Assault, Complicity, and the Husband Stitch

Men, let’s talk. But first, I have some reading for you.

Start with Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch.” You might find it a difficult read, as I did; it is not a standard narrative, but instead jumps around in tone and style. But it’s well worth the effort. In the middle is a passage that gives the story its title: Following a difficult birth that requires an episiotomy, the woman’s husband and her doctor discuss adding an “extra stitch.”

Then read Jane Dykema’s “What I Don’t Tell My Students About ‘The Husband Stitch.’” In it, the writer discusses Machado’s story, and how women struggle with not being believed. “When you start poking at the idea of an absolute truth,” Dykema writes, “a truth unfiltered through someone’s perception, it can fall apart entirely.”

Finally, read two recent examples of articles about whether “The Husband Stitch” exists, or whether it’s just a myth created by husbands and doctors with dark humor, and by mothers in anesthetic haze: “The Husband Stitch Isn’t Just a Horrifying Childbirth Myth” (Carrie Murphy, Healthline) and Who’s Afraid of the ‘Husband Stitch’? New Moms Everywhere (Lauren Vinopal, Fatherly).

There are plenty of more articles, many of them focusing on whether it even ever happens, or on how rare it is. While Dykema discusses the issue of trauma being about believing survivors, and how women are routinely gaslighted, others argue about whether it ever happens. Reality is important, but so is perception.

There’s also a common pattern among the authors: With rare exceptions, they have names that are typically women’s. Men seem as quiet as they were at the Golden Globes.

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That’s not typical for us. We’re a gender that likes to talk constantly, even when we’re not the experts. In the wake of the Golden Globes, I saw it suggested that men just don’t know what to say, or how to contribute, that we’re struggling to “stay in our lane” on the subject of sexual harassment and assault.

Sure, as a white man, I’m struggling to stay in my lane. The current article, like many of my articles, veers dangerously across the road. I have some women and some people of color who graciously help me with course corrections, but I still make mistakes. So I get the concern about overstepping.

At the same time, in my experience, when men are this quiet on a subject, it’s not because they’re trying to stay in their lanes. It’s because they’re ashamed of their lanes.

For this article, my primary concern is not whether extra stitches performed after episiotomies are rare or common. What matters to me, and what should matter to you, men, is that a single husband, father, partner, and lover has ever chortled about it.

The problem is not just the procedure, the problem is also the purpose. And that purpose exists regardless of how often the procedure is performed.

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We live in a rape culture. That doesn’t mean that all men are rapists; it means that we live in a culture that enables rape by normalizing assault and harassment, where jokes and victim-blaming trivialize aggression against women to the point that rape is an extreme point on a continuum, not the savage aberration it should be.

Take a look at Everyday Feminism’s list of examples of rape culture. Take a look at 11th Principle: Consent!’s rape pyramid.

Then think about what “the husband stitch” is. As in Machado’s story, it often takes place shortly after delivery, when the mother is sedated. Whether the doctor or the husband initiates it, it is a bit of wink-wink “humor” about performing unnecessary surgery on a person who cannot consent. Surgery that is performed exclusively for the sexual pleasure of the husband. Surgery that is to be decided on by the person who the woman has entrusted to make the right decisions.

My child was born by emergency C-section. During much of the procedure, my partner was incapable of making decisions. It was on me. I didn’t ask for that, but it came with the territory. It was a serious responsibility. It wasn’t time for joking.

So when I first heard about the husband stitch as a concept, my first reaction wasn’t, “Gee, I wonder how often it really happens?” My first reaction is, “What is wrong with any husband who would think it’s funny?”

Then I remembered: I used to be one of those men. Not that I made jokes in the delivery room (at least not that I recall, but I was pretty punchy at the time). But I’m sure I’d heard of the concept of the husband stitch a decade or so ago, and it was in the context of man talk, that vulgar, collusionary locker room talk we so vehemently denied exists when Trump tried to throw his entire gender under the bus.

“Wink wink, nudge nudge.”

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Furthermore, I’m not 100% sure that, in that setting, half-tired, with another man in the room there to tempt me with a tacky joke about assaulting my wife, I would scold him for his unprofessionalism and threaten a lawsuit.

That’s how deep the programming is. I have long perceived myself as “a beta male,” seen as a liability to “alpha” men and as “one of the good ones” by many women. My programming tells me to laugh when other men laugh, even at things that I find deplorable, because I don’t want to lose my “man card.”

This is how deep rape culture is. I would like to say that this is it. That we liberal cisgender men were all awakened by last year’s #MeToo, #TimesUp, it will never happen again, that we will now fight side-by-side with the people we have long helped to oppress.

Then “The Husband Stitch” becomes a point of articles, and rather than standing up and expressing our disgust, we men decide it’s another good time to “make space for women” through our deafening silence.

So let me say it clearly: Even joking about “The Husband Stitch” is a form of sexual assault. It reinforces one of the most insidious aspects of our rape culture, that an intimate partner would let something like that occur for his own benefit. This doesn’t even address the cases where it actually happens, which it does.

Men: It’s easy to say “No more, we’re done,” but changing our programming takes focus, reflection, dedication, and brutal honesty about our complicity.

But, change we must.

Originally published at The Good Men Project.

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