Nothing dampens a couple’s sex life like a new baby. As if sleep deprivation, lack of relaxation time, and stress weren’t enough, many new mothers endure a variety of physical woes associated with breastfeeding and recovery. For some new moms, these aches and pains are profoundly, unnecessarily, worse. Women are beginning to speak up—against their doctors. Others are suing them.
For generations, a procedure called the “husband stitch,” also known as the “crown stitch,” has been performed on new mothers as part of routine post-childbirth medical care. When a woman’s vagina—and sometimes perineal area including the rectum—tears or is cut open to extract the baby during birth, her tissues are typically sewn back together. Tears requiring repair occur in 44 to 77 percent of all births. But some doctors add an extra stitch to tighten the vaginal opening and purportedly enhance the man’s pleasure.
“Occasionally, while I’m in the process of post-delivery vaginal reconstruction, the significant other will comment on the condition of the vagina and request that I ‘throw in an extra stitch’ for him,” says obstetrician Heather Rupe.
However, the degree of tightness is not due to the size of the vaginal opening, but to the health of the muscles in the pelvic region. “Adding unnecessary tension to the skin at the vaginal opening is not going to improve anyone’s sexual satisfaction – it’s only going to cause the woman pain,” says Rupe. Note to new dads: If sex is painful, she’s not going to want to have it.
“My husband has been worried about me and fearful of hurting me. He would never have asked for this,” says Angela Sanford, a South Carolina woman who experienced years of “excruciating” pain during sex after she received a “husband stitch” after giving birth to her first child in 2008. At a routine pap smear years later, her physician explained why.
“He gave you what some people call a husband stitch,” Sanford recalled the midwife telling her. “I couldn’t connect in my mind why it would be called that. My midwife said, ‘They think that some men find it more pleasurable.’”
The procedure is not part of medical training nor discussed in medical literature (although it has made its way into literature), says Stephanie Tillman, CNM, a certified nurse midwife at the University of Illinois at Chicago and blogger at The Feminist Midwife.
“The fact that there is even a practice called the husband stitch is a perfect example of the intersection of the objectification of women’s bodies and healthcare. As much as we try to remove the sexualization of women from appropriate obstetric care, of course the patriarchy is going to find its way in there,” she says.
The procedure is given without the woman’s consent or even knowledge, although some women recall it being discussed between a doctor and new father. Stitching occurs immediately post birth, when many women are flooded with the hormone oxytocin or in a state of shock from a traumatic birth experience. Either way, their emotional state renders them detached from their physical being.
“In the moment, I wouldn’t have used the word ‘violated’ because my brain just couldn’t process violation at the time. Now that I’ve had time to process, I have a clearer sense of what I went through and what was done to me — the injustice, to wound me in my privates, at a time when I was most vulnerable,” says Sara Harkens, whose doctor told her husband, “Yeah, let’s go ahead and add in another stitch so we can make sure this is nice and tight,” moments after she’d given birth to her daughter in 2006. She has suffered years of pain and sexual dysfunction as a result. “I was so out of it physically, emotionally, and mentally. The doctor said it to him. Not to me… I was just lying there like a lump.”
Women around the globe are outraged.
Jess, from Australia, discovered that she had been given the husband stitch after she was unable to have sex at all because she had been sewn up so tightly. She had to be surgically cut open again, and then re-stitched appropriately, or as much as possible. She wrote to the hospital after the ordeal, in hopes of saving some other woman from the trauma her doctor had inflicted on her. “It was as if he was programmed to give me a tighter vagina,” she said. During her second pregnancy, she suffered a vaginal prolapse, a condition in which the muscles in the pelvic floor collapse, often due to damage or stress.
Women have called it "western medicine's FMG" or Female Genital Mutilation.
Ironically, a procedure meant to enhance men’s sexual pleasure can backfire by rendering the vagina too small to enter or rendering sex so painful that a couple’s intimacy and relationship to each other deteriorates. The procedure only makes the opening smaller, not the vagina itself. Some women complain that the resulting pain makes running or even using a tampon impossible. Others develop psychological problems due to the pain and fear of sex and its effects on their marriage. All this means that the supposed beneficiaries of the procedure suffer as well. In one lawsuit by a Toronto woman who was sewn up so tightly that sex was impossible, a request was made by the husband for $75,000 in damages — for his pain and suffering.