What Feminists Should Know About Birth Rape

The treatment received by laboring women from care providers during childbirth can sometimes be so abusive, degrading, and violating that many survivors of these childbirth experiences are now terming it “birth rape”. Recently, there have been blog articles about whether or not women have the right to use the term “birth rape” to describe their traumatic birth experience where they felt assaulted by their care providers. In many of these articles there is acknowledgment that women have a right to feel upset or traumatized by their birth experience, but they do not have the right to label their feelings and experience as “rape”. The writers believe the word rape should be reserved for sexual assault only.

It seems apparent that many feminist bloggers bristle at the suggestion that the experience of childbirth can, for some women, feel like being raped. Some of these women may term their experience “birth rape”, and have subsequently suffered a backlash from the feminist movement of which many of them felt they were a part. Many childbirth and mothering issues do not get the attention they deserve from feminists, which is quite odd since most women will become mothers. This disconnect has never been quite so obvious as when these blog posts and the comments made to them appeared across the internet.

In her article “Bad Birth Experiences Need a New Name” Sierra of Babble writes, “The word rape is, for better or worse, taken. It refers to a non-consensual sexual encounter. Women who’ve been through a traumatic birth deserve their own language, not a term that suggests they’re a subset of rape survivors.” In her article “The Push to Recognize Birth Rape” Tracy Clark-Flory of Salon’s Broadsheet blog writes, “We have a special word for forced sexual intercourse, because it deserves a special word. Rape is used as a tool of terror, torture, intimidation and war (as we’re seeing right now in Congo). Sometimes it is about violence, sometimes it is about sex, and sometimes it is about both. It is a special kind of crime not only because of what it is, but also because of what it does to the victim (in her own mind and others’).” Though these statements are trying to make the case that women should not be using the term “birth rape”, their arguments are actually describing some aspects of birth rape quite well.

In her article “When Giving Birth is a Traumatic Violation is it Rape?” Brittany Shoot of Change.org’s Women’s Rights blog highlights one aspect of this issue when she states, “But I do wonder why women wouldn’t consider using terms like ‘labor assault’ or ‘maternal abuse’ or even ‘birth trauma’, which is already widely used, to describe their horrific experience.” A big problem with this issue is that there are no words for the experience of being traumatized for any reason around the events of childbirth. Women who have been traumatized by their birth experiences have literally had no language to express it. The term “birth trauma” is only beginning to sometimes refer to the mothers emotional reaction to events around childbirth, though mainstream society still thinks of the term as referring to the baby’s physical experience. Therefore, a woman can’t simply say she has birth trauma, she must clarify that her experience of giving birth was emotionally traumatic for her and she suffered from a postpartum mood disorder afterward. That’s quite a mouthful, and it is not very comfortable to say. Many women can’t find the words, and others find themselves misunderstood and being asked to justify why they would feel traumatized when they have a healthy baby.

There are even more issues with the matter of “birth trauma” and “birth rape” though. Mainly, they are not one and the same. A woman can experience birth trauma without having been birth raped. This seems to be a major misunderstanding with many people. Women do not term just any birth intervention “rape”. “Birth rape” is a term used to describe a situation where a care provider fails to provide informed consent and uses their position of power to pressure or force the woman, who is in a vulnerable position, to submit to the proposed procedure. The provider likely used manipulation, coercion, or force to get the birthing woman to do what the provider wished her to do. Often times, in the moment the woman feels her or her baby’s life is at risk, but later discovers that the medical necessity of the procedure is questionable. Even in cases where the procedure was clearly needed, the woman often feels that if she had been allowed to consent to it she would not have felt violated or traumatized.

Medical procedures done in childbirth usually do not cause trauma nor are they birth rape when they are done for a medical purpose and the birthing woman makes an informed decision to undergo the proposed treatment. Just like sex is not rape when the woman makes a decision without pressure to engage in sexual relations with a partner. It is only birth rape when a birthing woman is pressured to the point of feeling she has no other choice than to accept the procedure, or when she is actually physically forced to undergo a procedure she did not want or choose. Some women even scream and fight but are physically restrained or otherwise forced to submit. This is very different than being traumatized by an actual emergency that arises during childbirth. Both types of trauma, those caused by an actual emergency and those caused by provider abuse, can be labeled “birth trauma” but only one type can be labeled “birth rape”.

Even after the birth is over and the woman is left to suffer the trauma of the experience, there are still no words for her suffering. Though many women experience symptoms of trauma after childbirth, only a small number of them are labeled as having postpartum PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). A woman may experience classic symptoms of trauma such as nightmares, flashbacks and hypervigilance, but since she is a postpartum mother and not a returning soldier she will more often than not be labeled as having PPD (postpartum depression) by her doctor, therapist, or psychiatrist. She will likely be prescribed anti-depressants, told she is just depressed due to fluctuating hormone levels and sent on her way. Not only do these women not have the words to accurately describe the event they endured, they also do not have the words to accurately describe their suffering due to that event. The horrific experience they endured is lost in the PPD label.

It is surprising that the words for these things are only recently being created as the women in our culture have been suffering from birth trauma and birth rape for decades; they have just never had the words to communicate or even recognize this. The closest they have come to sharing their trauma is through swapping horror stories at baby showers, which only served to normalize the experience of being mistreated by care providers. When there is no language or recognition for an experience, the victim is left alone and suffering without the ability to reach out for the proper type of help and support. Nor is she able to advocate for change, as there is no recognition that a problem exists to the point that there aren’t even words in our language to speak about these things to one another. This is why the term “birth rape” is now catching on. These women are ready to express their feelings about what happened to them, and many of them feel as though they have been raped. This is the word they have chosen to talk about their experience and to bring awareness to the issue.

Since only a minority of women are talking about this issue, it might be assumed that only a minority of women are victims of it. Postpartum Support International tells us that only 1 – 6% of women are diagnosed with Postpartum PTSD after childbirth. However, this small percentage is deceiving. Many women are never diagnosed because their experience with medical care providers during birth was so traumatic they are terrified to return to the care of a physician or a mental health provider and never receive a diagnosis. Other women do seek help from their doctor or from a mental health provider, but are not accurately diagnosed. Many doctors are reluctant to implicate themselves or their colleagues in contributing to a patient’s birth trauma, so are more comfortable with the diagnosis of postpartum depression. Many mental health providers do not seem to be aware of or accept all of the research available about trauma following childbirth and oftentimes miss signs of trauma and focus on signs of depression. Add to this the fact that post-traumatic stress disorder is a very specific illness and nine criteria must be met to be diagnosed with it. A woman could have debilitating trauma and meet eight of the nine criteria, but not be considered to have post-traumatic stress disorder.

When women self-report on their symptoms of trauma after childbirth we find higher percentages of affected women. The 2008 Listening to Mothers Survey: New Mothers Speak Out Report states that 18% of women experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress after childbirth. The American study by Soet, et al. (2003, Prevalence and Predictors of Women’s Experience of Psychological Trauma During Childbirth, Volume 30, Issue 1, pages 36–46) says that 34% of women experienced an obstetrical event in childbirth that was traumatic. The current birthrate in the United States is around 4 million births each year. If we assume that the research holds true, and “18 to 33%” of birthing women will experience trauma following childbirth, approximately 720,000 to 1.3 million women are experiencing birth trauma each year. We do not know at this time if the root cause of their trauma is actual or perceived obstetric emergencies or mistreatment by care providers, but often these two things overlap and we do know that many women who label themselves as having experienced birth trauma will cite some form of mistreatment or difficulties with care providers as a reason why they feel traumatized.

The concern though seems to be that when women use the term ‘birth rape’ they are somehow taking something away from a woman who uses the term rape to refer to sexual assault. Sierra of Babble writes, “My problem is that by conflating a bad birth with sexual violence, we do a disservice to survivors of both experiences.” Brittany Shoot from Change.org’s women’s rights blog writes, “We can all agree that violation of any kind is frightening, traumatizing, and wrong. What these women describe is alarming and terrifying. But doesn’t calling an invasive birthing experience ‘rape’ sort of diminish the experiences of sexual assault survivors?” What women who use the term birth rape are trying to convey though is that birth rape is sexual assault. Just because the intent of the perpetrator was not to enjoy sexual acts with the victim doesn’t mean it is not perceived by the woman as sexual assault. Most sexual assaults are not even about sex, they are about power and control over the victim. In listening to women’s stories over the years, birth rape is also about power and control over the victim. What is wrong with a woman using a term that seems to accurately describe how one feels to be physically assaulted, usually towards one’s sexual organs, by someone who wields power and control over that person? How does this take anything away from someone else who is physically assaulted towards their sexual organs, by someone who wields power and control over them? That’s like saying that grieving for a pet takes away the real and true grief that another person feels at the loss of a human. How does a similar experience with similar feelings associated with it take anything away from each other when similar terms are used to describe those situations?

Despite what some of these blogs indicate, it does seem that the term “birth rape” and the concept of being assaulted while giving birth are beginning to be recognized. At the end of Brittany Shoot’s article on Change.org is a poll asking people if they feel the term “birth rape” is acceptable. 67% of responders felt that “birth rape” was an appropriate term to use. In a recent article in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, Dr. Pérez D’Gregorio, the president of the Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology of Venezuela wrote about the introduction of a new legal term called “Obstetric Violence”. The article states, “The term appeared in March 2007 when the ‘Organic Law on the Right of Women to a Life Free of Violence’ entered into force and was published in Venezuela’s ‘Gaceta Oficial’ (Official Gazetta).” Dr. Pérez D’Gregorio quotes from the law when he states,

Chapter III, Article 14, of the law establishes that:”Violence against women referred to in this Act, includes any sexist act that is likely to result in harm or physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, occupational, economic or patrimonial suffering; coercion or arbitrary deprivation of freedom, and the threat of executing such acts, whether occurring in public or private practice.”

The definition of “Obstetric Violence” is then defined which is quite similar to the term “birth rape”,

In Article 15, 19 forms of violence are described, including obstetric violence, which is defined as: “…the appropriation of the body and reproductive processes of women by health personnel, which is expressed as dehumanized treatment, an abuse of medication, and to convert the natural processes into pathological ones, bringing with it loss of autonomy and the ability to decide freely about their bodies and sexuality, negatively impacting the quality of life of women.”

The article then talks about what acts specifically could be considered to be “Obstetric Violence”,

Chapter VI concerns offences, and Article 51 establishes that: “The following acts implemented by health personnel are considered obstetric violence: (1) Untimely and ineffective attention of obstetric emergencies; (2) Forcing the woman to give birth in a supine position, with legs raised, when the necessary means to perform a vertical delivery are available; (3) Impeding the early attachment of the child with his/her mother without a medical cause thus preventing the early attachment and blocking the possibility of holding, nursing or breast-feeding immediately after birth; (4) Altering the natural process of low-risk delivery by using acceleration techniques, without obtaining voluntary, expressed and informed consent of the woman; (5) Performing delivery via cesarean section, when natural childbirth is possible, without obtaining voluntary, expressed, and informed consent from the woman.”

The term “obstetric violence” adds validity to the concept of birth rape. At the same time, it offers an alternative, though more formal term to use. Perhaps now that this term is recognized legally in Venezuela, it might help raise awareness and get some legal recognition for this issue here as well.

One concern about this term seems to be for the perpetrator of the act rather than its victims. In her article “Bad Birth Experiences Aren’t Rape” Amanda Marcotte of Slate’s XXFactor blog writes, “If the social definition of rape is rooted in the trauma to the victim and not in terms of what the actual rapist did and why, we’ve lost our main tool in stopping rape from actually happening. … So our terms have to center around the actors, not the objects of their actions.” Marcotte argues that it is the experience of the rapist that matters more than the experience of the victim in what we call this act. This does not, in any way, seem like a feminist viewpoint. There is such a wide range of sexual assault, from child molestation to date rape to stranger rape. Is the child molester any less of a rapist because he meant no harm to his victim? Shouldn’t we center our terms and our activism around the experience of the victim and not of the perpetrator?

Another concern that has been brought up is that these bloggers feel it is inaccurate to compare sexual assault with assault during childbirth simply because the women involved in both of these experiences subsequently suffer from the same mental illness; post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Brittany Shoot from Change.org’s women’s rights blog writes, “The same symptoms that one might exhibit after assault of any kind — PTSD, for example — do not necessarily mean that these two experiences — rape and birth trauma — can be compared.” Clark-Flory of Salon’s Broadsheet blog seems unwilling to accept that similar reactions, such as PTSD, indicate similar experiences. She claims that we can not compare traumatic childbirth to war, thus we can not compare traumatic childbirth to sexual assault when she states, “but it would be no more accurate to conflate traumatic childbirth with war than with rape. These are very different experiences that can have very similar results. Similar results do not imply the same experience.” Again, traumatic childbirth and “birth rape” are not one in the same. Birth rape is a specific type of birth trauma, one in which the victim is violated by her care providers. People can develop PTSD from many different types of traumatic experiences. Not everyone who is exposed to these traumatic experiences will get PTSD, so it is useless to try to gain insight on the similarity of experiences based on the diagnosis of PTSD afterward. However, the specific reactions of women who have been sexually assaulted and who have been “birth raped” can be of some use in understanding why women may use the term “birth rape”.

Sharon Storton, a licensed psychotherapist in the California area who works extensively with both birth traumatized women and sexual assault victims created the following table to help us understand how similar the experiences of sexual assault and birth rape are:

A soldier returning from a war may have PTSD, but it will manifest itself in a different way than a rape or birth rape victim. In reading through Wikipedia’s entry on Rape Trauma Syndrome the lists provided of the several stages of trauma are so similar to birth rape that it is difficult to find any differences. One might change “fear of men” or “fear of women” in the phobia section to “fear of doctors/nurses/hospitals/clinics” for a birth rape victim. Other than a few minor adjustments like that, this matches up extremely closely to what a birth rape victim goes through, yet there are many differences here than what a soldier with PTSD might go through. Therefore, it is not that a sexual assault victim and a birth rape victim are diagnosed with the same illness, it is that their specific reactions, symptoms, and cover-up symptoms throughout the entire course of that illness are mostly the same with only a few minor differences.

When childbirth in which the care provider assaults a woman, lies to her, violates her body and removes her baby from her care can not be called rape, then what do we call it? It seems the underlying reason that women are not allowed to use this word is the idea that these women brought this situation upon themselves and therefore don’t deserve to use the term rape to describe it. Consider Brittany Shoot’s comment from Change.org: “I also have to wonder if we wouldn’t have arrived at this grave state of affairs if we hadn’t all complied with the medicalizing of our bodies, giving birth, and women’s health in general.” It is irrelevant why our great grandmothers chose to start giving birth in hospitals, what is relevant is that most women choose to give birth in a hospital setting and a small number at home with a midwife. Even though most women are choosing to invite trained professionals to their births, they still have an expectation of respectful and kind treatment. Despite where women give birth and how many medical procedures they may choose in the process, all women deserve to make their own choices and control their own bodies during childbirth. Every woman has an expectation of kind treatment, of decision making power, and of her legal right to informed consent and refusal. When those expectations are not met and she is assaulted and violated, she has the right to call her experience whatever she thinks describes it accurately.

Instead of arguing what words to use, perhaps feminists should try to understand the abuses that are sometimes occurring against women during childbirth. The patriarchal system that creates an imbalance of power and leads to the suffering and trauma of a potentially large group of women should be embraced as a feminist concern, not dismissed because of the language used to describe this issue. As it stands, the feminists who have argued the point polled and got their answer: the majority of people who responded to the poll believe that birth rape is an appropriate way to define it. If they can accept that, we can move on to preventing it and obtaining redress for those who suffer its effects.

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Thanks to Sharon Storton and Jenne Alderks who contributed to this article.

This entry was posted in activism, Birth Trauma, Informed Consent, Legal, Postpartum Depression. Bookmark the permalink.

47 Responses to What Feminists Should Know About Birth Rape

  1. Anna Mairaghi says:

    THANK YOU, VERY INTERESTING AND VERY TRU

  2. yvonne says:

    I guess what you missing in this article is the importance of intent, and I think that might be one of the most important aspect of the debate!

    • Jennifer Zimmerman says:

      I do address intent, second paragraph after the gray quote boxes that starts with, “One concern…”. I know it’s a long article to read.

    • genie says:

      I’m not sure about intent. It’s been shown that some men commit rape and don’t even know it, since certain perpetrators think that the word “NO!” is foreplay.

      Ignorance of the criminal nature of an act is no defense.

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  4. autumn says:

    Well it felt like rape ….
    in lithotomy position with a Dr who carried on trying to suture me, with me asking her to stop for a minute while I tried to calm down – I even accused her of rape but she still did not stop.

  5. bee says:

    I told my doctor to stop during a vaginal exam not once, but three times. By the third time I clearly said “Get your hands out of me right now”. She said “ten more seconds” and kept going. Then proceeded to sweep my membranes even though I had specifically told her before she started her vaginal exam that I did not consent to that procedure.

    I told her to stop, and she kept going. In any other situation that would be assault. But because she was my doctor, she got away with it with barely a slap on the hand. Meanwhile, I was so traumatized that my labor literally came to a halt. I suffered PPD and PTSD over my son’s ‘birth’ for almost 10 months now.

    I tend to call my experience birth trauma. However, I was raped when I was a child, and I was surprised at how a lot of the feelings are the same. It brought a lot of feelings flooding back. If I want to call my birth experience birthrape, then I will. And sometimes I have to those closest to me. I think until someone experiences birth trauma like that, they just can’t understand why some women would choose the words they do. If a woman feels like a certain word describes her experience, let her. It’s her experience. She’s the one that will take it to the grave, not you. Let her define it in the way she needs to.

    I’ve heard other women call their experience birthrape. Never once have I thought that downplayed my actual rape. In my mind, they are two completely separate terms.

    • Jennifer Zimmerman says:

      I’m sorry about your experience. I also had my membranes stripped without consent. I generally call my experience birth trauma as well, but have used the term birth rape with a few. I just feel strongly that women should define their own experiences in the way they choose to.

      Do you know about the online community at Solace for Mothers? It is private and offers peer support to heal from birth trauma: http://www.solaceformothers.org/mothers-forum.html I am volunteer with Solace and a moderator there.

  6. Thank you for this interesting critique which was written at the same time as I have been reflecting on the issue as a midwife: http://sarah-stewart.blogspot.com/2010/11/obstetic-violence-new-legal-term-in.html

    How do you see this being addressed?

    • Jennifer Zimmerman says:

      Hi, I read your post. I think the questions you are pondering are good ones to consider. You might want to think about alternative ways to handle those situations where the woman retains her full power.

      I see this being addressed by raising awareness that this happens and it leads to postpartum mood disorders. By educating providers; doctors, midwives and nurses about their role in this issue. By continuing to try to pursue legal action when providers act against a woman’s consent – though this avenue is extremely hard to pursue. By educating women to have conversations prenatally about informed consent. The organization I volunteer with, Solace For Mothers, is working on some of these avenues and provides questions to get this conversation started: http://www.solaceformothers.org/informed_consent_tool.html

  7. Sara Thacker says:

    After having one baby in the hospital I swore I would never have another child at a hospital. The nurses were jerks. One nurse came in to check how far along I was and didn’t even give her name. She just pulled up the sheets, stuck her fingers in and I could do nothing since I had been hooked to a monitor, drugged up and placed in an uncomfortable bed. It was a horrible experience and I didn’t go back to a hospital for my next birth. Giving birth with a midwife was so much more pleasant and much easier. My body recovered much quicker. The mistreatment of women shouldn’t be tolerated and feminist should stand up for women who’ve had bad experiences instead of putting them down.

    • Jennifer Zimmerman says:

      I’m sorry about your experience. My first birth was traumatic and took place in a hospital with midwives. My second was not at all traumatic and took place at home with midwives. However, it is important to remember that these types of births can happen in any setting with any type of provider.

  8. zweedledee says:

    I could barely get through this without tears from remembering my first birth experience. That was not assault, it was rape. No way someone is going to cut you open stick their arms inside of you to the elbows and rip out your baby and throw it at you in disgust. No way that someone is going to sit there and grin at you while you are dry heaving and writhing in pain with no meds being pushed through your epidural, being pitted, and strapped down with a catheter, being able to feel the entire thing while the AROM takes 30 minutes for him to *try* to bust the amniotic sac while you scream that you want to be killed. While the other nurses stand around and say, “I don’t think you should be doing that.” and “Something is really wrong here.” Then when the anesthesiologist finally comes and put meds in the epidural, relief… just as some woman nurse came and fondled my clitoris while I’m passing out from nearly 30 hours of torture without food or water. Call that what you want. I think it was horrific, and my baby and I would have had a SAFER, better birth behind a dumpster in an alley. I would rather have my baby in a parked car than in a hospital. I will NEVER be able to look at a sadist OB again for the rest of my life and not feel fear.

  9. JMT says:

    This is fantastic. Thank you for the cogent, bit-by-bit analysis and response to the articles you linked. I hope this gets the attention it deserves!

  10. mj says:

    Thank you for this informative article. It was particularly interesting to me to read the Venezuelan definition of “obsetric violence” as I have often struggled to define what felt so violent about my son’s birth and I see so many of the things that happened to me listed there.

  11. Selena Carlson-Hagstron says:

    Having survived both sexual assualt rape, and birth rape, I believe the term birth rape perfectly acceptable. As a feminist, I find it abhorent that the correlation between the two acts of violence , is lost on those who need to empower women the most. It seems these same individuals would also classify rape in varying degrees, regardless of the emotional trauma being the “same”. Does it matter if there were weapons involved? Does it matter whether it was a known assiliant or a stranger? Rape is an abusive act of power whether it happens in Labor & Delivery or in an alley.

  12. ElElRi says:

    Amen, Selena Hagstron!

    Ironically, the first question people ask me after I tell them “I was molested by my older brother” isn’t something like, “Wow, how do you deal with your family?” It’s “How much older is he than you?”

    They’re searching.. searching and hoping for an excuse.. an out.. searching and hopeful.. thinking good thoughts about others.. like, if he was only a couple years older than me, maybe it wasn’t really molestation, maybe it was just childhood experimentation. Maybe they can explain it all away and end my agony!

    Alas, I’m actually very intelligent and yes, he’s 9 years my elder.. and yes, although consensual .. I wouldn’t say a 4-5-6 year old could engage in informed and truly consensual sexual activity with a 13-14-15 year old. Do you? I always feel sorry to burst their hopeful bubble, though, right after feeling sick to my stomach and like they’re being arshats.

    I would not say the birth of my child was a birth rape. Yes, it gave my PTSD. But, I would say that I was not raped but instead I was medically assaulted, belittled, and then ignored as a mother in my child’s first few sickly days.

    However, I have great empathy for those who -are- indeed sexually assaulted re: raped during their births. I understand PTSD. I understand people with power abusing it and using it against women’s sexual organs. That’s, well, one of the legal definitions of rape. I understand people infantalizing women, their memories, and trying to “think good thoughts” about others.. to the point of hurting those closest to them by shrugging off their trauma or even becoming hostile about it.. because? It’s just too freaking hard for them to try to deal with the thought. It’s also just too hard for them to get over their “doctors are infallible gods..ahem.. extremely respectable..and wouldn’t do something like that” mantra that they all seem to repeat to themselves and each other over and over and over and over.

    It wreaks and reminds me of “McDonalds is yummy” that they all seem to repeat to themselves and each other over and over and over and over.

    I guess if they say it enough times, it seems to become true.

    I don’t even know why women insist on having this argument. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

    I’ve guess never understood folks, though. It probably has something to do with my atypical upbringing.

    • Jennifer Zimmerman says:

      I know exactly what you mean about the searching, I’ve been through it many times. Instead of “I’m sorry, that must have been so hard” I got “did you hire a doula?”, “Did you take [insert popular childbirth class here]?”, “Did you hire a midwife?”, “did you have a birth plan?” or “didn’t you just get the epidural?”. I’ve been accused of both planning to little and planning too much, not educating myself enough and putting too much effort into educating myself, and forced to relive my trauma to satisfy the inquiries of the people who are just looking for what I did wrong or what I interpreted in the wrong way. This is called blaming the victim, and it shouldn’t be happening to the people who suffer these events.

  13. Alayna says:

    Thanks.

  14. Claire says:

    As a fellow woman, I do not understand how much argument there is whereby our sister’s experiences are picked apart and judged rather than being supported and used as catalyst for change. I applaud well written articles such as this which articulates how I feel about the subject so well.

    I have not experienced rape or birth rape thank goodness, however I feel great compassion for those who have. As a student midwife, things like birth trauma play on my mind every day at work. I do hope more things like this raises discussions and awareness as well as help bring women together to support each other. It *is* the patriarchal system that allows this to happen, but we all buy into the patriarchal system so we are all responsible. Lets vote with our feet, demand homebirths, refuse unnecessasry intervention, use birth supporters and stand up for our rights. Don’t buy into the fear that medicalisation perpetuates.

    • Jennifer Zimmerman says:

      I just want to point out that many women are also traumatized at home by their midwives. There is no type of provider that is a protection from being birth raped. This is individual problem and it needs to be solved by educating providers of all types.

      • genie says:

        I certainly agree that it can happen anywhere with any type of provider, and yet you must admit that it is MUCH more likely to happen in a hospital with doctors or nurse-midwives whose model of care puts them under the auspices of doctors.

  15. Heather D says:

    Thank you for a well thought out and supported article. I came into the birth community a feminist and under the impression that labor is awful and painful and a disaster waiting to happen. My OB confirmed that when he scheduled me for an induction and we both could have died. It wasn’t until I wanted a VBAC that I learned about the lies and paternalism and LACK OF CHOICE and informed consent going on in the medicalized birth community, and that is was them that almost killed us.
    I wanted to call my women’s college (where, disappointingly, Ms. Clark-Flory attended) and alert Planned Parenthood—we women are being cut for the doctors and hospitals benefit, not ours or our babies! And I was so excited because I thought finally—we have common ground with pro-lifers-surely they must see how important choice is—autonomy over our own bodies! I was so idealistic. Unfortunately I learned within a year of my activism that “feminists” weren’t budging too quickly in their view of birth, nor were the “pro-lifers.” But things change slowly, I am learning.
    What I really want to say, about feminism, is how disappointing it is that many feminists just can’t seem to let go of calling it something else because a baby is inside. If only they would see that they are adding to the problem of naming pregnant women as “other” and thus have different rights, different experiences, different everything. I know plenty of women who were indeed raped at their child’s birth. To hear the stories is shocking, heartbreaking, gut wrenching. Stories of violence, of being held down and objects and hands being thrust inside their vagina against their will , while they shouted “no” over and over. THIS IS RAPE. Just because it is to “help” get a baby out doesn’t change that fact.
    Not all traumatic births are rape. I hope only a small amount fit in that category. But the fact remains there are providers out there who are getting a sadistic pleasure over their control and torture of these women, and are in perfect positions to carry it out, supported by everyone around them because they are doctors! For the “feminists” to say otherwise just because they are healthcare providers and there is a baby in there is utterly preposterous and so painful to hear. These “feminists” are doing exactly what they supposedly are fighting against—taking away women’s rights and voices because they are pregnant. Seems they only care about the rights of women as long as they want to end a pregnancy early or prevent pregnancy. When will they see what is happening at the births? For the women I know who have been victims of birthrape, they are not feeling jaded from a bad or traumatic birth. They were truly raped. To say so doesn’t take away from the many other types of rape and birthing women have the RIGHT to not expect to be physically assaulted when in their most vulnerable state. What a tragedy that this is still marginalized, even ostracized, by the women who should be fighting against it.

    • Jennifer Zimmerman says:

      I totally agree. I spent a year at an all women’s college for the 2009/10 school year. It was an eye opening experience where I realized most feminists are not at all concerned with any mothering issues. However, I did encounter individuals who were very interested in birth rights and mothering issues and I also gave a convincing and well received presentation in my women in art class that Alice Neel’s pregnant nudes and breastfeeding paintings were a feminist statement. My point is that there is hope and students in college are a great place to bring this message as they are often more open minded to new ideas.

  16. Fantastic article. I felt the “chills of truth” when I came across the term “birth rape.” It’s right on, and I’m astonished feminists are fighting against its use.

  17. Barbara Clark says:

    I am in complete awe of all of you for your courage to speak out and your will to survive such abuse. Your children are blessed to have such incredibly strong mothers.

  18. Beth says:

    Thank you for starting a dialogue about this important topic. As a birth doula I personally witnessed and experienced this. It left me traumatized because I could do nothing but stand by helplessly. Both of us (birthing mom and me) were being degraded and my role usurped by what I believed to be a very abusive health care provider. I left this birth feeling like I was watched a rape!! (This was almost two years ago.) In the end the provider got what she wanted – a cesarean birth during office hours : (

  19. Teresa says:

    Great article. Thank you. I would argue that child molesters may be MORE dangerous because they mean no harm. Psychopaths don’t know the difference between right and wrong, correct? Are they not the most feared criminals?

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  21. Kelly says:

    Thank you so much for this. I’m linking to it from my blog on Friday.

    “The patriarchal system that creates an imbalance of power and leads to the suffering and trauma of a potentially large group of women should be embraced as a feminist concern, not dismissed because of the language used to describe this issue.”

    Feminism continues to do a horrible job regarding mothers/carers and children, including reproductive rights outside of abortion. It is no surprise to me to see many feminists unsupportive of the women speaking up and speaking out on abuses in the US committed against birthing women. In this way, feminists aren’t doing any better than the mainstream.

    Your article is a great 101 (and beyond) – thank you for putting the time into it.

  22. Spilt Milk says:

    Thank you for this piece, it is certainly one of the best I have read on birth rape and birth trauma. I admit I am in tears after reading some of the comments here: I really cannot understand how people who purport to be feminists can wish to dismiss the experiences of women, like your commenters, who have suffered what really can only be described as sexual violence. Just because something occurs in an obstetric setting does not make it acceptable, or worthy of a different label. I have no doubt that some of the feminists who object to the term birthrape would happily call a forced cervical smear performed on a non-pregnant patient during a GP visit rape, yet when there is a baby involved their convictions waver. I agree with Kelly that mainstream feminism is not doing mothers any favours and this is hugely problematic. The abuse of women in obstetric settings is not a problem that can be compartmentalised away from other feminist concerns: we undermine our anti-rape message when we ignore certain forms of rape and we undermine our feminist message when we tacitly agree to the relegation of mothers to second-class citizen status.

  23. Melissa says:

    Thank you for this important article. We are based in Australia, and have been supporting women after a traumatic birth for 8 years (through IRL support groups). We also write a blog titled “Birth Trauma Truths”. Brittany Shoot links to us in her article that you have quoted above.

    We wrote an article called “When Birth Becomes a Violation”, (which is our article that Ms Shoot links to) where we responded to a woman’s misinformed comment about rape and childbirth. http://birthtraumatruths.wordpress.com/2010/08/26/when-birth-becomes-a-violation/

    We were astounded by the response to the article, which included a link in a syndicated article about birth rape in all major Australia newspapers, and an invitation for an interview from a Canadian radio station.

    The most poignant aspect of the article for us, was the responses from readers. We received comments from survivors of sexual rape, and women who had traumatic births, plus those who felt that ‘birth rape’ described their experience, as well as concerned midwives, and other women who offered their support.

    It is so important to keep discussing the issue, and explore all the aspects you have gone into above. Women’s voices must be heard, and we applaud you for bringing to light the issues of birth rape, birth trauma, and the importance of the experience of each woman in birth.

  24. Jen says:

    I came here through Kelly’s blog link. Your article raises some interesting points, particularly the difficulties of defining traumatic birthing experiences as separate from PPD for mental health professionals.

    Women who have these experiences do have a right to call it birth rape if they so choose. However, my problem with this term is that it carries such a pejorative meaning that it alienates the perpetrators from the discussion – something that is self-defeating. The word rape causes doctors to get their backs up and dismiss the woman’s point of view as hysterical and probably a result of PPD, rather than a genuinely traumatic experience in giving birth. The doctor comes from the point of view that s/he was doing his/her best work as a professional and is unlikely to accept that s/he may have done anything wrong. I’m not defending the actions of these professionals by any means. My point is that I don’t think it furthers the discussion of this problem to use such a loaded term, particularly with men. It’s about using language that will encourage men to listen without lessening the importance of the experience.

    I’d also ask you to perhaps not use the experience of a soldier with PTSD as a way to compare the PTSD that a woman experiences from traumatic birth. My husband is an army medical provider and works with individuals with PTSD. He also has a mild form of PTSD himself. Because the experiences of soldiers with PTSD are so varied, I don’t think that this comparison adequately portrays the type of PTSD that women may suffer from a traumatic birthing experience. I think that the comparison of PTSD of rape victims is much more valid. Or perhaps kidnapping victims.

    I think that people will find in the years to come that these types of experiences happen less and less, particularly since more women are going into OB practice and midwivery is becoming a more common practice.

    I agree that it’s irrelevant how many people choose to give birth at home. But while it may seem like an ideal experience, there are times when birth cannot happen and have a successful outcome without the equipment one finds in a hospital. A friend of mine is an RN. Her aunt is a midwife – a lay midwife who does home births. Because she didn’t get one of her patients to the hospital during a difficult birth, the baby died. He wouldn’t have died had he been born in the hospital, as the doctors would have been able to deal with the complication. In this instance, the midwife was the woman’s aunt. She felt like she trusted her aunt to take care of her and her baby. That’s kind of like a coercion: not wanting to doubt someone you love. So obviously traumatic birthing experiences are not limited to the hospital and to doctors.

    Education and communication are the only tools for changing the ways that people view the birthing process and what is necessary for a successful birth. I believe that using a loaded term like rape eliminates the chance for that to happen.

  25. shauna says:

    Thanks for a great article. I agree fully that the term birth rape is completely accurate.

    In Australia, where i live, several obstetricians have been charged with sexual assault over the past few years due to their conducting unnecessary ‘procedures’ on women patients. One gyn actually amputated a woman’s clitoris, for no medical reason. But as your article points out, its no surprise as the system gives ample opportunity for abuses of power in small and large ways.

  26. Flor says:

    Thank you for this. I haven’t read it all the way thru but I really, really hope that some of these feminist bloggers do. And I hope that they respond and consider how hurtful their words have been.

    I think the women who’ve been resistant to *allowing* (ugh) women to use the term “birth rape” are coming from a place of privilege. I think the framing of what rape looks like, while better than the “stranger jumping out of the bush” image, still leaves out the experiences of many marginalized people. Many of us are assaulted by systems and institutions, not just thru interpersonal violence.
    Mainstream discussions of rape on college campuses often leave out the experiences of people of color, immigrants, the poor, disabled…
    It leaves out the sexual violation by law enforcement who abuse power thru strip&cavity searches. It leaves out the effects of colonization& federal laws that have made it so most Native American women are raped by NON native men. It leaves out the people being raped and assaulted in conflict zones (ie U.S. Border and detention centers). And it leaves out what we’re talking about here: birth rape.

    Many people (especially people of color, those in the trans comm., people in poverty, people with disabilities, etc) have experienced violation at the hands of medical staff. Brown bodies aren’t respected in society and they CERTAINLY aren’t respected in the doctor’s office.
    And the violation doesn’t just happen during birth. Many of us have experienced forced, humiliating pelvic exams. We’ve had doctors and nurses laugh at and demean us AS they’re denying our right to refuse procedures. And I’ve never given birth or been in prison, but my heart goes out to those who go thru both at the same time. Women in prison are often shackled during birth, intensifying the lack of bodily autonomy.

    When these writers scoffed at other women defining their OWN experiences as rape, they silenced SO MANY PEOPLE who experience sexual violence thru institutions. And I’m glad that people are speaking out against it.

  27. lynn says:

    I’m glad there is a conversation about this going on, but while everyone argues over what to call it could someone please just tell me how to deal with it because I can’t take the nightmares and anxiety anymore. I just want to erase it all from my memory.

    • Jennifer Zimmerman says:

      That is a great point. I’ve already addressed this a tiny bit in some of these comments, but I could say a lot more about this too. I think I will make another post addressing this question, so look for it here in a week or so. Also, I’m sorry about your experience and what you are going through now. I know how hard it is.

  28. genie says:

    What a wonderful and well-thought out piece! It’s hard to deny that unwanted acts against the sexual organs is a form of rape — isn’t that the very definition of the term? How much easier the whole thing is in an atmosphere that, at the very least, overlooks such acts against women who are chemically restrained flat on their backs with their bare genitals exposed.

    Due to personal experience, though, I not only think back on two terrible births, but also several other horrendous non-birth related assaults at the hands of gynecologists (and one nurse practitioner).

  29. Melissa says:

    Just to add another point of view, you don’t have to have been held down and have been screaming “no” for it to feel like a sexual assault. When I was in labor my baby’s heartrate dropped and set off an alarm. Five people rushed into my room, gave me drugs and opened the amniotic sac, and installed a scalp fetal and internal contraction monitor. All they while they were “trying” to be kind and explain what was happening. I’m sure they would be stunned to hear me call that a sexual assault. However, to be unable to give consent while a woman has her hands up your vagina while you are *either* drugged or in the mini-coma that is laborland (or both) seems to me to be not much different than the guy who says “she was drunk and things happened fast–she didn’t actually SAY no”. The woman in that scenario may feel she was raped, whether it would hold up in court or not. (I used to work a sexual assault hotline, so I have seen these situations.) I agree, women need to use the words that feel right to them to claim their experiences. Providers also need to understand that simply “following protocol” does not mean that they are doing the right thing. Certainly, we need to completely eliminate the scenarios where women are physically forced or their protests are ignored. But we also need to instill in practitioners that birth FEELS different to many women than an appendectomy. Silence is not the same as consent. Violations such as separating women and babies, uterus-grabbing postpartum, and other “standard, hospital-policy” procedures are still violations.

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  31. Max says:

    Really bullshit sensationalizing the stories. So if a cancer patient is given treatment he did not agree to, it is wrong, the docotr/hospital may even be legally in trouble. However, I will not write it as “Male oncologist RAPES male cancer patient”

    • Jennifer Zimmerman says:

      He might though, and that is my point. We should let people describe their own assaults as they experienced them.

  32. Pingback: Unhappy Birthdays, Part 1: Why more mothers are saying they were “birth raped” | ? Bianca Pencz

  33. eva says:

    As a feminist – who also deals with issues like sexual assault – I would just like to say that I TOTALLY support the use of the term “Birth Rape”.

    I wish you all the best of luck and hope you will find solace and healing.

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