Women’s health has a long and varied history of misinterpretation by the smartest of smart men. Think back to the darker days of science, when things like depression, anxiety, irritability, insomnia, and other indicators of mental illness were blamed on physical defects of the uterus (i.e., hysteria).
Sadly, until as recently as 1980, hysteria was a formally studied psychological disorder that could be found in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
For the sake of brevity, I won’t dive too deeply into the witch hunts of the 17th century, when women were condemned as witches and burned (much more frequently than men) for having mental illness or epilepsy.
Fast forward to today, where advances in science and technology have helped to improve healthcare for women. But those of us with a uterus know we have a ways to go, and that unofficial procedures like “the husband stitch” are still discussed and practiced to this day.
The husband stitch refers to an extra stitch applied after childbirth, when a woman has experienced vaginal tearing or an episiotomy — a surgical cut made in the perineum to help avoid accidental tearing during birth.
The extra stitch is meant to help increase pleasure after healing, not for the woman, but for the man she has a physical relationship with.
Even though it’s not an official medical procedure, and even though it’s not as common now as it used to be, it still happens. Today.
It’s not necessary, and it can even be harmful — so any doctor who does it is automatically in the wrong, medically. When you throw in the fact that it can happen without the woman’s knowledge, consent issues add a whole new level of malpractice.
The interesting thing to note is that since I've given birth in 2006, routine episiotomies are no longer recommended.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the routine use of episiotomy is not recommended for women undergoing a spontaneous vaginal delivery. However, a doctor or midwife might perform an episiotomy, should complications develop during labor. Normal vaginal delivery can cause tears to the vagina, and these tears sometimes extend to the rectum. Stitches may be necessary in some cases. But, the stitching should not extend into the vaginal opening.
— Kathleen Davis, Medical News Today
Despite this shift, some care providers still insist that episiotomies are the best way to go and apply them to women regularly during childbirth.
Something Was Off
After healing from giving birth to my son, it became apparent right away that my physical relationship with my husband was going to come with challenges.
Fortunately for us, my delivery had gone smoothly. My epidural worked, my labor was only 8 hours, and our baby boy was beautiful and healthy.
After waiting for six weeks, my husband and I were ready to get back to intimacy. But the first time we tried, the pain for me was too intense. I felt right away that something wasn't right with my body. Even though the episiotomy and stitches I'd been given had fully healed, I felt an excruciating tearing sensation. It was almost like my skin was about to be ripped in two.
As we lay in bed together, trying different positions and using lubricant to see if we could make things more comfortable for me, I got the distinct feeling that I had been stitched up too tightly when my episiotomy had been repaired. That was the thought that played in my head on repeat.
My husband was very gentle and patient with me, but the discomfort was a major mood killer.
Be Your Own Health Advocate
When I gave birth, I was numb from the waist down. I was told I would be given an episiotomy (even though the labor was going well, they still thought it necessary, for some reason). And while I can’t be sure I was purposely given an extra stitch, I do think things were sewn up a little differently — a little more tightly than they should have been.
The doctor in this position has a lot to calculate visually. They need to repair the skin that has been cut or torn, no more and no less. And no doctor is perfect. It’s possible they simply aimed a little too high and stitched the skin and muscle incrementally tighter than my pre-birth state.
I’m not suggesting that every woman who needs stitches after birth could fall victim to the persistent misogyny still present in medical care today. However — I am saying that we need to remember our history. I am saying that women need to be made aware of what is or isn’t good for their bodies heading into the miracle of giving birth.
Women need to know their options and be given ample opportunity to have frank discussions with their doctors about what will be done to their bodies before, during, and after the labor process.
Toward Gender Equality in Healthcare
The husband stitch used to be more common than it is now. I’m happy to say that we are progressing nicely beyond the dark days of witch-burning, diagnosed hysteria due to a floating uterus, and sexist medicine.
But as a woman, I believe we have to stop and think about how certain incorrect practices even came into play. Why did any medical professional ever feel the need to add an extra stitch after childbirth?
It wasn’t to help the woman enjoy a more pleasurable experience, that’s for sure.
It was all about enhancing pleasure for the man.
Several months after healing from giving birth, I was able to comfortably experience physical intimacy again, so it seems my body was able to naturally adjust. My experience wasn’t all that bad, but there are accounts of women who have had stitching after childbirth go so awry that making love is painful for them for years after.
To any woman who is about to become a first-time mother, don’t be afraid to voice your concerns about the healing process with your care provider. Doing the research, asking the difficult questions, and being aware of any possible pitfalls in your care will help normalize the conversation around women’s reproductive health.