• This 'husband stitch' is so-called because it supposedly makes the vagina tighter and therefore more pleasurable for the husband during sex. (Brand X / Getty Images)
Husband stitch. Pleasure knot. Daddy’s stitch: these are all cutesy names for what is essentially a form of female genital mutilation. A medical procedure performed unnecessarily and without informed consent, writes Ruby Hamad.
By
Ruby Hamad

14 Feb 2018 - 10:09 AM  UPDATED 15 Feb 2018 - 4:50 PM

As someone who’s never given birth, I’ve had – until last week –  the good fortune to never come across the term ‘husband stitch.’ For the similarly uninitiated, I’m sorry to inform you that this is the name given to an extra and entirely unnecessary suture performed after an episiotomy (perineal tearing) during childbirth.

This ethically and legally dubious practice is so-called because it supposedly makes the vagina tighter and therefore more pleasurable for the husband during sex. Of course, of all people, obstetricians would know this is utter nonsense; it’s not the size of the opening to the vagina but the condition of the vaginal walls themselves that impacts on tone and tightness.

More importantly, it makes sex excruciating for the women unfortunate enough to receive it.

The practice is thought to have originated in the 1920s when deliberate episiotomies were routinely performed in order to avoid accidental tearing, and from there things took a dark, if predictable, turn with some doctors thinking they could improve on nature by “making things nice and tight.” These days the husband stitch mostly regarded as either a myth, as a relic of a less enlightened time, or as a joke some doctors make to lighten things up.

As a society, we must be prepared to stop hiding our violence behind neutral language and call things by what they really are, not to sensationalise them but to treat them with the seriousness they deserve.

After many years of Reddit threads and ‘mummy blogs’, the term ‘husband stitch’ crossed into the mainstream last week after US website Healthline published a lengthy article on the practice stating “for many women, the husband stitch is not a myth but a terrifying reality.”

It makes for mindboggling reading. “Yeah, let’s go ahead and add in another stitch so we can make sure this is nice and tight,” one woman claims she heard her family doctor say to her husband shortly after giving birth. Another says she saw her midwife wink at her husband as she said she’d, “throw in an extra stitch for him.”

There is an important distinction between repairs and necessary interventions performed with consent during childbirth, as well as between inadvertently overzealous suturing (which sometimes happens) and this.

This is about the lingering perception among some doctors that a woman’s body is not entirely her own. The American College of Obstetrics admitted to Healthline that, although less common than in the past, the practice still happens.

 Husband stitch. Pleasure knot. Daddy’s stitch: these are all cutesy names for what is essentially a form of female genital mutilation.

Western Sydney University Midwifery Professor Hannah Dahlen told SBS Life that during her midwife training in the early 90s, it was “common” for doctors to turn to the father and wink, “I’ve put an extra stitch in for you.”

These days, she says midwives are far more likely to challenge doctors on the term – whether joking or not – and are also more likely to perform the repairs themselves. However, neither the joke or the practice has disappeared altogether. 

Even if said in jest, it is disturbing that such crass and disrespectful comments can be made when a woman is one of the most vulnerable positions she’ll ever be in her life. It is not only in poor taste to turn this experience into a joke that objectifies women’s bodies, it is a way of using language to minimise a gross violation of bodily autonomy.

Husband stitch. Pleasure knot. Daddy’s stitch: these are all cutesy names for what is essentially a form of female genital mutilation. We need to be clear on this. A medical procedure that is performed unnecessarily and without informed consent is mutilation.

I say this not to throw around such comparisons lightly. Labiaplasty, a purely cosmetic procedure that some women seek voluntarily to “improve” the appearance of their vulva is sometimes referred to – erroneously in my view - as a form of FGM.

The husband stitch is “simply about tightening things up for the entrance to the vagina and has nothing to do with the woman.” 

Jaha Dukureh, a Gambian anti-FGM activist underwent “the most extreme form” of cutting as a baby and, following her then-husband’s “excruciating” attempts to consummate their marriage, had to be surgically reopened to make sex possible. She has petitioned for a total ban on FGM, arguing that it holds no benefit for women, denying them ownership of their bodies for the sake of preserving, “the virginity of girls and keep them 'pure' until marriage,” and to “keep girls faithful to their spouses because of lack of arousal during intercourse.” 

Similarly, Professor Dahlen points out, where labiaplasty (when performed on consenting adults) is “geared towards making women more confident about what men might think of their bodies,” the husband stitch is “simply about tightening things up for the entrance to the vagina and has nothing to do with the woman.” 

This is not something that should be couched in sanitised terms, not least because of how vocal we are in condemning similar procedures when performed in non-western cultures.

As a society, we must be prepared to stop hiding our violence behind neutral language and call things by what they really are, not to sensationalise them but to treat them with the seriousness they deserve.

Uncommon or not, an extra stitch sewn into a woman’s body without her consent to make her vagina tighter is not a joke. It is not a gift for her male partner and it is not something any woman should fear may one day happen to her. It is dehumanising violence that results in physical pain and psychological scarring and we owe it to these women to refer to it as such. 

Do you know more? Contact SBS Life at pitchtolife@sbs.com.au

Follow the author on Twitter: @rubyhamad

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