Nursing your baby is the way you make love to him or her, and it’s supposed to feel good to everyone concerned. Your being turned on to your baby is what makes your milk flow abundantly. Nursing is a sexual act.

Alison Bartlett, Breastwork

We live in a world that organizes bodies and all their particulars. We organize bodies by breaking them down into manageable chunks—parts, functions, appetites, needs. We organize by moralizing our categories—good parts, acceptable functions, appropriate appetites. We organize bodies, perhaps, because disorganized bodies feel unruly and complex, nuanced and chaotic. There is a luxury to categorizing these bodies—both ours and others’—into something instead of someone, a luxury to labeling away the messiness of bodies.   

Likewise, when it comes to eroticism, perhaps we organize because we are afraid of the astonishing fact that two bodies can come together and create a new life,knit together in the mother’s womb. How relieving is the luxury of scientific and sociocultural and moral classification when our bodies hold too much glory to bear! And what is too much glory if not the glory of the erotic? Glory,the manifest, weighted presence of God. In a world that has, from its beginnings, tangled bodies up with shame, is it any wonder that to see the glory of God in the erotic feels complicated? We are afraid of that glory and cannot revel in eroticism as the embodied imago Dei in each of us. Instead, we label the erotic as a crass cultural commodity. We miss so much of who we were made to be when the erotic—and thus the manifested presence of the divine—is bound by our crude categories.

When we organize the erotic, we tend toward reductivity and even vulgarity in our containers. The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia defines eroticism as “an aesthetic focus on sexual desire”; erotica describes portrayals of human anatomy and sexuality with high-art aims.[1] These limited forms of erotica seep down through mainstream culture and bleed into the exploitative pornographication of the erotic, the antithesis of what Edenic eroticism was designed to be.[2] When we reduce the erotic, we invariably twist it into something exploitative, for who can reduce what God created to hold such full and holy goodness? In defiant opposition to this reduction, then, is a call to seek a new category, a stance of curiosity and wonder that sees the erotic not only in orgasmic intercourse, but in orgasmic births.

A friend recently shared with me a video of her home birth. The video is a montage, clips of a familial birthing experience, and my tears begin when I see the look of total ecstasy on the mother’s face as the baby emerges into her waiting hands. She has been longing for this moment, for those groans and pushes, for the fierce pain and the overwhelming relief as her womb empties and her arms fill. The littlest sibling climbs into the birthing pool as the older ones jump and clap, unable to hold their excitement. The scene moves to the bedroom, where the children clamber to touch their mother, the baby, their father, and in the middle of them all, the infant clasps his mother’s breast, latching on. She looks at him and says, “I love you.” There is a fullness to the tears that flow—from her, from me—as I experience an echo of my own experience. I attribute these tears to my own experience of orgasmic birth, of arousal and desire, and of shame’s insistent interruptions of erotic attunement. My tears, it so happens, are also the catalyst for my exploration of arousal and desire in erotic attunement.[3]

The ability to cultivate new life, to feel it grow and develop, to push an infant into the world—these are God-given powers that I am equally terrified and in awe of. Although I have always felt that there is something deeply spiritual about this power, I’ve come to realize there is something arousing and erotic about giving birth as well. Deep in my body, I know my Creator in a profoundly sensual way, just as I know my own children, my own creations.In the Genesis account, God instructs Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. He asks them to bring human flourishing. Simply put, birth is human flourishing, an eros of “self-giving for the beloved to flourish together in delight and honor.” In this self-giving, birth is erotic. It is also deeply arousing in its sensual engagement with desire. Watching my friend’s birthing video, my body experienced the physiological sensation of arousal. In my arousal was desire for the danger of birth—the pain, pushing the limits of the flesh—that serves the collective and plays the Edenic music of human flourishing. “Our bodies,” names Dan Allender, “come alive in the experience of delight and honor, and there is often arousal in that context.”[4] 

Watching my friend’s birth video transported me back to the birth of my last child. The only way I can describe the moment that my son slipped from my body was orgasmic—the building pressure of contractions and pushing, ending with an intense emptiness and release. Birth was “the finish, the small death that ended the dance” of labor. An orgasm is an ending, the mark of deeper desire. I am a “desire-filled being,” and my tears during the video were connected to the knowledge that desire always remains unfulfilled.[5] Even after pushing my babies into the world, after they latched on to my breast, after they stopped nursing and began walking away from me, this ache remains: my children cannot fill the void in my womb, my chest, my heart. Yet in this, desire pushed me toward hope. Jesus speaks of a woman giving birth to describe his death and resurrection, affirming the cycle of death and new life, of arousal and desire pointing to future fulfillment. Hope, claims Allender, is a memory of the past propelled into the future; somehow, I hold the memory of my children’s baptism by blood and water, and it reminds me of our collective future baptism into the fullness of Christ.[6]

Arousal lives in the depth of this desire for fullness, and birth is a manifestation of this desire.[7] Birth is a sensual, physical experience of temporary fullness and ultimate emptying. Yet in our modern context, Allender and Longman suggest we live in a world of “divided and distorted desire that wreaks havoc with every legitimate and holy longing. Desire in a fallen world is seldom (if ever) attained.” Likewise, in her book, Erotic Attunement, Cristina Traina speaks of the goodness and danger of the arousal and desire connected to birth. A mother’s longing for fulfillment can lead her to mistake her infant for the culmination of desire, moving from attunement to relying on her infant to “fill a larger void” they were never meant to fill. An erotically attuned mother, however, is one whose love is “calmly, confidently attentive and attuned”; she lives in the tension of unfulfilled desire. She knows that her love for her child is “true, but partial.”[8]

As I think of my babies latching onto my breast, my tears come quick and hot. Shame interrupts arousal and desire, the result of my sociocultural experience. Our Western world organizes the glory we cannot understand, commodifying the female form. Purity culture taught me that my body was dangerous, that arousal needed to be contained. But I was aroused when my babies were born, when they latched on to my breast for the first time. I was ashamed of that arousal, disgusted that my body would respond sexually to the infant at my breast.[9] This is the bind: my evangelical upbringing taught me that my body is for the sexual pleasure of men and for giving birth. Terms such as erotic and arousal are confined to the marital bed. Hence, the shame at arousal toward my nursing babies made sad sense. After all, sex was meant for my husband, not for my baby.

Yet “the erotic is a fundamental drive toward fullness of life . . . it has the power to enhance rather than diminish human flourishing.” Birth and breastfeeding provide an opportunity for mutuality, a relationship in which both persons “are called more fully unto themselves.” Shame interrupts this, binding itself to arousal and marring desire. Instead of allowing an erotic narrative that encompasses experiences of motherhood, our world shames women for the ways in which they desire to “make love” with their children.[10]

Because we live in a fallen world, arousal can be exploited. When a mother puts her baby to the breast longing to satisfy her own need, she exploits the erotic connection meant to bring flourishing to both herself and her baby. The two, in this case, were never meant to become one: “When a child becomes an object, or when a parent sees a child as part of herself, erotic, empowering love is impossible.” As I think of my newborn babies, I am reminded that “good care is erotic . . . [and] always bears a commitment to flourishing.” Thus, arousal that does not lead to flourishing is not the arousal of godly eroticism. In a culture that often forgoes flourishing by being “intensely committed to controlling [female sexuality],” the desire of orgasmic birth calls me to the hope of Eden.[11] And the hope of Eden causes me to remember the mandate of God to Adam and Eve, to fill the earth and bring order to the chaos. The challenge, then, is to bring order to chaos by naming the manifest Presence in all its forms—in naked bodies making love, in new life emerging from a woman’s body, in all of the space we’ve deigned unholy—and in that naming, lost eroticism will become as it was designed to be.

[1] Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia, s.v. “Eroticism,” last modified June 21, 2022,

[2] See Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III, God Loves Sex (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014).

[3] Erotic attunement involves a maternal eroticism (“maternal attraction to—and desire for intimacy with—her child”) and attunement (“the dance answering the partner’s needs and desires”) (Cristina L. H. Traina, Erotic Attunement: Parenting and the Ethics of Sensuality between Unequals [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011], 8 and 241).

[4]  Allender, “Theology of Eroticism,” (class lecture, The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, Seattle, WA, March 3, 2022). Also, see Genesis 1:28 ESV.

[5] Allender and Longman, God Loves Sex, 37 and 54. They also describe orgasm during sex as the “sweet, quick, intense finish” (37).

[6] See John 16:21, Matthew 3:13–1, Colossians 3:1, and Allender, “Theology of Eroticism,” March 3, 2022.

[7] Allender, “Theology of Eroticism,” March 4, 2022.

[8] Allender and Longman, God Loves Sex, 55; and Traina, Erotic Attunement, 191.

[9] Purity culture is a movement in evangelical Christianity that is rooted in shame, holding women’s bodies as dangerous and men’s bodies as animalistic in their unmanageable sexual urges. And I am not the only one who has has felt such a shame-based response: “Masters and Johnson reported in 1966 that breastfeeding women felt morally conflicted over their sexual responses to nursing.” Traina writes, “Conflicted experience (maternity and sexuality are mutually exclusive, or breastfeeding pleasure seems impossibly transgressive) is evidence not of culpable confusion or indecision on a woman’s part but of a clash of the models or ideologies generated by the culture in which she moves. The clash inevitably victimizes the sexual subject externally, through punishment for her transgressions, or internally, through guilt and fear” (Traina, Erotic Attunement, 34 and 41).

[10] Traina, Erotic Attunement, 194, 196, and 39.

[11] Traina, Erotic Attunement, 196; Allender, “Theology of Eroticism,” March 4, 2022; and Longman, Song of Songs, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), 108.