One in four pregnancies will end in miscarriage, and while we’ve got better as a society at talking about pregnancy loss, discussing sex after miscarriage feels like the last taboo. Stylist explores how women really feel about having sex after losing a baby.
Rhian has miscarried a total of 13 times, including losing her baby girl at 23 weeks. Going through this has been debilitating for her in lots of ways – emotionally and physically – but there is one aspect she feels we don’t talk about enough: our relationship with sex after pregnancy loss.
“Miscarriage made me feel disconnected with my body. I blamed myself to a certain extent. I felt like my body had let me down,” she tells Stylist. “I suffered from the trauma of physical intervention and the medical side of it, which made me feel like I didn’t want to be touched. It was almost like I’d forgotten to associate my genitals with pleasure after all that blood and pain.”
Rhian says she received minimal support. She says the only professional advice she was given was to “keep trying”, but this wasn’t helpful. “Not one professional ever spoke to me about sex, the impact on my body image, or feelings about myself as a woman,” she says.
Addressing the last taboo
One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage – but this statistic doesn’t make it any easier to go through one. While we’re getting better at speaking about miscarriage in general, with public figures including Jessie J and Mylene Klass opening up about their experiences, addressing how we feel about sex afterwards feels like the last taboo.
It’s easy to understand why it feels so difficult. Miscarriage is generally a traumatic time, and sex and grief don’t always don’t sit particularly well together. But sex and pregnancy loss are intrinsically linked; there’s no getting away from that.
Conversations often revolve around when it is ‘safe’ to conceive again. While this is important, we run the risk of forgetting that sex isn’t just a functional process and that it takes many forms. Many same-sex couples’ experience of sex after miscarriage won’t primarily be focused on conceiving again, for example. It’s complicated, and there is no ‘normal’.
“It’s completely individual. There is no particular time by which you should or shouldn’t be having sex after a miscarriage,” Dr Petra Boynton, author of Coping With Pregnancy Loss tells Stylist. “It’s different for everyone, depending on their circumstances – whether they conceived naturally, whether they’re in a relationship that has penetrative sex, how far along the pregnancy was, whether they had any medical intervention, to name a few factors.”
As well as when it happens, how it feels will be different for everyone, and that’s OK too.
“The sex you have afterwards might be brilliant and pleasurable and exciting, and all the things that you always enjoyed,” Dr Boynton says. “Or, it might be awkward, or you might cry. It might be slightly painful – in which case, you should stop. The most important thing is that you feel emotionally and physically ready.”
Stacy* has had two miscarriages. Her last one was over a year ago and it’s dramatically affected how she feels about sex. “I hated the thought of sex after my last miscarriage,” she tells me. “It happened at around 11 weeks and I ‘passed the pregnancy’ at home in the toilet,” she says, adding that she hates this kind of euphemistic language, but isn’t quite sure how else to describe what happened – that the foetus “came out of me, and fell into the toilet bowl.”
“I was quite mentally scarred by how that physically felt,” she continues. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind. So, the thought of anything at all being inside that part of my body made me feel a bit queasy. Since then, I’ve almost developed a fear of penetration. I think I’m scared of getting pregnant again – even though we are technically trying – as it might just be setting myself up for it to happen a third time.”
Stacy says she hasn’t been able to share these feelings with anyone. Partly due to a lack of knowing where to turn for advice, or how to connect with others who might relate.
Miscarriage forums or Facebook support groups are generally a place for grieving and advice for women going through a difficult and confusing time: to bring up sex feels distasteful. But just because it isn’t top of the agenda doesn’t mean it isn’t important and that the impact on wellbeing can’t be huge.
Holly has had two miscarriages, each affecting her relationship with sex differently. The first time she was 19 and in a relationship, but the pregnancy was accidental. To her confusion, she felt relieved when she started to bleed at around eight weeks. Although she’d always wanted to be a mum, getting pregnant made her realise she didn’t want to have a baby with that particular partner. They split up soon after.
But the feelings of relief were complex. She felt guilty and as a result didn’t want to have sex for “eight or nine” months after. “It probably took me about six months to start connecting with anyone romantically, even kissing,” she says. Part of the reason for this – as well as the fear of getting pregnant again – was that she didn’t feel “attractive”.
“I felt gross,” she explains. “Like my body was horrible for not wanting to keep my baby.”
The next time she became pregnant it was planned and had taken a year of trying. Sadly, she miscarried at 14 weeks. Although the experience was more traumatic, she was ready to have sex quickly afterwards.
“It felt the natural thing to do,” she explains, and it was a way of feeling close to her partner. There was no pressure and the following month, Holly got pregnant again – going on to have a successful birth.
However, for some people who are trying to have a baby, it can be difficult to separate sex from conceiving.
“All I could think about was getting pregnant again, so for a while sex became almost a means to an end for my husband and I,” Rebecca tells Stylist. After experiencing multiple losses, the couple decided to stop trying. “After this, I couldn’t bear my body, which had failed me, to be touched,” she says. “I also struggled with flashbacks of the miscarriages, which caused panic during sex on occasion.
“It took over a year to change my mindset towards sex. It was hard to celebrate my body again but I got there eventually,” she says.
Listen to your body
It’s clear that the reasons for finding sex difficult after pregnancy loss are complex and varied. Flashbacks of the trauma are not uncommon, while many women talk of not feeling attractive. Others describe fearing that their partner will associate their genitals with the loss.
However, lots of women do find themselves wanting to have sex quickly: whether for connection, comfort, to conceive again, or simply because they enjoy it. It’s not uncommon for people in a relationship to feel closer, after experiencing the grief that comes with a pregnancy loss together – this can result in wanting to have lots of sex afterwards, as part of that bonding process.
Kerry had her second miscarriage at 13 weeks. Over the course of two days, the pregnancy passed naturally. “The pain was unbearable, but the process was cathartic,” she says. “My husband and I spent the weekend together, crying, grieving, talking about our hopes and dreams.”
They connected on “a deeper level” and found themselves even more in love than before. They both wanted to have sex fairly quickly afterwards, the main difference being that they were more gentle about it.
“Sex and intimacy can be extremely therapeutic after a miscarriage as it provides the opportunity for deep connection with your partner,” says Portia Hodges, resident expert at Fertility Circle.
“It provides a safe place to express love and an opportunity to release oxytocin and stimulate the release of ‘feel good’ hormones to help compensate for the increased levels of cortisol caused by the stress of miscarriage. Cortisol can have an extremely detrimental effect on reproductive health.”
“Conversely,” she adds, “libido can increase after a miscarriage due to the hormonal shifts and primaeval instincts to procreate.”
Breaking the silence
The most important thing, according to Hodges, is to avoid shame and guilt. “Listen to your body, communicate with your partner and do what you personally desire or need,” she says. “If it is deep intimacy and the physical touch of your partner, then honour that. And never, ever feel pressured into having sex – of any description – sooner than you feel comfortable with.”
The more we talk about this aspect of pregnancy loss, the less alone people will feel. As Rhian puts it: “Both miscarriage and sex are taboo, and we deserve to be able to speak openly about this.
“Women deserve better. We shouldn’t have to silence ourselves, hide our grief, or shut ourselves down sexually. We deserve to be able to heal after miscarriage.”
*Name has been changed