In October I did a full day training for birth and post-partum doulas at Emerald Doulas in Durham. The content focused on how past sexual abuse can affect women later in life, specifically during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum. An interesting question came up when we were talking about different kinds of sexual abuse; wasn't "birth rape" also a kind of sexual abuse? This is a question that begs a public response so I thought unpacking it here would be useful.
While we have come a long way (sort of) from Twilight Sleep and partners not being allowed in the delivery room, pregnant women today are still subject to many interventions in their birth experience. Statistically we know the more interventions, the greater chance there is for a C-section (Caesarean birth) but anecdotally it also seems that the greater the number of interventions, the higher chance there is for something that is being called "birth rape". "Birth rape" is the name given by some to describe a particular kind of trauma that a laboring woman has gone through including:
1) being touched or penetrated against her will;
2) a "no" or lack of consent being ignored;
3) possibly being physically restrained.
Bullying, threats and even unwanted contact are never okay, whether in the delivery room, board room or living room. And of course each is abusive. But in spite of those actions being done to a laboring woman, it does not mean that she was raped.
Technically speaking, there is no such thing as "birth rape". Rape is a form of sexual abuse, defined by me as "any form of sexual contact or activity committed by force against someone else,". The perpetrator of a rape is not only acting with intention to harm but also his/her goal is sexual gratification. This is not true for an ob/gyn who is working with (or even against) a laboring woman. They may use scary language or threaten her with a C-section but their goal isn't feeling sexually satisfied.
A woman feeling violated or controlled during her childbirth experience should never happen but that doesn't make it rape. Trauma from childbirth is a real thing. It's birth trauma, a very real kind of trauma that can so significant and distressful that it can cause PTSD.
Language always matters. There is power in naming something, whether we do it aloud in a public forum or note our observations in a personal journal. But there's even more power in both the avenue we choose and the words in our message when we tell the truth. The term "birth rape" isn't only incorrect and misleading but it takes away from the truth of real trauma.
Note: Solace for Mothers is a really good site which provides free support in the form of online groups for mothers and family members. Do you have another good resource? Leave me a comment below. Thanks for reading.