The Objectification of Women’s Bodies in Healthcare: The Husband Stitch

Giving birth is an intimate and oftentimes painful moment in a woman’s life. Most would think that they can rely on their partner and their doctor for support through this intense process, but an unofficial procedure called the husband stitch shows that this is not always the case.

What is the husband stitch? When a woman gives birth vaginally, sometimes her perineum (the area between her vulva and anus) is surgically cut by doctors or is torn naturally. After this happens, the woman needs stitches in order to be able to heal properly. However, the husband stitch is an extra stitch that some women unknowingly receive to their vagina after this occurs. This stitch goes beyond what is medically necessary after vaginal birth. Some do not believe that the husband stitch is real and regard it to be a medical myth. While it is not a widespread practice in the US, there are still many women who are victims of the husband stitch after giving birth. Unfortunately, since the husband stitch is not officially defined medically, there are very limited studies of it. Because of this lack of public knowledge and research on this awful malpractice, it is critical that feminists around the world rise up to spread awareness on this issue.

What is the purpose of the husband stitch? Let’s be clear: this extra stitch is given to the women without their permission to make the vaginal entrance more narrow than normal and thus enhance the sexual pleasure of a male partner. However, it can cause intense pain for women during intercourse given the unnatural tightness that this extra stitch causes. As a result, the husband stitch prioritizes the sexual pleasure of the male partner over the physical well-being of the mother. Today, most accounts of the husband stitch are from men requesting it from the doctor after their partner has given birth.

To understand why and how the husband stitch exists today, it is important to know its history in relation to episiotomies, the procedure that necessitates stitching in the first place. The husband stitch was much more common when episiotomies (the medical incision of the perineum during childbirth) were a routine procedure for childbirth. Episiotomies were a common procedure starting in the 1920s because of a false medical belief that surgical cutting and restitching of the perineum would result in better healing after childbirth. Unsurprisingly, OB/GYNs believed that they could also create a better perineum after birth by performing an episiotomy and would oftentimes add a husband stitch to “tighten things up”. By 1983, over 60% of women in the US had received an episiotomy while giving birth. However, research done in the late 1980s found that routine episiotomies were actually harmful to women, and left many with long-term issues such as severe tissue trauma and painful intercourse. Today, episiotomies are not as common and as of 2012, only 12% of births involved an episiotomy.

There are still some medical providers who perform episiotomies routinely because they believe that it is a “cleaner” approach despite the research showing otherwise. This shows how there is a blatant lack of consent regarding the mother and her body during childbirth. As a woman, this seems like an extremely intrusive form of power over a woman, where these doctors believe that a woman’s body can’t naturally correct what their scalpels can. A study in the NIH database found that the continued use of episiotomies in Cambodia was due to many doctors’ belief that they would provide women with a “tighter and prettier vagina” if they gave her an episiotomy. Even though there are many proven risks to episiotomies, these doctors still perform it due to a perception that the woman’s body would be more appealing and pleasurable to men. In addition to this, research into Brazil’s high episiotomy rate found that doctors routinely used the husband stitch after the episiotomy to make the vaginal opening even tighter after delivery, showing that this is an international issue that mothers deal with. It seems that even after going through the painful and grueling process of giving birth, a woman’s sex appeal is somehow more important to these medical providers than her health.

The husband stitch has long-term impacts on the women who receive them. Some reported that the extra stitching was agonizing and “much worse than labor”. Most reported painful sex that lasted for years after the procedure and others stated that after giving birth, every time they had sex their perineum would tear back open, and as a result their vagina and perineum healed incorrectly. Women also felt a fear of “handing their body over” and did not feel in control of what would happen to them during labor or afterward. Because of the husband stitch, some women feel a perception that to give birth is to completely give up their bodily autonomy and hand their body over to the doctors, and be returned one that they do not recognize.

It is ridiculous that the husband stitch could ever be performed by medical providers. Whether a tear happens naturally or by an episiotomy, many OB/GYNs have found that it is not even possible to make a vagina tighter through stitching. This is because the vaginal tone and tightness have much more to do with the strength of a woman’s pelvic floor muscles, not the size of her vaginal opening. Not only has the husband stitch brought unnecessary pain to new mothers, but it does not even succeed in what doctors attempt to use it for. The goal of stitching up a woman with a tear in her perineum is not to tighten the vagina for male pleasure, but to bring the skin back together just enough to aid the body’s own healing process. Simply put, the extra husband stitch is altogether unnecessary and harmful.

This procedure is a prime example of the apparent objectification of women’s bodies in healthcare. Even after going through the painful process of giving birth, victims of the husband stitch are only seen as sexual objects and their partner’s pleasure is prioritized over their own health and proper healing. The doctor’s job as an OB/GYN is to help fix the tissues that have been disrupted by childbirth. Therefore, it is ethically wrong for them to manipulate the natural size of the vaginal opening when repairing the lacerations caused by childbirth, especially when the woman is still recovering from giving birth and is not even physically able to consent to it.

The husband stitch perpetuates the harmful idea that a woman’s body only exists to pleasure men and this thought needs to change. It’s about time that women are not seen as sex objects, and a good way to do this is through a comprehensive sex education program in early education. Boys and girls need to understand how immensely pregnancy affects women and how horribly a husband stitch can impact women’s bodies so that when these children grow up to be doctors, they will not value a woman’s sex appeal over her physical well-being. This idea needs to be ingrained in their heads early on so that they prioritize aiding women after childbirth rather than objectifying them. Additionally, there needs to be more widespread knowledge and attention towards the husband stitch because many people don’t even know what it is, and several who do know about it only think it to be a medical myth. Feminists of the world must unite to spread the word because the husband stitch is a very real problem, and it will not end unless attention is brought towards it.

Gopika Ramesh, Government Relations/PAC Intern

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