The Husband Stitch: What women dread

The husband stitch is often without consent


They take the baby so that they may fix me where they cut. They give me something that makes me sleepy, delivered through a mask pressed gently to my mouth and nose. My husband jokes around with the doctor as he holds my hand.

How much to get that extra stitch, he asks. You offer that, right?Please, I say to him. But it comes out slurred and twisted and possibly no more than a small moan. Neither man turns his head toward me.

The doctor chuckles. You aren’t the first.

The Husband Stitch―Carmen Maria Machado.

Bhanupriya, 23, from Bengaluru, developed pain in the abdomen in the 36th week of pregnancy. “As I wore my gloves to examine if she was going into labour she wept, screamed and refused an internal examination,” said Dr N. Sapna Lulla, lead consultant, obstetrics and gynaecology at Aster CMI Hospital, Bengaluru.

Bhanupriya was married to a sari merchant from Rajasthan. She said to Lulla that obstetricians like her are the reason for her trauma. “It was only then I comprehended what I was dealing with,” said Lulla, who asked Bhanupriya to meet a psychiatrist.

Bhanupriya told the psychiatrist about the husband stitch, which was an additional stitch she was given following a vaginal birth. This was to enhance sexual pleasure for her husband. The tears that ran down Bhanupriya’s cheeks gave Lulla a peek into her emotional trauma. “She refused a normal birth in fear of tightening the vagina to give her husband more pleasure during sex. It took a lot of effort and counselling and assurance to get her to agree to a normal vaginal birth,” the doctor said.

What makes the additional stitch worrisome is that it goes beyond repairing the cut made between the vagina and the anus during childbirth. Though the additional stitch is meant for enhancing the pleasure of the male partner during sex, it often involves tampering with a woman’s body without consent. Ideally, a woman’s consent has to be taken for the husband stitch. “However, on most occasions it is done without the knowledge or consent of the woman,” said Asha Dalal, director, obstetrics and gynaecology, Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital, Mumbai.

Husband’s stitch is a sexist practice, said Reshma Valliappan from Pune, “Apart from pleasure being a one-sided gender requirement, a woman’s pleasure is not given any value in a patriarchal society.”

The husband stitch can have several side-effects. It may result in discomfort and chronic vaginal pain. “An extra tight vaginal orifice may make the sexual act extremely difficult for the female partner,” said Dr Anagha Chhatrapati, consultant gynaecologist at Global Hospital, Mumbai.

Every time Geetanjali Chetan from Bengaluru thinks of the birthing experience, she is filled with awe. When she gave birth to her child after waiting for nearly 11 hours, the vaginal delivery was facilitated by a "cut" (episiotomy). The cut was immediately closed using dissolvable stitches. Said Chetan, “The stitch was too tight and it made me uncomfortable. It was difficult to maintain hygiene as there was a small pouch like space below the vagina. It gave me an unnatural feel and seemed to have been overdone.” Experts point out that the husband stitch is not medically recommended. “It is sometimes put just for the pleasure of the husband. That is not recommended in any of the medical books. I don’t think it is legal,” said Dr Surabhi Siddhartha, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, Motherhood Hospital, Kharghar, Mumbai.So, why is the husband’s stitch still administered? Post delivery, the vaginal wall becomes lax. At the time of suturing an episiotomy, the doctor may put in an extra stitch to make the vaginal opening tighter. However, there is no evidence to prove or disprove the claims about its potential benefits, said Chhatrapati.

In certain cases they don’t give the cut in the perineum and allow the baby to come out naturally. It could result in the stretching of the vaginal canal.

“If the vaginal opening does not stretch wide enough to allow the baby's head to pass through, it may lead to tear and injuries to the perineum, vagina, vulva, labia, anal canal, and, on rare occasions, even the rectum. Such injuries can cause severe bleeding, sometimes difficult to repair,” said Chhatrapati.

There are better alternatives to husband stitch that women can opt for. Kegel exercises are a great way to tighten the vagina. The tone of the vaginal walls and the perineum are equally important. “Vaginal birth can weaken both. Women can improve this on their own, through regular Kegel exercises,” said Chhatrapati, “In case there is excessive laxity, a surgery can be performed by a gynaecologist later to restore the tone of the vaginal floor.”A plastic surgery performed on the vagina can get it into pre-delivery shape. Dr Sushma Tomar, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, Fortis Hospital, Kalyan, however, has a word of caution. “While it is okay to go for such procedures, it is essential to ensure that vaginal stitching is done with care and should only be performed by relevant experts,” she said.

Lulla, meanwhile, ensured Bhanupriya had a vaginal birth. She delivered a 3.46 kilo baby boy, but unfortunately she had a vaginal tear that needed suturing. “I had the husband ranting on about the perineum tightening. I told him I will make a chastity robe for his penis,” smiles Lulla. “Finally, the vaginal tear repair was completed without the stitch. Till date, Bhanupriya’s husband cribs of lack of pleasure at sex.”

Bhanupriya has become Lulla’s best friend.