A few days ago, I read Carmen Machado’s The Husband’s Stitch (2014). The short story draws from many historical stories. However, Machado blurs the line between what is horror and what is an everyday struggle in a woman’s life. The title talks about an extra stitch sometimes given to a woman after the area between her vagina and anus is either torn or cut during childbirth. The purpose of the extra stitch is to make the vagina tighter than it was before childbirth in order to increase the male partner’s pleasure during sex.
“Husband’s Stitch stories and legends act as cautionary tales that highlight the dangers of society and the misogyny that persists in the central institutions of marriage and motherhood,” says Mary Angeline Hood in her article Desire and Knowledge: Feminist Epistemology in Carmen María Machado’s ‘The Husband Stitch’.
The “private” female body thus becomes a site for potential refinement. Socio-cultural accounts of vaginal size construct a tight (but not too tight) vagina as desirable, and a ‘loose’ vagina as undesirable. The importance of size (or depth) is clearly observable in contexts as varied as slang, comedy and surgical practices to tighten the vagina.
While there are now some official definitions of the Husband’s stitch, most testimonials of it come from pages and pages of message board entries and forum discussions on pregnancy websites. The Wikipedia page on the Husband’s stitch claims that “It appears that no studies exist to determine whether the procedure occurs and how many women have been affected beyond anecdotal evidence.”
“When that baby doctor asks if you want the husband’s stitch, you tell him, “I’ll take two.”
– Cliff’s misogynist father in Season 2 of Doom Patrol
Many claim it to be an urban legend. While legends and stories have been disregarded by many as mere entertainment, they sometimes counter and serve as collections of experimental knowledge and are not always perceived positively by scientific and progressive notions. Science constantly attempts to distinguish itself from all other knowledge, on the basis of its logic and objectivity, however, it is as susceptible to the influence of ideas of masculinity and femininity as any other system of knowledge.
Forums that talk about the husband’s stitch are based on the chatter on message boards, women’s chatter – a place which I should always approach with scepticism or so I have been told over the years, a section of documentation I might dismiss as an “old wives’ tale” (a term with its own bothersome history and connotations).
There is no clear method to evaluate how prevalent the husband’s stitch is nor are there any scientific studies to study how many women have been affected. But women have been sharing their stories and whispering their warnings.
“The fact that there is even a practice called the husband’s stitch is a perfect example of the intersection of the objectification of women’s bodies and healthcare,” says Stephanie Tillman, a certified nurse-midwife in an article by Healthline, dated 2018.
Dr Janna Doherty, a gynaecologist, says she would never perform the stitch. “I have probably had [the] request 10 to 15 times over the course of 18 years,” says Doherty. “Typically, it is said in a ‘joking’ manner, and… responses from the labouring women range from dirty looks at the partner to laughing,” reads an article by Healthline.
“My ex-husband jokingly said, ‘Hey, throw an extra couple stitches in there for me,’ and the doctor (and everyone in the room) laughed.”
– An account from a Reddit user
The “unnecessary suture” was first outlined in print by Sheila Kitzinger in her 1994 book The Year After Childbirth, though it remains speculative the extent to which the practice has taken place historically. Today, most anecdotal accounts of the stitch begin and end with men requesting it, (rather jokingly, sometimes seriously) from a doctor after their partner gives birth. Many claim it’s simply a joke made by husbands to ease the tension after the dreadful surgery of childbirth.
The “husband stitch” isn’t officially defined medically, there are no clinical studies of it. Can a practice like a husband stitch be notified against if there’s no official discussion of it, no scientific research around it, no record of it, no language around it, nothing to point at?
Every time a woman receives a husband’s stitch, is it in her medical file? Does it say, “2nd-degree perineal laceration repaired + husband stitch”?
I re-read Machado’s ‘Husband’s Stitch’ and a particular sentence stuck with me.
“If you are reading this story out loud, give a paring knife to the listener and ask them to cut the tender flap of skin between your index finger and thumb. Afterwards, thank them.”
The proof is in women’s words. Or sometimes, it’s sewn into their bodies.
Sakshi Sadashiv Kadam is a student, learner and unlearner.
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