Saarrah Ray explores the harmful practice of the ‘husband stitch’. She situates it within the broader context of female genital mutilation and argues that it is a practice that should be recognised as a criminal offence, under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003.
It is a concerning notion that birthing-people, at their most vulnerable, are at risk of being subjected to a misogynistic practice which is yet to be recognised as female genital mutilation (FGM).
It is not unusual for a woman to experience vaginal tearing during childbirth and then to undergo sutures performed by a healthcare professional. During this process, the birthing partner (a significant other) could ask the healthcare professional to make an extra stitch. Or an OB/GYN might say in jest to the birthing partner, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll sew her up nice and tight for you’. The sole purpose of the additional tightly pulled stitch is to narrow the vaginal entrance which supposedly enhances sexual pleasure for the male partner during penetrative sex. This is a completely invasive, unnecessary and non-medical related procedure. It has become known as the ‘husband-stitch’. These non-consensual husband stitch cases are underreported or rare in the United Kingdom, which implies that it is not a significant issue worthy of concern. Nevertheless, it is worth emphasising that all unnecessary harms inflicted upon one woman’s genitalia for the sexual gratification of men – that are not explicitly proscribed by law – is a condonable threat of male sexual violence made to all women’s bodies.
The trademark tightness of the stitch becomes most effective and noticeable during sexual intercourse which triggers excruciating pain for these women. This pain can last for years if the husband-stitch is not removed. It seems a suitable title for a phallocentric practice, one that is obsessed with pathologising women’s sexual capacity and perpetuates misconceptions about the malleability of female genitalia.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines FGM as ‘the partial or total removal or external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons’. FGM is practiced on women and girls in rural environments, in clinical establishments and in their own homes. This procedure is usually sanctioned by women related to the victim-survivors for a variety of reasons, ranging from respect to religion to sexually satisfying one’s husband. The WHO lists four Types of FGM, but Type 3 FGM and Type 4 FGM are most relevant to the husband-stitch.
Type 3 FGM (infibulation):
‘The narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal’. The seal can be formed through stitching the genitalia.
Type 4 FGM:
‘All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes’. This includes piercing, pricking and scraping to the genitalia. Type 4 FGM is considered to be less severe, because competent and consenting women are lawfully able to undergo bodily modification procedures, such as clitoral piercings.
Arguably, the husband-stitch appropriately fits into the WHO’s definitions of FGM. Since both practices include stitching female genitalia without women’s consent for non-medical reasons, they are abusive practices. This means that like FGM the husband-stitch is a human rights violation of bodily integrity, which is the right to have one’s body not touched or interfered with without one’s consent. This includes any forceful breaking or alteration of an individual’s body.
Relevance in the UK context
The WHO’s definitions for the four Types of FGM are not clearly embedded in UK legislation. FGM is a criminal offence under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 where:
(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he excises, infibulates or otherwise mutilates the whole or any part of a girl’s labia majora, labia minora or clitoris.
(2) But no offence is committed by an approved person who performs—
(b) a surgical operation on a girl who is in any stage of labour, or has just given birth, for purposes connected with the labour or birth.
Although the Act refers to mutilating girls’ genitalia it does not exclude any mutilation done to adult women’s genitalia.
Since the Act includes ‘infibulates’, which is Type 3 FGM, the husband-stitch could be considered a criminal offence. However, the lack of a clear definition for ‘infibulates’ makes it difficult for the public to understand or recognise that infibulation includes narrowing the vaginal entrance through non-health related stitching. Another issue arises in this Act. If the husband-stitch is recognised in law as FGM, arrested healthcare professionals could easily defend themselves by arguing that the extra stitch was necessary due to significant vaginal tearing caused by childbirth. How would the courts prosecute a healthcare professional for the offence of FGM if the new parent coincidently experienced severe vaginal tearing that required extra stitching, despite the stitch being sewn for an unrelated reason? No woman’s trauma of such a violation done to her body in the guise of medical care should be overlooked or undermined.
The United Nations aim to eliminate FGM by 2030. If husband-stitch cases continue to not be taken seriously as a criminal offence and healthcare professionals remain unprosecuted for performing them, then it is unlikely that all manifestations of FGM will be eradicated by 2030.
Saarrah Ray, MA candidate in Bioethics and Medical Law at St Mary’s University Twickenham, London