The XX Factor

Bad Birth Experiences Aren’t Rape

Irin at Jezebel examines the controversy over the term “birth rape,” which is used in what I’d call the childbirth empowerment circles. 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. While I agree with the general goals of the childbirth empowerment movement, I really do wish they wouldn’t use the term “birth rape” to describe these experiences.  It’s misleading.

The problem is that actual rapists have completely different motivations than imperious doctors who inadvertently traumatize their patients by pushing them around in the birthing room. Actual rapists want to traumatize their victims-getting off on the power they have over their victims and the fear it instills in them is the whole point of raping them. (Don’t believe me?  Here’s some evidence to ponder on this subject .) Doctors who push around their patients are rarely doing so out of sadism so much as contempt for the intelligence of their patients. Are they sexist? Sure. Do some exhibit contempt for women that’s so serious it fades into misogyny? Absolutely. Can this be traumatizing? Definitely.  But is it sadistic in the way that rape usually is in the real world? I’m unconvinced.

It may seem piddling to worry about these issues, but actually it’s a big deal. If the social definition of rape is rooted in the trauma to the victim and not in terms of what the actual rapist did and why, we’ve lost our main tool in stopping rape from actually happening. After all, the way to stop the trauma-infliction is to get those inflicting trauma to cut it out. And we can’t even begin that conversation until we know why they do what they do. So our terms have to center around the actors, not the objects of their actions. Which doesn’t mean that we have any less sympathy for the women victimized by either rape or traumatic birth experiences, just that we’re more exacting in our language and more productive in our activism.

The difference between what motivates a rapist and what motivates a bad doctor is critical when it comes to bringing a halt to horrible birth experiences. If we want bad doctors to cut it out, we have to define what they’re doing wrong accurately. In most of these cases, they just don’t respect their patients. That’s the problem that has to be worked on-getting them to the point where they listen to and respect their patients. Approaching them like they act out of sadism is simply going to turn them off.

Getting actual rapists to cut it out is a much more complicated problem, and obviously one for a different post. Which is part of the reason using rape as a metaphor for traumatic birth experiences falls apart under any in-depth examination.

Photograph of pregnant woman reclining in hospital gown by Comstock/Thinkstock.