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“Birth Rape” Rhetoric is Ugly, Misleading

Some factions within the natural childbirth movement are attempting to popularize the concept of “birth rape.” The idea is that women who are handled roughly, verbally abused, or bullied into unwelcome interventions during labor are literally being raped by their health care providers.

Amity Reed describes birth rape as follows:

A woman who is raped while giving birth does not experience the assault in a way that fits neatly within the typical definitions we hold true in civilised society. A penis is usually nowhere to be found in the story and the perpetrator may not even possess one. But fingers, hands, suction cups, forceps, needles and scissors… these are the tools of birth rape and they are wielded with as much force and as little consent as if a stranger grabbed a passer-by off the street and tied her up before having his way with her. Women are slapped, told to shut up, stop making noise and a nuisance of themselves, that they deserve this, that they shouldn’t have opened their legs nine months ago if they didn’t want to open them now. They are threatened, intimidated and bullied into submitting to procedures they do not need and interventions they do not want. Some are physically restrained from moving, their legs held open or their stomachs pushed on.

Some of what Reed is describing here sounds like plain old assault and battery or verbal abuse. She also implies that some instances of so-called birth rape are medical procedures performed against the patient’s will. If a doctor performs a procedure on a competent adult patient against her will, that’s assault. Women in labor should have the right to refuse treatment if they’re mentally competent to do so. 

The problem with the “birth rape” rhetoric is that lumps clear-cut criminal offenses and blatant malpractice in with any intervention that the woman finds traumatic. It’s an emotionally loaded term that invites the demonization of well-meaning doctors and nurses. As Amanda Marcotte notes at Double X, the definition of rape should be rooted in the motives of the rapist:

It may seem piddling to worry about these issues, but actually it’s a big deal. 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. After all, the way to stop the trauma-infliction is to get those inflicting trauma to cut it out. And we can’t even begin that conversation until we know why they do what they do. So our terms have to center around the actors, not the objects of their actions. Which doesn’t mean that we have any less sympathy for the women victimized by either rape or traumatic birth experiences, just that we’re more exacting in our language and more productive in our activism.

The concept of birth rape is unhelpful and misleading. If a doctor performs a procedure without informed consent, that’s malpractice and possibly a crime, but it’s not a sexual assault. Calling these abuses “birth rape” implies that medical care is sexual. In order for an assault to be rape, the crime has to be somehow sexual in nature. It’s not just about which body parts are involved. A kick in the groin could be a simple assault or a sexual assault, depending on the context.

Medical care isn’t sex. It’s its own category of human interaction. We scoff at the Taliban for refusing to let women see male doctors because they believe that its a form of adultery for a doctor to see a woman naked if she’s not his wife. It seems ridiculous to us because we accept that medical care is not sexual.

The metaphor of birth rape seems designed to sow fear and suspicion in patients. On this view, when your doctor is telling you that you need a c-section when you wanted an un-medicated vaginal birth, she’s not just a professional who’s trying to help, she’s a potential birth rapist.

“Birth rape” is an emotionally manipulative metaphor that encourages women to re-frame  traumatic experiences in a way that makes them seem even more traumatic. It’s difficult enough to come to terms with a disappointing, painful, or terrifying birth. To encourage women to recast that experience as a sexual violation, even when everyone agrees that the doctor did nothing sexually inappropriate, is cruel, not liberating.

[Photo credit: christyscherrer, Creative Commons.]


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