by Carrie Felter
Sex does not end with pregnancy. Although pregnancy and the postpartum period can complicate or add challenges to how a person approaches their sexuality, it is the responsibility of the birth worker to make sure they incorporate (into their practice) a discussion about what a person or couple needs during their pregnancy experience. This is where Tynan Rhea can help.
Rhea is a relationship and sex therapist, as well as a trained doula, who offers a sex and birth support person training. After attending the University of Waterloo, St. Jerome’s College for Psychology and Sexuality, Marriage, & Family, Rhea went on to work in an administrative role in a healthcare clinic. During this time, they began studying with Beth Murch in her Revolutionary Doula Training program. Rhea was drawn to the program because it had an emphasis on social justice and inclusivity in terms of queer and trans births as well as kink clients. Rhea acknowledges “The reason I got into doula work was because even though I had a degree in sexuality, marriage, and family we never talked about reproduction…all these taboos of sexuality and horrendous gender stereotypes and complicated intersections between bodily function and social conventions down to our own personal identities came to a head in this population.” Because pregnancy is such a stressful time, people often don’t have the emotional reserve to address sexual concerns. Sex therapists and birth workers must make it a point to recognize the intersection of sex and pregnancy and include both in their work.
The postpartum period is complicated because people can deprioritize sex because other needs become more pressing. “What can be tricky” Rhea says “is if people don’t feel they have permission to deprioritize sex or if a desire disparity exists between two partners. Some people need sex to feel ok and some people need to feel ok to have sex.” In postpartum this can be difficult, and partners might be experiencing these obstacles for the first time. Birth workers, and their clients, must work to develop new skills to accommodate the change in the sexual relationship, as well as all the other needs of postpartum. Sometimes there is a feeling that if we talk about sex during this time, we add pressure to the relationship. But by not talking about it, we miss opportunities to address changes in sexuality and whether or not that matches what a person wants or needs during this time. A sex educator is usually not included as a front-line person in a birth experience, but birthing professionals can begin to include these discussions in their process.
Rhea believes that the discussion of sexuality must begin with a broader conversation about cultural context. Around the world, including the United States and Canada, people live on colonized land which has impacted how we look at sexuality. Before colonization happened, globally there were many cultures that had more than two genders. Rhea knows “colonizers demonized the ‘other’ via sexuality and we cannot discuss sexuality without discussing this because it controls what society views as what is ok sex and what isn’t.” Although Rhea admits to not being the perfect person for this teaching role, they will make it a point to include the information in their education as long as they are in a position to do so.
Sexuality and its intersection with birth can be a difficult, although necessary, topic for many birth workers to include in their practice. So where can someone get started? First, Rhea offers an online course beginning in June 2020. Throughout the course, participants take part in a mandatory online discussion so that everyone is learning and processing information together. It is the time to be awkward, be confused, ask questions, build confidence, and figure out what you know and don’t know. This is a time to be honest about what populations you can serve and what knowledge you do have. We have little research on queer relationships and sexuality postpartum, and these communities face unique challenges that must be addressed. Rhea wants you to feel confident and happy with your ownership of what knowledge you possess and don’t possess. It’s ok to tread slowly and admit that you cannot serve certain populations. If you are uncomfortable talking about sex, this course is great because you don’t need to share anything about your personal life, and it is not assumed anyone is comfortable with anything. Even if you don’t want to actively include this work in your practice; it is a good skill to have if the situation arises.
Rhea wants potential participants to know: If you are unsure about how to incorporate sexuality into your practice, keep in mind there is such a range of comfort levels so it is normal for clients not to bring the topic up. It is the responsibility of the caregiver to be forward and take the initiative. Offer the information you have. People may not take you up on the offer, but you have given them the option. It’s not enough to be prepared with the information, you need to be forthcoming and ready to talk about it. Sexuality is a topic no birth practitioner can ignore, and Tynan can give you the tools you need to get started.
You can sign up for Rhea’s class starting in June here: https://doulatraining.ca/courses/sex-birth-support/
Carrie Felter (she/her/hers) is about to complete a BSN in nursing and aspires to be a birth worker in her hometown of Philadelphia.