It would be absurd if your optometrist decided to give you botox during an eye exam without asking your permission. It would be preposterous if your dermatologist pierced your ears during a routine checkup without asking you. Heck, it’s upsetting enough when your hairdresser trims more than the two and a half inches you’ve asked them to. So the fact that many women have been the victims of the husband stitch, a completely unnecessary and painful non-consensual procedure because their OB/GYN thought it would make them more sexually appealing… it blows the mind.
Crystal Henry of Texas recently shared her experience of being given a “husband stitch” without her knowledge after delivering her first child.
“I was furious”
Crystal Henry had a difficult labor. Her plans for a drug-free delivery were tossed out the window, and she was given an episiotomy (an incision through the perineum) she hadn’t planned for.
During the first few minutes of her new child’s life, Henry recalls some unusual behavior from her attending physician:
“The doctor injected me with a little local anesthetic, and told me he was going to just sew me up “nice and tight” and we’d be all done. He winked at my husband when he said it, but I was too out of it to even be annoyed.” (1)
At her two-week postpartum checkup, the same physician made some discouraging comments about her stretch marks. “I fought back the tears, but to this day I wish I had strangled him. The jail time would’ve been worth it,” Henry writes.
At six weeks post-partum, Henry was given the go-ahead to start having sex again, but she felt nowhere near ready. Once she was, she realized something was very wrong. “I figured I’d just work through the pain, and I did try. But it felt like my husband wrapped his junk in flypaper, then rolled it in shards of glass,” she says.
She brought her concerns about excruciatingly painful sex to her physician, who was dismissive. “He told me he didn’t have answers for me, but that I should just stick it out and it would eventually be fine.”
So stick it out she did. And when she and her husband were expecting again, she switched doctors, but never brought up the issue. “I resigned myself to the idea that it was my new normal.”
Luckily, Henry’s story doesn’t end there.
But countless women like her went through the same thing, and never get answers.
Routine Episiotomies & Husband Stitches
Many of our readers will know from experience that episiotomies used to be a routine part of hospital deliveries. Doctors used to think that making the incision would prevent more extensive vaginal tears from happening. But once scientists looked into it, they found the opposite could be true.
Routine episiotomies are associated with: (3)
- Postpartum perineal complications
- Higher rates of perineal pain
- Urinary incontinence
- More blood loss during delivery
- Higher rates of anal sphincter lacerations
- Surgical incisions can be more extensive than a natural tear would have been
- Painful sex postpartum
In some cases, an episiotomy is medically necessary for a safe birth. But otherwise, doctors and midwives now focus on preventing perineal tears in other ways. The most common midwifery techniques include being open-minded about birthing positions and providing perineal support during labor (pushing against the perineum to protect it from tearing as the baby’s head stretches it). (4)
But there’s more to the story about why routine episiotomies were used in the first place, according to Dr. Robert Barbieri, chair of obstetrics and gynecology and reproductive biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “People were taught in the ’50s and ’60s that routine episiotomy was good for the woman. What they thought is that if they did a routine episiotomy, they’d have a chance to repair it and that during the repair, they could actually create a better perineum than if they hadn’t done it. The idea [was] that we could ‘tighten things up.’” (5)
This line of thinking, apart from being a horrifying example of how women’s health needs have a history of being overlooked in medical systems, isn’t even biologically accurate. OB/GYN Dr. Jesanna Cooper explains that “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.” (6)
A 2015 study conducted in Cambodia, where episiotomies were still a routine procedure at the time, researchers found that the belief that “women would be able to have a tighter and prettier vagina” was a common explanation provided by physicians. (7)
Crystal Henry’s Story has a Happy Ending
Luckily for Henry, her second delivery undid the damage caused by the original perineum stitches.
“I had a dream labor and delivery with my next baby, and my doctor said I naturally tore just slightly along my episiotomy line. That birth ended up being a healing one in so many ways. Not only did I get the natural labor and delivery I wanted, but sex didn’t hurt as much. At the six-week mark, I was ready to try, and at the eight-week mark I actually enjoyed it.”
Henry then decided to be a surrogate mother and opted for midwife care this time around. During one of her midwife appointments, she finally got the answers about the cause of her pain.
“She examined my nethers, and after some poking around, she told me she thought she found the sources of my pain. The first was a strained muscle. Apparently, I’d been so apprehensive about sex that I’d actually pulled a vag muscle trying to keep intruders out. The second was that it appeared I’d gotten an extra stitch at some point. I wasn’t currently sewn too tight, but there was evidence that at some point I’d been sewn up past the original seam.”
“I was furious,” Henry writes. “If I ever see that male OB again, I might just give him a wife stitch right in his d*ck hole.”
- ‘My Doctor Gave Me A “Husband Stitch,” & I’ll Never Forgive Him’ Romper Crystal Henry. Published September 14, 2019.
- ‘Episiotomy: When it’s needed, when it’s not’ Mayo Clinic
- ‘Perineal Tears and Episiotomy Prevention and Healing’ Community Care Midwives
- ‘Episiotomy, Once ‘A Little Snip’ Childbirth Routine, Curbed By New Guidelines’ Huffington Post Catherine Pearson. PublishedAugust 22, 2012
- ‘The Husband Stitch Isn’t Just a Horrifying Childbirth Myth’ Health Line Carrie Murphy. Published September 27, 2018
- ‘Reasons for routine episiotomy: A mixed-methods study in a large maternity hospital in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’ Pubmed Clémence Schantz et al. Published May 2015