‘If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.’
– Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
This is the second time I’ve written a post that is essentially congratulating myself for acting in a way that must be obvious to most of you in the sex positive community – the first time I was advocating for a patient’s right to masturbate and this time I have been advocating for my own sexuality. Part of me feels that this shouldn’t be worth writing about but a larger part knows that it still is, so I am.
Writing this does risk exposing my real identity to a very specific cohort of people – doctors who are also mothers and members of a private Facebook group, the Physician Mums Group (PMGUK), and happened to read the question that I posed there at the end of last week. Hello if that’s you! I’m unsure quite how many people fulfil these particular criteria but as there are over 16,000 members of the group, it may not be an insignificant number.
It’s a consequence of spending so much time in the sex positive, sex literate world that I have created through my friends, lovers and Twitter timeline that I sometimes forget how distant these attitudes can be from the wider world, and it makes me sad every time this gap is revealed. How simply talking about sex can be seen as revolutionary and worthy of praise outside of this bubble.
I discovered this again after asking the Physician Mums Group a question about sex after childbirth – I’m intending on writing much more about this in a month or so when I write a post about fourth trimester sex, but I’ve essentially noticed that sex doesn’t feel the same at the moment. Fortunately, I have no issues with pain or libido; it’s literally the sensation that has changed and it doesn’t feel the same. After finding penetration so deliciously orgasmic during pregnancy, the change feels particularly marked! I became paranoid that squeezing out the enormous head of our daughter had damaged nerves and began to fear that I’d never enjoy sex in the same way again! I wanted reassurance that others had experienced the same, but I specifically wanted a medical opinion to allay my paranoia. Of course, I googled it and found nothing to reassure me, so decided that PMGUK – essentially a Mumsnet for medics – would be the place to go. Among the posts and questions about baking, rashes, medical protocol, childcare woes and birth trauma, someone must have asked about sex in this way!
But there was still nothing. A few, largely anonymous, concerns about persisting pain and low libido aside, my searches found no one asking about sex, let alone changes in pleasure. So I did. And after a bit of consideration, I posted under my real name.
This, perhaps, shouldn’t have required as much thought as it did, but I’m still not quite as open in real life as I am in my Other Livvy persona. I’m not actively deceptive but am guilty of lies of omission. No one knows we’re polyamorous unless they ask, for example, and my friends don’t really talk much about sex. I was also hesitating as the people on PMGUK who know me aren’t only friends – they’re colleagues, some of whom might only know me by sight or reputation. Should I really tell them about my sex life and the issues I was having?
But then it occurred to me that the reason I’d not been able to find anyone else asking this sort of question is because sex was still seen as taboo. No one was talking about it. And I can’t really fight for more sexual openness with one hand, safely anonymous on Twitter, if I don’t put that into practice in reality. So I posted, and now that doctor I worked with one time not only knows for a fact that I masturbate but also knows that recently it’s not been as easy to get off as it was before – facts that I’m not ashamed to admit but that were unlikely to come up in conversation otherwise.
Argh, and there it is again; an automatic protective reaction that wants to hide sex when it’s outside my sex friendly home environment and puts it in a category that is somehow more embarrassing than anything else. Because that random doctor also wouldn’t know or ask about many subjects unless they happened to come up in conversation, such as my bowel habits or finances, both of which are discussed freely and not anonymously on PMGUK without shame and both of which I’d easily talk about if I was worried, so why should sex be different?
So I posted my question, and I am so pleased that I did as I have been overwhelmed by its response. If you’re interested in the medical answer, the short version is that I was being both naive and optimistic to think my body could recover from the trauma of even a straightforward birth in just 7 weeks, even if my mind and libido have! I need to be more patient…
Of course, I didn’t know I needed to be patient. The books I’ve read suggested waiting 6 weeks, or until I ‘feel ready,’ to allow the physical tears to heal and warned that my libido might be affected for longer. They were quick to reassure that I might not want sex for months and that’s OK, but there was nothing to reassure me that I might want sex sooner and that it might feel different and numb and that was also OK. Nothing to warn that the breastfeeding hormones can affect sexual responsiveness and orgasm, not just libido, and sex might feel strange until after I stop breastfeeding. Nothing about how long second stages of labour or big headed babies (tick and tick) can stretch the pudendal nerve and theoretically cause sensation changes. I say theoretically because, of course, there’s almost no research on this subject to confirm that. It’s almost as though the important part of sexual recovery is the ability to have penetrative sex, rather than the quality of the experience for the person being penetrated *cough* patriarchy *cough.*
But I wasn’t overwhelmed by the responses because they were helpful, although they undoubtedly were and I am hugely relieved; I was at first delighted, then faintly embarrassed, and finally deeply saddened that a lot of people responded purely to thank me for speaking up, and doing so publicly without hiding behind anonymity. I was praised for being so open and in touch with myself, my relationship with my husband was celebrated (which was almost the strangest part – yes, EA and I have a great relationship with good communication, but why is that relevant to me speaking about sex in this forum?) and I was told how brave I was for just asking about sex. It was extraordinarily kind and affirming but, still, overwhelming.
Having started the conversation, it amazingly branched out into lots of different subsections – women sharing their own stories and reassurances; GPs bemoaning the difficulty in talking about sex after labour in their limited appointment times; a brilliant thread on euphemisms that doctors have heard from patients inarticulately expressing concern about having a loose vagina after child birth, of which ‘Wizard’s sleeve’ may make it into this year’s #EuphOff! Speciality doctors were also able to share their tips on managing sexual dysfunction after labour and there’s a chance that one of them will be organising a training day for the rest of us!
All because I was horny only a few weeks after delivering our baby and couldn’t bear the fact that my pelvic orgasms had gone…
It’s been said before but it clearly needs to be said again – we need to talk about sex! And as a particular call out to me, not just to other sex friendly people!! It’s the only way to banish the stigma and stop sex being so embarrassing a topic that even doctors struggle to talk freely about it – as one responder to my question so succinctly put it, ‘If a group of female medics who’ve been through labour can’t talk about it, I don’t know who can!‘
And yes, there sadly remain valid and real reasons to be anonymous or to hold back in some circumstances as that stigma is still real. Even this experience isn’t enough to make me open the doors and tell the world about my sex blogging identity just yet. But it has made me question the reasons why I don’t – my father knowing there are naked pictures of me on the Internet being the main one – and it has made me more willing to start to change. To speak up and ask the questions others might be afraid to ask, to advocate more insistently, to talk more about sex with my other friends. So I might get a reputation for being sexually active and open. That is no bad thing! And, as I said earlier, I can’t promote sexual openness without actually doing it myself.
Look out real world, I’m coming…as it were…!