and ownership over the female body, portrayed in much of pornography, plays a role in this dynamic.
My aunt used to say that you can take a lance to a boil once and expect healing. However, if you keep taking a lance to the boil, an even greater wound will emerge. This is an apt metaphor for the potentially healthy use of sexually explicit material and our culture’s current sickness.
For people stifled and alienated from their own sexual energy, mindfully chosen adult material can bring a lance to a wound. Consider the company Adam and Eve. This company sells sexually explicit material, all of which is vetted through sex and relationship therapists. A significant portion of their proceeds is donated yearly to help stop the exploitation of young people in the prostitution industry, make condoms accessible in poor communities, and reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS. However, few companies making pornographic material can claim this moral high ground. Rather, like a lance that keeps touching a boil, our once sexually repressed culture has turned into a sexually obsessed one where fetish pornography is the most rapidly growing subsection of the adult industry. This impacts many areas of our lives. Our vision of the birthing woman’s body, indeed our vision of the human body, is consequently distorted.
This distortion fuels practices that hijack the natural course of birth, breastfeeding, and the development of a healthy mother-child attachment. We ignore the vital importance of these foundational building blocks of human life at our own peril. Healthy childhood attachment bonds are central to development of the limbic brain, the part of the brain associated with the capacity to experience empathy. We are raising 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.
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.