I have been involved in the natural birth scene for several years, since I began to study midwifery and work as a doula, a labor coach. Early in my work I became aware of a troubling trend, which has resurfaced in recent months—the usage of the term birth rape. People use it to describe trauma inflicted on a woman during childbirth. Although advocates of the term agree that birth rape may conjure distressing images, they believe it is accurate. They are also convinced that its use draws necessary attention to childbirth. I believe different.
The term birth rape certainly disturbs. It is outrageous enough to grab attention. However, I want to contest its accuracy and show that it is harmful to the feminist cause. Using the word rape to describe a natural process is dangerous. Many of us, women and men, working toward a more equal society, feel irritated when a joker absentmindedly uses the word rape in conversation. We also find it offensive when a person attributes false claims to rape.
I recognize that birth trauma is real. One study notes that one in 20 women suffers from post traumatic stress disorder after having a child. This is obviously a problem we need to address—medically and socially—especially since bringing a child into the world should be a positive, meaningful experience for women. Mothers should not have to feel powerless, voiceless, traumatized or harmed during childbirth. If they feel mistreated in traditional medical settings, we ought to discuss the issue and approach the problem constructively. But to call childbirth birth rape only adds drama and shame to trauma.
Birth rape is now used so frequently that a specified Google search for the term yields nearly 34,000 links (a generalized search for birth rape returns more than 46 million results). There are plenty of stories about the event, but none offer sound explanation of why people use rape to describe birth. Some activists cite episiotomy as an unnecessary, raping procedure (it involves a surgical cut in the perineum to expand vaginal girth and facilitate labor); they say it is a mutilating practice on par with female genital mutilation.
The comparison is extreme. First, when qualified professionals perform an episiotomy, they generally do so using sterilized instruments in a certified medical facility. This is not the case in some African rituals, during which an elderly village “doctor” forcefully cuts girl after girl on rough ground to excise parts of their genitalia.
The closest comparable case I can think of is a doctor performing a non-emergency caesarean on a patient without her consent, such as the case of a woman who received Entonox (nitrous oxide and oxygen) and could not fully understand what was happening to permit or deny being cut. Clearly such case is an exception and the victim was made aware of her right to seek counsel. Another possibly comparable case is that of patients who choose Do Not Resuscitate orders only to linger in vegetative states after medical workers and family members ignore their decision.
What such cases have in common is the removal of choice—a violation central to rape. However, proponents of the term birth rape fail to recognize that whereas rape begins with the removal of choice and exacerbates to extreme physical and psychological violence, childbirth (while indisputably traumatic) is a normal process usually accompanied by choice.
This is not to deny that women may feel assaulted during childbirth—the process itself may be described as an assault on their bodies; and there may be instances when painful examinations feel like assault. But rape and assault differ; the first is the sexual violation of a person's body, the second involves varying degrees of trauma in various situations. When people use the term birth rape indiscriminately, they distort the meaning of rape and trivialize the trauma of real rape victims. In turn, this challenges rape survivors' ability to validate experience and heal.
Furthermore, when activists use birth rape in connection to childbirth, they null the acknowledgment of situations where women experience actual sexual rape during labor. There have been cases—and such may be the few that approximate birth rape. Let us be reasonable; non-criminal medical personnel do not rape patients. Medical doctors and nurses are trained to help people. If we join the mislabeling crowd and vilify the medical community, we hurt women.
When activists popularize an inaccurate term, they erect a platform for attack on women and feminists. Anti-feminists often accuse feminists of “whining and moaning” and exaggerating the incidence of rape. How can we expect to be taken seriously if some of us call childbirth rape? Doing so is akin to adding gunpowder to a cannon. The challenge for feminists of all genders is to not pick labels for shock flavor, but to engage in thoughtful dialogue that helps ameliorate conditions for women. Shall we turn to honest and constructive criticism to advance our cause?
Kylie Musa prepared this text with assistance from e-feminist staff.