New feature: not a happy birthday

// 7 March 2008

Threatened, intimidated, bullied, violated: this is hospital birth as many mothers experience it. Amity Reed reports on the little-recognised crime of birth rape

When Lynsey (not her real name) went into hospital to have her baby, she expected to leave a mother. After many hours of difficult labour and a wholly unexpected turn of events, she exited the building not only a mother but a victim of assault. Like thousands of other women, she was violated in the worst possible way when at her most vulnerable. What she had experienced was birth rape, and she would never be the same.

The idea of being raped while giving birth is difficult to imagine. In most people’s minds, rape means forced sexual intercourse where a penis is inserted, forcefully and without consent, into another person’s body. Some broaden that definition to include objects as well as body parts. But still, we often picture rape as an act of demented sexual anger and misogyny, perpetuated by sick individuals. In fact, rape is more frequently a display of power and control, a way to subjugate another human being. And it doesn’t just happen in dark alleyways, bedrooms tinged with the smell of alcohol and ‘mixed signals’, or in war zones. It can (and does) happen in some of the most respected and revered institutions in the land – hospitals.

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.

Read on…

Photo by gabi_menashe, shared under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

china blue // Posted 8 March 2008 at 1:16 pm

I didn’t know this horrible crime existed. Thank you for sharing.

Laura // Posted 8 March 2008 at 1:36 pm

I had no idea, this is awful.

Gennie // Posted 8 March 2008 at 2:44 pm

I am in full support of there needing to be better services in order to support women as well as healthcare professionals.

However, I was dismayed at the slant at the end of the article. Yes, c-sections do have a number of risks as well as benefits – AS DO HOMEBIRTHS. You can’t paint one as being full of ‘real risks’ and the other as being a ‘perfectly safe’ option. Both carry risks, and as feminists, we can only support medically accurate information that can allow women to make informed decisions about the births they desire. The studies I have examined often show the exact opposite in their results to what their abstract and conclusions say.

There was an article recently (I can’t remember who wrote it) but the name of the piece was, “When you buy the hospital ticket, you go for the hospital ride” as if to suggest that women who birth in hospitals have only themselves to blame if they are landed with interventions or experiences they don’t want. This is competely unacceptable, misogynistic and I’m sorry to say, was written by a woman. I really hope attitudes like this don’t split women as has been the case with breastfeeding.

I hope any woman who is suffering after her birth can get the support, time and love to heal.

Virago // Posted 8 March 2008 at 4:17 pm

Sadly I see this as just another part of a misogynistic medical culture. Note the medicalisation of women’s libido; the pitiful lack of knowledge surrounding women’s genitalia (the recent ‘proof’ of a g-spot); the assembly-line treatment of births…

The poor treatment of women in medicine seems endemic, and I’m sure a targets-pressed NHS striving to run like a profitable business when it’s a public service only exacerbates this.

Midwives are overstretched, doctors see patients as just another tick on a targets sheet and managers brought in from the private sector set ridiculous targets that benefit nobody.

bertha // Posted 8 March 2008 at 5:23 pm

This is not rape. It might be a disgusting way to behave in childbirth – and the partner should have stepped in and complained to the hospital about the midwife. I have had two children – my first labour was also long, difficult and required surgical intervention. At one point, I had the doctors arm in my vagina trying to turn the baby to deliver him. Why? Because my son was in distress and could have died. If the midwife behaved appallingly, and intervening in such a fashion without explanation or gentleness is appalling, then a complaint should have been made at that point – or very soon after. To conflate rape and crap medical care is to demean both.

Sarah // Posted 8 March 2008 at 6:10 pm

I agree that this shouldn’t turn into a ‘medicalised birth’ vs ‘natural birth’ debate, that is not the issue here. Personally I’m in favour of being able to get all the unnatural pain relief and intervention that’s available if I ever have a baby, though I fully support the choice of those who don’t want any of that. But there seems to be a real problem here of birthing women being treated despicably, considered as non-human, having consent requirements disregarded – in short being treated as second class citizens compared to people who are in the hospital for other reasons. I’ve heard stories like this before, and it seems to me to be on the same continuum as the way strangers feel it’s OK to comment on a pregnant woman’s behaviour and diet in public, to touch her body without consent etc. Somehow as a society we see pregnant women as public property, as things, not people. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what informs a lot of anti-abortion sentiment as well.

So I think it’s misogyny and disordered attitudes towards pregnancy that are the problem here, not modern medicine or the availability of epidurals and C-sections.

Amity // Posted 8 March 2008 at 10:44 pm

Gennie — the ‘very real risks’ I referenced in regards to c-sections is from repeat procedures, not just single instances, though they all carry a modicum of risk, as with anything. And when I said that home births are ‘perfectly safe’ I did not mean to imply that they have no risk — earlier in the article I stated that hospital births and home births carry about the same risks, with hospital births having a slightly higher risk. But home birth IS a very safe option when attended by a certified birth professional and undertaken by low-risk women. Obviously, high-risk women belong in hospital with the necessary extra precautions in place. As for the article you referenced, I would strongly disagree with the author if her belief is that women who go to hospital somehow ‘deserve’ the treatment they receive. That is exactly what I am arguing against.

Bertha — The reason I (and many others) strongly believe that it is indeed rape is best explained in this article, which I referenced in my own.

Isn’t rape the assertion of power by an individual or individuals by force over another person’s bodily autonomy, focusing violence on the genitals? Lynsey’s situation fits that definition perfectly. And if she and many other victims choose to call it rape, who am I to minimise their trauma?

Sarah — This is not meant to be a medicalised vs. natural birth debate. But is it not worth investigating why more and more women are suffering excessive trauma as birth moves towards a medically managed model and as maternity wards come under crisis because of staff shortages? I think we owe it to ourselves to explore the underlying reasons why medicalised and caesarean births have become more prevalent when they are usually harder to recover from, both physically and emotionally, than vaginal births. Is it truly what is best for women and babies, or what is easiest for the hospital?

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 8 March 2008 at 11:28 pm

I agree what these women experienced was indeed rape or birth rape as they prefer to term it. Rape is the forced penetration of a woman’s body without her free and informed consent. The medicalisation of childbirth plays a huge part in dehumanising women who are in the process of giving birth. What these women experienced was horrific. Since when does medical care mean treating female patients as ignorant, stupid bodies who have no rights. What happened to these women and I’ve no doubt will happen to many other women is the enforcement of power and control just when the woman should be receiving care and due respect for her bodily integrity. Sexually insulting women and telling them they should have kept their legs together, the pain isn’t that bad etc. shows these so-called professionals should not be working in medicine. This is what happens when meeting targets is the main factor and the professionals just want the child birth procedure to be completed in as short a time as possible. Why are there so many induced births and why are there increasing numbers of Caesareans. Women are human beings but obviously this fact is not relevant when it comes to women giving birth. Misogyny does play a huge part because I have no doubt male patients when undergoing rectal examinations are not subjected to insulting and degrading comments.

Lara // Posted 9 March 2008 at 6:06 am

This article and the rape these women went through just tore me apart inside. Thankyou so much for posting this. I had no clue how extremely widespread the outright abuse and rape of women’s pregnant bodies were during childbirth. By calling it “rape” you have rightly identified the ways that the medicalization of women’s bodies and childbirth is based upon presumably male control of women’s bodies, of violence against women’s bodies, especially their genitals.

To obstruct and show such utter disrespect and violence toward an initially creative, powerful, and amazing process such as birthing is just disgusting.

I am amazed at how many people commenting here spit upon the women who experienced this and disregard their claims that it was “rape.” Did they think they were feminists?? Shame on those commenters.

Lisa // Posted 9 March 2008 at 8:24 pm

Thank you for writing this article – much more coverage needs to be given to the treatment of women by the medical profession especially at such a vulnerable time like childbirth. I too had a traumatic experience giving birth as the midwife and Doctor were abusive, impatient, unsupportive and callous. However I was also woefully ill-prepared and I advise all first-time mothers to ditch those smiley, happy, childbirth books and seriously think about pain, constructing their own birth environment (even if it’s unconventional) and who their birth partner will be – an experienced mother is far, far better than a well-meaning but ignorant father-to-be.

Andie // Posted 9 March 2008 at 10:33 pm

This is rape , i`ve had two children and the first delivery was traumatic the only saving grace was that the midwife stayed on after her shift .I had a premature labour (my daughter was 31 weeks in utero) and so a consultant, three doctors a scubu team and five student doctors were in this room whilst i was in labour.They all spoke as if i were a piece of machinery , they prodded, poked without my permission , and did not acknowledge me as a human being the only person who fought my corner was the midwife.After the delivery i was left with one doctor and one student doctor who were stitching me up and when i complained of the pain (i had no anesthetic throughtout the labour) i was told to quit complaining and suck on the gas and air.If thats not complete control over someone else i don`t know what is.

mandy blumenthal // Posted 10 March 2008 at 9:14 am

There are enough scare stories about childbirth without suggesting that the people who help deliver your child into the world are raping you. Childbirth often is dangerous, long, exhausting and emotional. Many newborns these days are breach due to sedentary lifestyles and births are more complex the older mothers are becoming.It is not surprising that women can be unco-operative with midwives and doctors and could feel distressed by the necessarily vulnerable and indiscreet position they find themselves in. It is also true that midwives and doctors, who are often dealing with a couple of labours at a time need to try and bond and gain co-operation quickly with a stranger in labour and may misjudge a comment and cause offense when it isn’t meant. Sometimes mothers in labour can be a tough audience. However, it is the midwives and doctors main mission to get the baby out and to you safely. In the course of documenting midwives work I have seen 11 natural births ‘uncomplicated’ births and out of those, the midwive’s expertise and experience has saved 2 babies lives with the minimum of fuss and drama.

Yes, every woman’s vagina is private but it is one of the extraordinary transformations of childbirth that suddenly this once sexual apparatus becomes the channel of transport for a new life. It’s a little strange I think to consider your modesty more important than your child’s life.

Bertha // Posted 10 March 2008 at 10:10 am

I do think it is justified in raising issues over treatment of women in childbirth, but it is not spitting upon women to suggest that poor medical care is not rape. And to suggest this does not make me a feminist, is a facile attempt at dismissing what I am saying. Having been sexually molested and having had two children – the first labour was long, traumatic and required very personal attempts at intervention- they are very different. One is about having power over your body, the other is about delivering a child safely, when historically, both mother and child would die in obscene numbers due to lack of, or poor medical care. As already mentioned, there is a need for a continued debate on helping women feel comfortable and supported in childbirth and recognising that serious underfunding and understaffing are putting immense pressure on midwives and mothers. But stating that medical intervention/ poor care is rape is to allow hyperbole to take over.

Rose Hastings // Posted 10 March 2008 at 10:50 am

But she never said medical intervention or poor medical care is rape she gave a specific example of rape. The “care” the woman received in being forced into a manual dilation of her cervix was a total abuse of her body. There was no emergency requirement, it didn’t keep the baby from dying. Her permission should have been received after a full explanation of why she might consent to it and before the woman forced her hand into her cervix. Her body and sexual organs were violated and I can think of no more appropriate way to describe it than birth rape. I am a survivor of rape too and don’t feel this terminology in some way undermines what I have been through.

Amity // Posted 10 March 2008 at 4:26 pm

Mandy: Your very first sentence got me thinking — why do you think so many women have ‘scare stories’ of birth in the first place? Is it because they felt scared, confused, in pain, abandoned, or something along those lines? Obviously, the experience of childbirth is overwhelming in and of itself but many women’s horror stories are focused on the lack of care and support they received, particularly in busy maternity wards. Many report having not-so-nice midwives, impatient doctors and/or feeling like they weren’t listened to. Why should birthing women have to pay the price for an NHS understaffing or lack of empathy problem?

I also just want to clear up the obvious confusion from Mandy and Bertha that I am equating ALL assistance in childbirth with rape. The notion that any intervention is abuse is ridiculous and was never asserted. Many women happily receive assistance in delivering their babies and are grateful for that help. However, I am speaking of something entirely different, where a procedure is performed unnecessarily and/or without consent, focusing control and violence on a woman’s genitals. The notion that these women are simply being ‘uncooperative’ or ‘unrealistic’ in expecting to retain control over what happens to or goes into their bodies while giving birth is more than a little patronising, and frightening. The idea that we must check our dignity and bodily autonomy at the door when we enter a hospital to give birth is one that needs to be abolished, not encouraged.

J. Monroe // Posted 23 April 2008 at 7:46 pm

This is ridiculous. I am a full supporter of aboritona dn a woman’s control over her own body, but once the woman goes to term, she now has another full-fledged person inside her. To say she still retains full ‘autonomy’ is ridiculous. The medical care described was poor, but it was not rape. Rape is, by definition, about sex. And also power, granted. But primarily sex. To remove sex from the equation and equate impersonal medical care with rape is to cheapen rape. Have any of the women here seen the episode of Family Guy where Peter gets a prostate exam and cries rape? Men can be raped too…but a prostate exam isn’t rape. And childbirth is not rape. The woman in question was having a baby that ‘took all night’…I presume that she was in labor from the previous night into the next day…can you blame the medical staff for calling it a ‘failure to progress’? The woman may have ben traumatized, but that’s because she failed to realize that, in medical care, sometimes shit happens. I work in the medical field, and I’ve seen many people who think medicine should be a magic wand that anything invasive is unnecessary. ‘Lyndsey’ is, even from the cursory details of the story, likely wrong in her assertation that the caesarian was ‘unnecessary’. Though it might have been, she is clearly of the perspective that invasive = unnecessary, when that’ snot the case. If she doesn’t want medical care, she shouldn’t go to the hospital…that’s what they provide. WHich is not to demean those people who want wholly natural childbirths, of course. Btu that’s not what a hospital is. It’s a place to provide medical care. You’re about to have a person shove their head through your vagina; if you have a problem with that, then maybe you should not have become pregnant, then allowed the pregnancy to come to term.

Some women have been traumatized by childbirth since the dawn of time. I’m sorry that that happens. But please, dont’ cry rape. Because it is not, by definition. Rape is, by definition, about sex. And I would hardly argue it is about asserting power through sex. But sex MUST be involved for it to be rape, otherwise you’re just crying wolf, which then cheapens the women (and men) who were actually raped.

Shea // Posted 23 April 2008 at 9:43 pm

“But sex MUST be involved for it to be rape, otherwise you’re just crying wolf, which then cheapens the women (and men) who were actually raped.”

How bloody dare you?

If someone puts a fist, forceps or a bottle into my vagina without my consent THAT IS RAPE!!!! Look at the Sexual Offences Act 2003, you ignorant callous weasel.

I also work in the medical field and if you don’t realise that patient autonomy is the cardinal principle of any medical treatment then you’re in the wrong bloody profession! If I have a patient on a ventilator who wants to be taken off, even though it will kill her, then I have to respect that, if a patient refuses a heart transplant against my wishes then too bad, if a pregnant woman refuses any and all medical intervention, then not only have I failed to gain her trust and respect, and to explain it convincingly enough to her, but I am committing an assault by carrying anything out on her. If it kills her and the baby, then tragic, but it is ultimately her decision.

Since when does having a child mean that you agree to anything and everything happening to your body? As Amity said the idea we check our dignity at the door is an absolute disgrace. Yes junior doctors and nurses are overworked, yes we are always short-staffed, always underfunded, but you don’t let the patients suffer for this, you pull it together and ask yourself, “yes but what if it were me?” If you can’t muster empathy, then please get the hell out of the medical field and find a nice office job where you don’t have to give a crap about anyone, m’kay?

“Sometimes mothers in labour can be a tough audience” well yes you would hope so, what with them having to deal with the pain and misery of having a child and “holier than though” “researchers” telling them not to be “modest” and that if they didn’t want their vagina ripped to shreds they shouldn’t have got pregnant! Do you share that condescending and inured attitude with the alcoholics who come in for a liver transplant? Or the smoker with emphysema (equally responsible for their condition)? If not, then why is this particularly horrendous branch of puritanical moralism reserved for women? It’s the sex right?


(Sorry for the swearing and general trollishness of this post. My blood is still boiling though.)

Anna // Posted 23 April 2008 at 11:08 pm

completely agreeing with above post – and though I’ve been raped I cannot say this article made it feel ‘cheapened’ in any way – rather it was good in that it’s important to recognise there are many, many different forms of rape – vaginal intercourse with penis without consent of the female being only a very small part of what is a massive spectrum of offences.

Vera // Posted 19 January 2009 at 4:06 am

I think that this article is BS. I have three children and I didn’t feel this way at all. So, if a women is having a baby and the head gets stuck during or after it crowns it is ok to just ignore the fact that this baby could die without the use of forceps… If I were in pain and couldn’t comprehend what the doctor was saying and it did it without my ok I would not be pissed about it because he just saved my baby. Also, I am a victim of rape and I am very pissed about birthrape. The ending of this article has mad me so angry… Comparing someone being slapped around and beat with her legs apart to childbirth is rediculous. I am so angry that I am not even sure what I should say about it. It’s a load of SHIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

jules // Posted 21 January 2010 at 1:02 pm

First of all after reading the rules to comment i feel these are obviously not in operation as i found Shea calling another poster a name was inappropriate, that said, my opinions on this are varied. I do not agree that it is rape. i have been raped and it is highly traumatic, as is giving birth but that is where the similarities end. The slapping of the face and being essentially told they deserve it is wrong and abuse and needed to be reported but beyond that, if there was a true failiure to progress that baby needed out and that mum would have been a lot more traumatised had her baby died. i have had 3 hospital births with varying degrees of intervention and associated trauma. i too have been stiched with no anesthetic and ordered the doctor to stop as it hurts- only to be met with a glare. however, i have three healthy children. In the delivery room the pain causes a blur and confusion and i have witnessed births where the woman 5 min prior to delivery are willing to get up and leave- this is known as transition. our bodies are wonderful and go back to nature and instinct when in labour, sometimes this is not safe and our judgement is cloudy. Medical staff on the whole (i will not say all) are doing an amazing job of saving the lives of mothers and babies on a daily basis and with a bit of respect from us to them as well as in return would not go amiss.

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds