Apparently the phrase “birth rape” has been circulating among midwife and childbirth blogs for the past few years, but it recently burst onto mainstream blogs, where it’s causing quite a bit of controversy. The term does not refer to unwanted sexual contact, but rather to violations experienced during childbirth. Birth activists say that these violations can be equated with rape because the victims are similarly vulnerable and powerless.
Examples of actions that could constitute “birth rape” include “internal vaginal examinations without consent, breaking membranes without consent and inserting of forceps and other instruments into the vagina against the mother’s wishes.”
Blogging for the F-Word, Amity Reed elaborates, “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.”
Writers on these blogs are fully aware that the term is controversial. More cautious writers point out the ongoing struggle to recognize sexual violence, and wonder whether including birth trauma is too ambitious. Other proponents of the term cite similarities between the “at least he didn’t kill you” argument, which is too often hurled at rape survivors, and the tendency to silence women who suffered birth trauma by telling them that they’re “lucky to be alive.”
But others say that although birth trauma is a horrible violation, and one that is far too common, calling it “birth rape” is still inappropriate. Tracy Clark-Flory writes on Broadsheet, “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).”
I agree with Clark-Flory, who takes care to emphasize that this kind of medical mistreatment is indeed unforgivable – but it’s not rape. Doctors are not rapists; they do not have the same aims, and although they may be absentminded or thoughtless or egotistical or unable to listen, they’re not out to traumatize their patients in the way that rapists are. Certainly, birth trauma is not accidental – doctors should be far more aware of their patients’ needs. But in most circumstances, is not deliberate. And frankly, defining birth trauma as “rape” will simply undermine attempts to get doctors to understand what they’re doing wrong.
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