October 10, 2010 § 12 Comments
i wanted to record this conversation that folks were having on tumblr about birth rape a few weeks ago. jezebel published a piece called, what is birth rape? amanda marcotte wrote in response an article entitled: birth rape experiences arent rape. tracy clark-flory writes on salon about ‘the push to recognize birth rape‘.
i admit i am annoyed that someone had to write a ridick article in one of the big blogs in order for folks to start talking about what is birth rape, but i am so glad that some of my favorite bloggers stepped up to provide some kick ass analysis, historical perspective, common sense, and good doses of snark in response to the birth rape denialism (yes, its not just a dehumanizing idea, its an ideology) that has been running rampant over the interwebs.
so below the fold, some beautiful life affirming analysis on birth, rape, motherhood, silencing, denial, feminism and healing.
with much love.
bfp asks why do we assume that the doctors’ intentions are good? what is the evidence for that?
Amanda Marcotte…..just took my breath away. Literally. The fundamental problem with her argument: she assumes that doctors are essentially good, and don’t interact with birthing women *with the intention* of “raping” them (i use scare quotes only to note that it is a contested word within Amanda’s essay). I wonder why Amanda assumes that doctors should be just handed that assumption, when for the most part, obgyns especially, have done little to nothing to deserve it.
Amanda assumes doctors may be mean or even evil, but in the end, their *intention* is to birth a child. Not control or use power to control the birthing mother. Why do we assume this about obgyns? Why do we assume that they intend to birth babies? Especially when most women who have birthed know that doctors very often only show up to catch the child, then they leave (in vaginal births)? Doctors are “busy.” so they don’t show up until they have to—and they don’t have to until there are *problems* or until the baby is in the birthing canal.
When they show up to deal with the “problems” that nurses can’t manage or don’t have the authority to—are they necessarily showing up with the intention to birth a child? Or—in the case of a woman who is screaming (or even just moaning really loudly), or is swearing a lot, or is taking too long or is maybe a little drunk or high, or who ripped off her monitor or is insisting on kneeling rather than lying flat on her back etc etc etc etc—is he there to birth a child? or is he there to control? To use his authority to force compliance with hospital rules? I’ve stood right next to a birthing woman, and said nothing while a nurse yelled at her to stop moaning. Neither one of us said a thing (even though we both called her a bitch after she left), because what would happen to us, to *her* if we did? Eventually she wound up getting pain killers that she didn’t want because she just couldn’t handle the pain without making noise. And she didn’t know what would happen if she wasn’t quiet. What would they do to her? What would they do to her baby? The only way she could retain control over her body was through compliance.
When medical authorities use their power to control women’s bodies—that’s not rape because…..?
amanda marcotte further asserts in her article that:
These circles have adopted “birth rape” to describe the trauma of having doctors poke and prod your body against your will, or bully you into procedures you don’t want, or otherwise assume that your right to autonomy was checked at the door of the hospital.
Marcotte has radically redefined the term, radically redefined it, in order to denegrate it. From the first words of the post, her operating premise is broken, because whatever it is she’s choosing to talk about isn’t what the “birth empowerment” (terrible phrase) community is talking about….
Not every vaginal exam that’s only consented to because it’s easier than the argument is likely to be considered birth rape. The cascade of events that leads up to an unnecessary cesarean (unnecessarean) can be awful, but isn’t necessarily (or likely) to be considered birth rape.
When you get into the realm of a doctor yelling in a woman’s face to lay back and be quiet while roughly jamming a hand into her vagina to do something, but zie won’t say what they’re doing or offer any kind of information at all, and then grabs a scissors and cuts an unwanted and nonconsensual episiotomy that turns into a third degree tear all the way up to her urethral opening, or around to her clitoral hood, and then mocks the woman’s tears when sewing her up, which happens before the numbing agents take full effect, and then zie turns to the husband and “jokes” about putting in an extra stitch or two “for him” then… you may be in the territory.
But importantly, it’s an individual thing. How any given person will experience what happens to them in the name of conformity and “active birth management” and hospital rules and their doctor’s schedule and “now, now, what’s important is a healthy baby” is entirely different from how another person would experience the exact same events.
What’s important to note is that many of the people who use the phrase to name their birth experience have been raped (in the “traditional” sense) in the past. They know what it means to have their autonomy trampled and to have their body, their genitals and their sexuality violated. We’re not talking about people who are merely dissatisfied with their birth experiences and won’t use that ob again for future pregnancies, or won’t birth in that hospital again, we’re talking about people who are left not only with physical scars, but with nightmares, flashbacks, all the signs of PTSD that also manifest in, who? People who have been raped.
Poke and prod? No. Fist and cut.
ardhra looks at the rape apologism that marcotte is engaging in, and reminds us of some of the experiences of rape that are left out of marcotte’s definition:
I’ll let “birth empowerment” activists speak to the validity of the term ‘birth rape’. What I want to question is the absurd logic behind Marcotte’s definition of ‘rape’. The study she quotes centres heterosexual sexual intercourse, and focuses on US college students and military personnel, respectively. And the conclusion that rapists are “sadistic” doesn’t follow from the evidence. The slim evidence that rapists are motivated by a desire “to traumatize their victims” is quoted as:
Lisak & Miller also answered their other question: are rapists responsible for more violence generally? Yes. The surveys covered other violent acts, such as slapping or choking an intimate partner, physically or sexually abusing a child, and sexual assaults other than attempted or completed rapes. In the realm of being partner- and child-beating monsters, the repeat rapists really stood out. These 76 men, just 4% of the sample, were responsible for 28% of the reported violence.
Hardly conclusive evidence.
Secondly, Marcotte’s definition of rape rules out a whole lot of very high-profile rape scenarios that have resulted in changes to international law, human rights treaties just last year, and resulted in hundreds of thousands of US dollars being poured into criminal justice efforts. Specifically, under Marcotte’s definition, the rape of “comfort women,” and rape of Bosnian Muslim women as a tool of genocide. In both these situations, it was institutions of the state that orchestrated rape of women, regardless of the motivations of the individuals carrying out the violently non-consensual sex acts.
Finally, how different is Marcotte’s ‘sadism motivated’ rapist from the racist myth of the stranger-rapist except for his closer proximity to the community she inhabits? O rly, so defining doctors abusing women’s bodies as “disrespectful” non-rapists is now going to purify the definition of rapists so it’ll make anti-rape activism easier?
And telling activists to stop using the term ‘rape’ because it might put off doctors? Really? Like the sexist dog-whistle of how even suggesting that there are men who are rapists can put off all men from engaging with feminism?
Let me make this clear: Amanda Marcotte is engaging in rape apologism.
ardhra goes on to respond to the clark-flory article in salon on birth rape, documenting the racist origins of obstetrics:
“We have a special word for forced sexual intercourse, because it deserves a special word. Rape is used as a tool of terror, torture, intimidation and war (as we’re seeing right now in Congo). Sometimes it is about violence, sometimes it is about sex, and sometimes it is about both. It is a special kind of crime not only because of what it is, but also because of what it does to the victim (in her own mind and others’).
Earlier this year, Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote a powerful essay for Salon about having a complicated birthing experience that was so terrifying and disempowering that it left her with PTSD. In her piece, she made mention of sexual assault and war, two “of the events we agree induce trauma, and therefore PTSD.” These comparisons are apt within that framework — but it would be no more accurate to conflate traumatic childbirth with war than with rape. These are very different experiences that can have very similar results. Similar results do not imply the same experience.”
…Apparently there’s something inherently special and traumatic about forced sexual intercourse that makes it deserve its own term, because it’s worse than any other kind of assault. Notice how defining rape in terms of sexual intercourse makes it seem like the definition is stable, but only displaces the uncertainty about the term ‘rape’ onto the term ‘sexual intercourse’…
So what about when parts of another person’s body are inserted into a woman’s genitals without her consent, but it’s not sexual intercourse, yet it still produces the same symptoms as sexual assault? E.g. when it’s used as a disciplinary and surveillance procedure as part of social control in prisons…
White western feminists consistently seem to fuck up in defining sexual violence on their terms so as to exclude much more marginalised women, particularly women in circumstances where consent is totally obviated, let alone violated.
Let’s look back at the herstory of gynaecology and obstetrics, shall we, to determine how free of sexual violence the medical system is, and put Amanda Marcotte’s assertions about the benignness of medical workers’ motivations to the test. And I say herstory for the specific reason that the women whose bodies were sacrificed in the bloody trail that leads to contemporary obstetric and gynaecological practice are often erased.
Anarcha was an African American slave woman. She was one of the seventy-five slaves who worked the Wescott plantation, just on the outskirts of Montgomery, Alabama.
Anarcha went into labor one day. Three days later, she was still in labor. Dr Marion Sims was called in to assist the delivery. He writes in his autobiography that he used forceps on the fetus’s head but that he really didn’t know what he was doing since he’d had so little experience with the device. We don’t know whether the baby survived the ordeal. We do know that the mother experienced several vaginal tears from the birthing. She became incontinent afterwards due to the damage.
A few days later, the master of the plantation sent Anarcha to Dr Sims hoping he could repair the damage to his slave, as she could not hold her bowls or bladder. As her master’s chattel, her condition reduced her value considerably.
Sims took in the patient reluctantly. He put her up on his examination table, on her hands and knees and, using a modified pewter spoon to expand the walls of her vagina, he accidentally released the pressure that held her uterus in an awkward position. Anarcha felt immediate relief as the change in air pressure helped her uterus to relocate back into its proper position.
Through an agreement with her master, Anarcha became Dr Sims’s guinea pig. She regularly underwent surgical experiments, while positioned on Sims’s table, squatting on all fours, and fully awake without the comfort of any anesthesia. It was commonly accepted that African Americans had a higher tolerance for pain than their white counterparts. Commonly accepted but utterly wrong.
Anarcha’s fistula (from her vaginal tears) was repaired by Sims. Sims thus became the leading expert in repairing this damage that seemed to occur in a good number of births by slave women. Though Sims was sent many slave women with fistulas, we know from his biography that he experimented repeatedly on Anarcha, as well as two other slaves, Betsy and Lucy.
Anarcha was experimented upon, and drugged up later, not to ease her pain as much as to stifle her moans. It has been calculated that she had been operated on, perhaps, 34 times. She, Betsy, Lucy, and countless others helped Dr Sims hone his techniques and create his gynecological tools. Though on display in museums, many of Dr Sims’s tools have modern counterparts that are used today.
Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy left no written legacy. Slaves were forbidden to read and write, a crime punishable by death.
And though science today looks back on Sims’s work ambiguously, truly unsure as to his level of success, or whether he should be credited as the father of gynecology, we now know who the mothers of modern gynecology were: they were the nameless and faceless slave women upon whom Dr Sims experimented.
Today we have just three names: Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy. It is our hope that these names will never be forgotten.
So, all those women of the DRC who have sustained fistulae as a result of having foreign objects, including guns, inserted into their vaginas – was that an experience of forced sexual intercourse? What if the man who inserted an object into a woman’s vagina wasn’t one of the men who raped her? Does it count as rape?
These are the kinds of distinctions that Marcotte, Clark-Flory, and their interlocutors are drawing between “real” rape and the apparently “fake” rapes committed in the course of obstetric procedures. Obviously this point has been made by several people several times before: arbitrary distinctions about women’s experiences of violence don’t help anyone, let alone people who’ve experienced rape (in whatever way, shape, or form).
But what I want to highlight here is that, specifically, there are some incredibly marginalised women whose experiences are erased by narrow and arbitrary definitions of rape by extremely privileged feminists. Whole classes of women around the world – women of colour, majority world women – do not experience medical interventions in reproduction as anything like the benign indifference that Marcotte imputes to doctors’ motivations, and never have. Erasing the history of violence that has accompanied the development of western reproductive medicine by attempting to sanitise how women represent it (through the concept of ‘birth rape’ amongst others) is an attempt to redefine medicine in terms of white western women’s needs. To normalise the access of wealthy women to medical care, and the fact that poor majority-world women pay the cost of that care with their bodies and lives.
aaminah writes about the right of survivors to define their experiences for themselves
…non-consensual penetration of any kind is rape, and that makes what is happening in these particular situations also rape. that does not quite equate to excluding that there are other kinds of rape as well. it is not about defining or redefining rape, actually. rape includes any kind of non-consentual penetration – ergo, birth trauma of these natures is rape. rape also includes non-consentual sexual activity.
but you know, the more important issue is: can we allow people to choose the term they feel best expresses their own experience. sorry, but when a person has been traumatized in that way, i don’t think any of us have any business at all telling them “no, that’s not rape” and minimizing their trauma. it’s not our place to define for them. it’s not our place to tell them how they should feel or what they need to deal with it. if naming it is part of their process, and rape is the word they can think of to name it, it is their choice and their healing that should be centered.
birth is a sexual process. this needs to be understood fundamentally, before having any conversation about birth rape, or redefining the term of birth, or whatever.in midwifery circles, we say, the energy that got the baby into the uterus, is the same energy that is going to get the baby out.
what makes birth sexual?
honestly, it seems kind of silly for me to explain this, but i have to remember not everyone has seen birth enough times to understand how inherent sexual energy is to birth. but it is kind of weird that in our culture we put ‘sex’ in one category and ‘birth’ in this totally different category, as if the two are only marginally connected.
—the same hormones that erupt during sex, erupt during birth. there is a huge amount of scientific data showing this. google it.
—one of the most efficient ways to get a birth started is to stimulate the nipples. especially having one’s partner suck on them.
—some women experience orgasm during the birth process
—the same sounds that a woman makes during pleasurable sex/orgasm, she makes during unhindered birth.
—take a look at pics of a woman right after birth. and then a look at a woman right after orgasm. you will see what i mean.
—in other words, biologically, the body responds to birth in the same ways as it responds to sex.
—for a lot of sexual assault survivors, pregnancy and birth act as huge triggers.
once we understand that birth is sexual. then we can understand a good amount about birth in our culture.
we, in this culture, have a shared delusion about what birth is. we are taught that birth is a medical event, not a sexual one. and because we are taught it is a medical event, akin to appendectomy, we assume that the doctors will do whatever is necessary to ‘save the life of the mother and child’. and that the ‘saving of lives’ is the primary goal during birth for everyone.
the problem with not calling it birth rape. and referring to it as birth trauma. is that the word ‘trauma’ erases the person who intentionally assaulted another human being. what i mean is, a person can be traumatized during an appendectomy, if say, during the surgery they almost died. but that trauma is not the responsibility of the doctors in the hospital necessarily. that person could have been traumatized by the flimsiness of life, ‘mother nature’, natural disasters, etc.. anytime a person goes through a life/death situation there is a chance of being traumatized.
but the word ‘rape’ means that there was a ‘rapist’. actor/s who caused the trauma. it doesnt allow for passivity. that is part of the reason that the word ‘rape’ sounds so strong to us.
who would the ‘birth rapist’ be? the health care professionals. the doctors, nurses, midwives, and/or doulas. and yeah, those are the people who we are taught to trust the most. they have our best interest at heart. questioning them means looking into the heart of our evil system, and seeing that the system takes good, well intentioned people, and turns them into rapists.
what’s bugging me more and more about the medical rape/birth rape issue that is being discussed is that consistently, the big bloggers I am seeing discuss the issue and then *dismiss it* are bloggers that have not given birth. that I feel somewhat comfortable even assuming that they have never been in a birthing room before. And I know at least one of the people in the discussion is a part of the childless by choice group (not sure if it is a community or a movement or what—so I will just call it group)
and I’m struggling to understand why any person who has not given birth/at least been in the room with a birthing woman—has the critical/intellectual space to decide for those people who *have* given birth/been in a birthing room what is what.
black amazon writes about how denying the existence of birth rape works to solidify the power of the most powerful women who have the most access. she points out that those most privileged feminists write as if rape is not about simply the violation of a woman’s body, but is also in order for it be considered ‘rape’ it must be a violation of a privileged woman’s ‘right’ to be a part of the ruling class. and how these feminists do not have an interest in supporting the voices of mothers. (bolding mine)
The birth rape issue makes the ability to spear head and speak for “women” right down to it’s biological imperative essence and it takes the science of birth and teh study of women’s bodies back to it’s really nasty and slavery and class enforced begginings.
BIrth Rape is a place where money, education, privilege and power alliance don’t go together as smoothly in denying the voices of others.
Rape a raison d’etre in corporate women’s rights is NOT just an assault on women’s safety and security and well being and her control over her ability to decide
It is an assault on the ability to be a powerful and controlling member of a ruling class.
If rape is the first for you . You are not at all disturbed by the concept of birth rape . It makes a disturbing perfect sense. This is how they ingrain your place in society. Is birth a welcome into a new world ? Your entrance into being. OR a production assembly where you learn very quickly that you by the very essence of what brought you in are more or less than?
If you believe the second then , well there is an order to the things and structures to be protected and the feelings and bodily integrity of some woman who doesn’t have the good sense not to be poor or not to express herself in a way where doctors can understand her isn’t enough
( Sidenote this is why you will also note the rise in designer birthing articles and services , they know this shit is real they also know that fighting the system isn’t what they want . It’s about assuring the system guides the CORRECT people to safety)
becuase then we would have to have discussions based on shit like FEELINGS and not the tears anger entitlement usually used to manipulate tactics commonly pushed for ” feelings”
but that kind of bone deep sense of balance equilibrium and safety that
CAN NOT BE MASS MARKETED in a way that keeps these women in yoga mats.
If birth rape and birth and sexuality are very much individualized and at the essence in need of a system that respects that….
So is gender . Essentialist arguments about who gets to speak who doesn’t what constitutes motherhood are proven to fall to the BODY OF THE PERSON IN QUESTION?
Erasure and segregation of women without vagina’s , or people who classify along no binary aren’t ” things we need to work on” They’re just damn wrong.
There is no standard , it just feels right or it doesn’t.
There MAY be a norm but that norm is now more for healing than policing or correcting.
So is ability. A body is what it is what is and that has to be respected. No mourning no pathologizing just need for a system ( environment) that heals and provides safety. Can’t fix what ain’t broke
So is race . You can’t decide what it is or isn’t . You can’t wash it away cause you’re tired of it . You have to deal with those who’ve lived it.
Women’s healthcare is often defined by a belief that we have no bloody idea what we are talking about when it comes to our own bodies. That someone else knows better
not techniques for treatment
but literally what we feel and what we should feel.
And we only get to protest if we can CONVINCE THEM what we need.
Birth Rape is a great issue to establish a feminist monoculture around. One that re-enforces classism, racism ( did you know gynecology was mostly found on cutting slaves, and natives in America and the poor everywhere else?) classism , jingoism, able ism, cultural appropriation( well if you have a properly liscensed paid staff and doula you can have a native birthing pool!!!), transmisogyny( WE KNOW WHAT WOMEN’S BODIES SHOULD AND SHOULD NOT DO !!!)
under the guise of rationality and reconciliation and being an emissary to talk to these poor confused women who thing they should know their own bodies. It’s a nice way to reassert a belief that being publicly prominent is as good as a reason to be considered expert as being ACTUALLY KNOWLEDGEABLE.
With technology and social communication consistently stripping the need for their previous roles as gatekeepers and information controllers, they now must set logical standards to keep employed. And birth rape is FAR too big to leave to the participants
Because this issue means that we would have to go immediately to two sets. Women who give birth and those who caretake.
And teh rest of us would have to support each side and let me tell you .For prominent feminist writers they are telling us flat out there is
NOTHING IN IT FOR THEM TO SUPPORT MOTHERS
It don’t feel right to them so they could give a hell if it feels right to us
and it’s the first step to making whatever don’t feel right to us a disease