Does The ‘Husband Stitch’ Really Exist?

Not just the stuff of urban legend on internet parenting boards and blogs; a cautionary tale from medicine’s past, the ‘husband stitch’ is still a terrifying reality for some women after childbirth.

So what exactly is a husband stitch? It’s estimated around 90% of women experience some degree of perennial tearing during childbirth – from first degree (where the tear is just into the lining of the vagina), to fourth (which goes deep into the layers of the vagina and extends to the anal sphincter). After childbirth, these tears require stitching in order for the vagina and perineum (the area between the vagina and anus) to heal. However, some women are being given an extra and unnecessary stitch without their consent, designed to make the vagina tighter in order to please their husband or partner, hence the name.

The term ‘husband stitch’ was coined by British author Sheila Kitzinger in her 1994 book The Year After Childbirth: Surviving and Enjoying the First Year of Motherhood, but reports of the practice date back to the 1920s when episiotomies started to become commonplace. For the uninitiated, an episiotomy is a surgical cut made in the perineum in order to widen the vagina, rather than allowing it to naturally tear – as it was believed this cleaner cut would heal better when sewn back up.

It’s assumed some doctors decided to ‘improve’ on things when adding the stitches; an idea borne from a lack of knowledge about women’s sexual anatomy. In reality, sewing the opening too tight can make intercourse extremely painful, which in turn impacts on relationships and causes psychological damage.

Today, medical professionals should know far better. Firstly, we’ve long since ditched routine episiotomies. In the 1980s, it was revealed the procedure caused the very issues it was thought to prevent; leaving many women suffering from severe tissue trauma and pain after childbirth (episiotomies do still happen nowadays, but usually only when clinically necessary – such as when a vacuum or forceps are needed). We now also understand the pelvic floor is what matters when it comes to vaginal tone – regardless of whether a tear happens naturally or as a result of an episiotomy, making the opening of the vagina smaller does not make it tighter at all.

But, according to reports, husband stitches are still happening, and without women’s prior agreement. In an exposé on the topic, Healthline spoke to two American women who had been affected after giving birth as recently as 2005 and 2008. Angela Sanford, a 36-year-old mother from, South Carolina, told the publication it caused her to suffer “excruciating” pain during sex.

She also raised the major issue of consent. “I felt betrayed because something unnecessary was done to my body that I didn’t ask for,” Sanford said. “It was a harmful decision made without my consent. That’s not what you should get when you are in the hospital to have a baby.”

So are women in the UK currently at risk? No studies exist to determine where and when it occurs, or how many women have been affected. SL also spoke to Mr Ruwan Fernando, Consultant Gynaecologist at The Portland Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK, who told us he’d never encountered the procedure and it was not part of standard practice in the UK.

Women can experience a new-found soreness or a tightness after childbirth even if they haven’t had the infamous husband stitch. If it’s four to six weeks since you’ve given birth and you’re still experiencing discomfort, it’s vital to see your GP to check you haven’t got an infection.

"Perineal stitching should be done by an experienced clinician under sterile conditions using appropriate sutures and instruments," Mr Fernando told us. "If not, this can lead to wound infection, scar tissue formation and painful sexual intercourse."

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