By Issy Anthony – Comment Sub-Editor
When mentioning the husband stitch, I’m usually met with a look of confusion. ‘The what?’ my friends will say, possibly assuming it to be the title of a new dystopian novel. Depressingly, it’s not far from it.
The husband stitch is the name of an extra stitch that is added during surgery to repair an episiotomy or vaginal tear post labour, but that is not needed. The sole purpose is to make the woman’s vagina tighter than it needs to be for the husband’s pleasure. In other words, it’s female genital mutilation. And it’s happening in the US right now.
Research into the husband stitch is tricky, as it is not documented by doctors for obvious reasons. The history of it begins in the 1920s. It was popular belief that an episiotomy (where the doctor makes a cut to widen the woman’s vagina in order to make the birth quicker) was the best option, and after these were performed, stitches were needed for the cut to heal.
By the 1960s, it had become normal to ‘tighten things up’ while performing the surgery. But in the 1980s, research revealed that this surgery was actually damaging to tissue. However by 1983, 60% of women had had episiotomies. It is now an avoided surgery unless needed. Sadly, the husband stitch still prevails.
There are countless stories from women who have realised they have suffered this mutilation, many often months or years after. Some interviews reveal that women went for a routine check-up after the birth, and it was their gynaecologist who clarified what had happened to them, finally lifting the veil of why sex and exercise had been so painful since labour. The surgery has ramifications, not only taking away a woman’s control over what happens to her body, but causes lasting physical pain.
But not only does it highlight some doctors’ inherently sexist beliefs, it also isn’t effective. Dr Jessana Cooper, an OB-GYN, clarifies that the ‘tightness’ that is associated with male pleasure during sex has far more to do with the pelvic floor. So these women aren’t just being treated by doctors who are putting male pleasure before their health, they’re also basing their ideas on age-old beliefs of female anatomy. Current patriarchal culture tells us that women who have sex more often will have a ‘looser’ vagina, something that has nothing to do with how often a woman has penetrative sex. It is part of the ‘slut-shaming’ that is so rife in society today.
Women are judged by a madonna-whore dichotomy, where if we don’t have sex we’re prudes, but if we do we’re too easy. It is impossible to win, and that’s because it was made so we cannot win. If a women’s worth is measured in her sexual history, than she becomes an object, making her easier to oppress.
Stephanie Tillman, a midwife, put it best when she said, ‘the fact there is even a practice called husband stitch is a perfect example of the intersection between the objectification of women’s bodies and healthcare’. The idea of a woman, moments after going through a traumatic birth, to have her body viewed as only for the husband’s pleasure is disgusting. It is as if to say that it is all she is worthy of, even after she has just produced a new life. It perfectly summarises how the patriarchy exists everywhere, having managed to infiltrate its way into even the most intimate part of a woman.
And yet the procedure continues to be done without any repercussions for the doctors as women don’t realise until they are forced to live with the consequences. While the stitch itself is enough to be angry about, it’s just a part of a much bigger picture.
America’s healthcare system has got a reputation for being racist and sexist. Women giving birth in American hospitals are at risk, and not just from the husband stitch. A 2018 study showed that they had the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world. Representative Joe Kennedy III, a democrat for MA’s 4th congressional district, stated that ‘every single year, we mourn roughly 700 mothers who are lost to complications during their pregnancy. And at least 350 of those deaths are preventable’.
The American healthcare system isn’t treating women equally. During pregnancy, they risk death or serious trauma, and those who do survive then risk the mutilation of their vagina’s to fufil patriarchal pleasure.
It cannot be ignored that while the situation is dire for women in America, it’s considerably worse for African-Amercian women. They around 4 times more likely to die from birth complications than white women. Joe Kennedy confirmed that even when socio-economic context and access to care were controlled for (an argument often used to explain away racism), African-American women were still more likely to die.
Another factor is religion, specifically Christinaity. It is intertwined into American culture, with 75% of polled adults identifying as Christians in 2015. Arguably, the need to tighten a woman’s vagina is from the Christian idolisation of female virginity ands purity. The irony of this is that the women in question will have just given birth, making it pretty clear that she isn’t a virgin, nor does she need to pretend to be one to be more respectable.
Until America removes discrimination from its healthcare system, and does not allow politics or religion to invade it, women will continue to be forced to pay extortinate medical bills, only to have their bodies objectfied and mistreated.
Image credit: ninocare