Why Pregnant Couples Should Totally Have Sex (And How To Do It Well!)

Written by Julia Guerra

Image by PeopleImages / iStock

A survey issued by the parenting website ChannelMum back in 2017 found that, on average, couples will have sex 78 times in a matter of six months (that's 13 times per month) before they conceive. But what happens after they score a positive on the stick? Do they stop, for lack of a better word, scoring in the bedroom?

In life, and in pregnancy, it's important to listen to your body and honor its needs. This includes any sexual desires that may (and usually do) arise. Of course, if you aren't comfortable having sex while you're pregnant, that's perfectly fine. But while pregnancy is a lot of things, it doesn't have to be a celibacy sentence.

The stigma around pregnant sex.

It's one thing to put physical intimacy on pause if it's uncomfortable or harmful to the mother, or if someone in the relationship feels genuinely uncomfortable having pregnant sex. However, there's nothing inherently "dirty" or "wrong" about having sex while pregnant. But according to Sofia Jawed-Wessel, Ph.D., MPH, sex researcher and co-director of the Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, the taboo pitted on pregnant sex isn't directed at the sex itself but rather at pregnant women having sex. 

"Our culture has a difficult time juxtaposing motherhood and sexiness without fetishizing—without objectifying the pregnant person," Jawed-Wessel explains in an interview with mbg. "We have a difficult time seeing the pregnant person as a whole person beyond their pregnancy."

It all comes back to the "why," she says. In other words: Why is a pregnant woman having sex?

If it's to meet her own sexual needs, a pregnant woman pursuing sex is often seen as an "aggressor," as selfish. If it's to meet the man's needs, that's another story, Jawed-Wessel says. "If [a pregnant woman is] having sex not for her own pleasure but for her partner's, because nine months is a long time for men to be celibate, then we understand. If she's partnered with a woman, well, we won't even acknowledge that!"

How attitudes about pregnant sex can affect an expecting couple's sex life.

In her most recent study, Jawed-Wessel and her team of researchers followed 116 couples in which one partner was between eight to 12 weeks pregnant. Researchers asked participants to complete four surveys over the course of three months, with questions focusing on their attitude toward sex before pregnancy, their attitude toward sex during pregnancy, how often they were having sex (with their partner and/or solo), sexual activities that gave them the most and least satisfaction, and so on.

The cross-sectional study, published last month in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, found that a couple's attitude toward pregnant sex could actually affect their overall sexual satisfaction. Partners who shared a positive attitude toward pregnant sex were more satisfied overall than couples who went into the experiment with reservations toward pregnant sex.

Jawed-Wessel says a negative attitude toward pregnant sex can be a reflection of one or all of the following:

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1. They're choosing to believe pregnant sex myths over their doctor's advice.

Jawed-Wessel says experts are seeing a "disconnect" between what the doctor prescribes and the negative attitudes couples have about pregnant sex because of myths about the potential risk of either compromising the pregnancy or harming the fetus directly.

For the record, there is little evidence to prove sex can induce a miscarriage, and experts say it's highly unlikely. Doctors do suggest patients with very specific medical issues—such as placenta previa (when the placenta covers all or part of the uterus), and cervical insufficiency (when a woman's cervix is weak and dilates too early in the pregnancy)—abstain from sex during their pregnancy. For the average pregnant person who isn't experiencing a high-risk or abnormal pregnancy? As long as your doctor says it's safe, you're good to go.

And yet many couples are still apprehensive or just unable to shake off the fear of doing damage to their future baby.

2. Societally speaking, women are desexualized when they become pregnant.

As Jawed-Wessel points out, most cultures—definitely America's—view motherhood as a kind of pure, moral, and exclusively family-oriented state, whereas having sex still carries overtones of being immoral or selfish. Even if they don't recognize it, some men buy into this sexist dichotomy and struggle to find their partner sexually desirable during pregnancy, seeing their partner transitioning from "lover" to "mother." It's not about the physical bump or even the baby per se (though it may be the case for some men); it's more about that psychological shift taking place in how they're viewing their partner.

3. They're viewing vaginal intercourse as the end-all-be-all of physical intimacy.

Most straight people tend to think sex needs to involve vaginal intercourse. Of course, there are numerous sexual behaviors and experiences that a couple can explore that have nothing to do with penetration, but because couples fall into a routine, they lose that sense of adventure and mystery in the bedroom. Then when pregnancy comes along and makes P-in-V intercourse perhaps less accessible or comfortable, they assume that means sex can't happen.

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What should sex look like for pregnant couples? 

According to the team's findings, sexual satisfaction during pregnancy was extremely contextual for each couple and for each individual partner. The paper outlines that kissing, intercourse, and using sex toys as a couple all led to more sexual satisfaction. But some sexual acts didn't bring as much joy: For instance, men experienced high levels satisfaction using toys alone (likely while masturbating) and low levels of satisfaction from vaginal fingering (maybe because they couldn't get off from it, the researchers posit). Women reported the opposite: They were most satisfied through vaginal fingering and actually less satisfied when they used sex toys on their own (perhaps because it was a last resort when they weren't being satisfied by their partners, the researchers say).

Clearly there wasn't one overarching solution to being sexually satisfied while pregnant, and more sex didn't necessarily correspond to being more sexually satisfied. Specific sex acts were more enjoyable for some partners than for others. That being said, the researchers' model showed one common thread: The more positive of an attitude a couple had toward pregnancy sex, the more sexually satisfied they felt overall.

Sexual satisfaction is important for a healthy relationship—yes, even for soon-to-be parents.

"Pregnancy does not suddenly leave a couple void of sexual needs," Jawed-Wessel and her team write in their paper. "Sex is important to individuals and their relationships, and pregnant people and their partners are no exception. Relationship satisfaction has been frequently linked to sexual satisfaction among the general population, and pregnant individuals follow a similar pattern."

They add that pregnant women also experience unique benefits from being satisfied with the state of their sex life and relationship: "Pregnant women with higher relationship satisfaction have also been found to be more positive about their upcoming role as a mother and experience less maternal emotional distress."

In a recent edition of her newsletter, sex researcher and educator Dr. Zhana Vrangalova emphasized why it's so important for couples not to lose sight of their sex lives due to a pregnancy: "I know that sex during and post-pregnancy may feel strange, or different, or awkward. But I can't emphasize enough how important it is for the health and quality of your relationship to maintain your sexual connection during this time. The longer you go without it, the harder and weirder it's going to be to come back to it and reconnect in that way."

Her advice?

"If you're the one pregnant, give yourself the right to be a sexual being, and revel in your new body. A lot of women report that pregnancy sex was the best sex they've ever had!" she writes. "And if you're the partner of someone who's pregnant, please work on overcoming the harmful myths and negative feelings about pregnancy sex you've internalized, and make your partner feel beautiful, sexy, sexual, and desired."

Communication is key.

Of course, this isn't meant to put pressure on couples to do what they're just not feeling. If a couple or partner just doesn't want to have sex for whatever reason, Jawed-Wessel says there is nothing wrong with pushing pause. But she stresses: Communication is key.

"We see partners making assumptions or jumping to conclusions on what the other is thinking, and this is never good," Jawed-Wessel explains. "[Pregnancy] can be a time to really explore each other's sexuality and come to a closer understanding of one another so that when both partners are ready to push play again, it is easier to navigate and relearn each other's needs and wants."

As long as both partners have an open line of communication flowing and are being honest about their needs, Jawed-Wessel tells mbg, "there is no reason for sex or lack of sex during pregnancy to be harmful to either partner." It's only if either partner feels unsatisfied, or if the woman feels as though her partner does not find her sexually desirable, that may cause an issue.

Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., sex researcher and director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University–Bloomington, tells mbg that ultimately the importance of sexual intimacy during pregnancy will depend on the couple. For some, keeping things fresh in the bedroom during pregnancy is a priority. For others, sex is put on the back burner. "[New parents] have bigger fish to fry, focusing on staying and feeling healthy, caring for their pregnancy, getting things for their baby, napping more, doctors' appointments, etc.," Herbenick says. But she does suggest pursuing physical closeness in other ways: "Those who abstain [from penetrative sex] might find [satisfaction] connecting to kiss and cuddle to nurture intimacy."

Overall, navigating the ways in which you and your partner can stay sexually satisfied during pregnancy is a personal process. As long as your medical provider gives you the OK, try your best to home in on how this experience can enhance your sex life and bring you closer, not only as new parents but as a couple. By keeping the communication flowing and maintaining a positive attitude, satisfaction will come—in and outside the bedroom.

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