“Yeah, let’s go ahead and add in another stitch so we can make sure this is nice and tight,” Sarah Harkins’ family doctor said to her husband moments after she’d given birth to her daughter in 2005.
“I was so out of it physically, emotionally, and mentally. The doctor said it to him. Not to me… I was just lying there like a lump,” remembers Harkins, a New Orleans-based doula and lactation counselor.
Following a traumatic induction of labor, an epidural placed too late for relief, and a forceful extraction of her baby, Harkins was horrified to realize that the family doctor she’d carefully chosen to attend her birth was giving her a “husband stitch.”
A husband stitch, or daddy stitch, is an extra stitch given during the repair process after a vaginal birth, supposedly to tighten the vagina for increased pleasure of a male sexual partner.
The idea of the husband stitch has gained some recent attention following the publication of Carmen Maria Machado’s story “The Husband Stitch” and the responses to it.
Is it a myth? A hurtful joke? An urban legend? A combination of hearsay, misunderstanding, and chauvinist attitudes? To some, the very idea of a husband stitch is a silly notion, not at all based in the reality of care.
But the practice is very real.
There are no scientific studies that show how many women have been affected, nor is there a clear method for evaluating how prevalent the husband stitch truly is in obstetrics. But women share their stories as anecdotes, whispered as warning.
The proof is in women’s words. Or sometimes, it’s sewn into their bodies.
Angela Sanford, a 36-year-old mom from Fort Mill, South Carolina, received a husband stitch when she gave birth to her first child in 2008.
She didn’t find out until five years later, after years of “excruciating” pain during sex.
At an appointment for a Pap smear with a nurse midwife she’d never seen before, Sanford said that the first question the midwife asked her during her exam was “Who stitched you up after your first birth?”
“I explained and she said, ‘This is not right.’ I just started crying, saying, ‘Can you tell me what’s wrong? Because I know something is not right,’” Sanford continued. “And that’s the first time I ever heard the term husband stitch.”
Sanford’s midwife felt that she’d been stitched “too tight” by the hospitalist who had managed her first delivery, an unmedicated birth with two hours of doctor-coached pushing and a fourth-degree tear.
“He gave you what some people call a husband stitch,” Sanford recalled the midwife telling her. “I couldn’t connect in my mind why it would be called that. My midwife said, ‘They think that some men find it more pleasurable,’” she recalled. “My husband has been worried about me and fearful of hurting me. He would never have asked for this.”
The history of episiotomies, from popular to discouraged
For Stephanie Tillman, CNM, a certified nurse midwife at the University of Illinois at Chicago and blogger at The Feminist Midwife, the very idea of the husband stitch represents the persistent misogyny inherent in medical care.
“The fact that there is even a practice called the husband stitch is a perfect example of the intersection of the objectification of women’s bodies and healthcare. As much as we try to remove the sexualization of women from appropriate obstetric care, of course the patriarchy is going to find its way in there,” Tillman told Healthline.
What do you do when you’re confronted with the patriarchy just after giving birth?
Harkins, 37, remembers how she laughed at her doctor’s statement — at the thought of the “old, crusty Army doctor” overstitching her in order to give her husband more pleasure. “I couldn’t even process, but I kind of laughed, like what else do you do when someone says that? I had just had a baby. I didn’t think much about it because the whole birth experience was so traumatizing, but now that I think about it differently, the implications of that are just crazy.”
Husband stitches may have been more common when episiotomies were routine during vaginal birth. An episiotomy is a surgical cut made in the perineum — the area between the vagina and the anus — usually to widen the vagina to hasten birth.
From about the 1920s forward, the popular medical belief was that an episiotomy made a cleaner cut that would be easier to repair and heal better. The logic was also that…