Women are objectified everywhere we go -- even at the doctor’s office. We are faced with a misogynist system where the qualifications of our vaginas are questioned. One area where this is painfully clear is with childbirth. There is far too much fear surrounding the very act that women were created to do. You wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for the powers of your mother’s vagina. And yet, those womanly powers are constantly doubted and “fixed” in order to please man.
Evidence of this is seen in the fact that something called “the husband stitch” is very real and very painful in every way.
Carrie Murphy’s recent Healthline piece on “the husband stitch” brought me back to the days of wondering what giving birth was going to do to my vagina. So many women worry about this -- it’s a society-forced fear, like a brainwash. The truth is that our vaginas are going to be just fine if we let our bodies do what we were made to do. Of course, there can be complications as with anything in life. But stitching up a woman to make her tighter for a man is masochistic. That's a "husband stitch."
During labor, some doctors cut a woman’s perineum (the area between the vulva and the anus) in order to offer more room for the baby to come out. It’s called an episiotomy. There are cases when this is needed, but there are far too many cases when it is not. And it gets worse. After birth, when it’s time to close the incision, some doctors suggest an extra stitch, dubbed “the husband stitch” so things are tighter down there. This is essentially torture for the woman in order to bring “pleasure” to the husband. This is a patriarchal model of childbirth.
It’s understandable to worry about how a baby is going to fit down the canal that sometimes feels annoyed with a tampon in it. The truth is that the vagina is an incredibly elastic and flexible portal of magic that transports baby from womb to room by design. In an interview with Self magazine, Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale Medical School, reported “Pregnancy is a state of high estrogen, which makes tissue good, strong, and stretchy. There’s also a hormone called relaxin that helps stretch tissue and move the pubic bone to let the kid out of there.” Vaginas are able to stretch three times their size to fit baby, though tearing of the perineum does happen between 53 and 79 percent of the time with a vaginal birth, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). These tears often aren’t major and are mostly surface tears. With an episiotomy, the cut is through the muscle.
Simply put, the procedure and the accompanying stitch hurts women. A woman may have to deal with the pain from healing and beyond, further complications, pelvic floor issues, as well as issues with sex.
I went to birth doula Suzie Dougherty D’Angelo from the Hudson River Doulas for her insight. “Women in comas can deliver a baby without coaching,” she says. “The baby will naturally stretch a woman’s tissues even when not forcibly pushing. The body will just do it. There is less tearing when birth is baby/mom led.”
Suzie and I both felt that this is about patience for everyone involved with the birth. When we give women time, give their bodies times to open, give the babies time to move down the birth canal, it increases the chance of having a birth that is healthier for everyone, without need for medical interventions. Of course, there are always exceptions and times when an episiotomy may be needed. There are also times when a stitch may be needed. But to call it a “husband stitch” and doing anything extra is violating and wrong.
Suzie says, “I really appreciate when a practitioner involves the mom in the decision to stitch (if needed), or if there is just a scratch that will naturally heal. The extra info is giving mom all the control she needs of her body and situation.”
Thankfully, in 2006, the ACOG changed their guidelines on episiotomies and discouraged them unless medically necessary. Still, if we look at current rates in NYC there is cause for alarm. At Cornell Hospital, 35 percent of women are given an episiotomy -- that’s double the state’s average. Far too many doctors are exerting their power over women at a vulnerable time. Women need to know this is happening and advocate for themselves or make sure their partners are their advocate as well. The notion of the husband stitch needs to go away, not only because it’s wrong, but it doesn’t work. According to OBGYN Jesanna Cooper, MD, in the Healthline article, said, “Regardless of whether a tear happens on its own or as a result of an episiotomy, it’s not even possible to make a vagina tighter with stitching. A ‘husband stitch’ would not affect overall vaginal tone, as this has much more to do with pelvic floor strength and integrity than with introitus [opening] size.”
Men, could you imagine any procedure where your penis had to be cut open? Take a moment and think about it. Then think about a stitch to make the skin more taut. This kind of thing just wouldn’t happen to a man ever. Why have doctors been so quick to cut into a woman? And why are they then so nonchalant about stitching us up in an unnatural way?
We need to trust women, listen to women, and trust a woman’s body and its abilities. We all need to be aware of the objectification of women’s bodies seeping into our healthcare and advocate to stop it.