Is 'the husband stitch' a medical myth? Women speak out about their experience.
It sounds like a crude joke: A doctor stitches up a woman extra tight following childbirth while throwing a wink at her husband. Yet “the husband stitch” — when a doctor provides an “extra” stitch while repairing an episiotomy or vaginal tear for the purpose of increasing male pleasure during sexual intercourse — has long been whispered about. Some women claim that the under-the-radar stitch left them in immense pain, and with a lack of trust in their medical provider.
Minnesota resident Amarah Thompson, now 23, tells Yahoo Life that she was stitched following 70 hours of labor, five of which were spent actively pushing. When her baby was born — in a hospital, despite plans to birth at home with midwives, due to unforeseen developments during labor — she says she was “completely spent and vulnerable.” That’s when her doctor began stitching her second-degree vaginal tear.
“As she prepared to stitch, she said, ‘You are going to be SO glad I did this,’” she recalls. “That statement sat wrong with me, but I was weak and trying to focus on my new son. I put my trust in her.”
While she knew that her prolonged labor would lead to a longer recovery, Thompson realized something was amiss when she couldn’t sit on a flat chair at the six-week mark, and felt a “pinching” and “tugging” that she knew wasn’t normal.
“My midwives and I confirmed that I was significantly closed compared to before,” she explains. “Three stitches, my midwife guessed. There was a seam of sewn tissue that had never torn, closing me up almost 50%. When I confirmed this, it crushed me.”
Thompson says she couldn’t be intimate with her partner, knowing she would “tear” if she tried, and that she couldn’t even work out without pain. She ultimately had a vaginal-tear revision, a medical procedure that was covered by insurance, and was able to return to intimacy with only minor pain. She has since filed a state board complaint against her doctor, and says she now suffers from hospital anxiety. The ordeal, she explains, “ruined what I thought was a positive hospital experience.”
“My belief, though, is that it was done intentionally,” she says. “It’s hard to shake the snide comment she made in the hospital before stitching me. Being mutilated is a different kind of feeling, especially by someone you chose to trust. It is dark. It is ugly. Of all the struggles I went through in pregnancy, birth and postpartum, this was the worst.”
Thompson is not the only woman to speak out about being intentionally stitched too tightly. In a May 2021 essay for Vogue, writer Sarah Hoover shared that her OBGYN gave her an extra stitch during labor, winking, and saying, “You didn’t really tear, but I gave you a stitch, mostly for him.” New Orleans-based doula Sarah Harkins told Heathline in 2018 that her 2005 birth included a tightening stitch as well. Yet thus far, there are no studies on how many people actually received this stitch — and in many ways, it has been cloaked in the idea of it being just a myth.
Board-certified OBGYN Dr. Jennifer Conti stresses that the husband stitch is “not a medical thing.”
“Nowhere in any medical textbooks is there teaching about a ‘husband stitch’ or tightening of the vagina post-birth for the purpose of hypothetically improving sexual pleasure for the birthing person's partner,” she says.
Yet that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Board-certified OBGYN Dr. Staci Tanouye says she believes it happens, if only based simply on the “strong misogynistic histories” of obstetrics and gynecology, and of medicine in general.
“While I obviously can't speak for every single OBGYN, I can say that I have never seen it done, and was never taught to do anything similar,” she notes. “I would hope that this is no one's current practice. My only experience with it in real life is when, once or twice, a male partner made a really bad joke about putting in an extra stitch to which he was instantly shot down by every team member in the room.”
Dawn Thompson, a former doula who is now a maternal health advocate and the CEO of Birthify, a virtual support service for pregnant people, says she’s only seen and heard of the husband stitch being done by male obstetricians. She calls the practice “100% driven by paternalism and misogyny,” as it prioritizes male pleasure over a woman’s comfort.
Thompson believes there’s a connection between the husband stitch and the rates of modern maternal care’s use of the episiotomy — an incision) made in the perineum, which is tissue between the vaginal opening and the anus, during childbirth.
“With episiotomy, you’re cutting into the muscle and it takes much longer to recover. In some cases, they won’t ever properly recover,” says Thompson. “A tear only tears the skin, and rarely tears into the muscle. I think ‘the husband stitch’ happens a lot less often now because we’re doing a lot less episiotomies.”
Doctors began performing episiotomies regularly in the 1920s, as they believed that it would be easier to repair, and cause less trauma and damage overall, than a natural vaginal tear. That’s why, by 1979, 63% of all deliveries in the United States included an episiotomy. It wasn’t until further research was done that the tide shifted. It was found that episiotomies may cause more harm than good, and may lead to negative consequences such as incontinence, pain during sex and infections. In 2006, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended against episiotomies, and by 2012, only 12% of vaginal births included one.
The husband stitch is never supposed to happen — but, according to labor and delivery nurse Liesel Teen, founder of Mommy Labor Nurse, there are ways to protect oneself during labor from unwanted stitching. While she notes there are emergency cases where episiotomies are necessary, talking with your provider about your desires up front — as well as finding out their record of and beliefs regarding episiotomies, stitches and the like — is important, as doctors are obligated to obtain your informed consent for any medical procedure.
“You should also add it to your birth plan, mention it to your nurses, and make sure your partner/support is on board and is comfortable advocating for you in the event you aren’t able,” she says.
Teen adds that there are steps to take should a doctor do a husband stitch following the birth.
“If the stitch was performed without informed consent from the patient, then legal action might be the next appropriate step, so it might be in the be interest of the patient to contact an attorney,” she explains. “Failure to obtain informed consent during any medical procedure can have potential legal action for the person or people performing the procedure.”
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