How the Birthing Industry Perpetuates Rape Culture

If we want to do the real work of dismantling rape culture, we must address our birthing culture. How we treat women during pregnancy, throughout labor and postpartum says everything about everything in this world. How we do anything, is how we do everything.

Disclaimer: I do believe that medical interventions throughout pregnancy, labor and postpartum can be beneficial, and even lifesaving. What I am addressing more intimately is how we get to the interventions and the vast overuse of the interventions. Common interventions include but are not limited to administration of Pitocin, artificial rupturing the membrane, ultrasounds, internal fetal monitoring, epidural or cesarean.

During pregnancy, the industry treats a woman as though she has contracted an illness. The amount of medical testing and the heightened “preventative” responses often do more harm than good. For example, around 36 or 37 weeks gestation, it is recommended by the CDC that women have their vaginal flora tested for Group B Streptococcus (GBS). The response to this testing is to administer antibiotics to women throughout labor if they test positive for having this bacteria in the vagina or rectum (even though it is naturally occurring in those places). Without delving too deeply into statistics, the outcome here is that when we consider the number of women who receive antibiotics needlessly, the harm likely outweighs the good in terms of the immediate and long term health implications of mother and baby for having received antibiotics at this time, unnecessarily.

This is one example of how we approach a woman in pregnancy as though she has a condition to be managed and treated, rather than approaching her as a woman who is embarking upon one of the most powerful, life-changing, transformative physical and spiritual experiences one can have. My vision of how we transform rape culture is to treat pregnant women like healthy, vital humans who are creating a human in their vessels. My vision of how we transform rape culture is that at the onset of labor we treat women as though they are about to begin the marathon of parenting that begins with labor and birth. It is a time for deep nourishment and support. Many institutions actually prohibit women from eating to prevent an almost nonexistent risk of aspirating during a potential cesarean. We actually starve women who are about to run a marathon.

How does rape culture play into the labor and birthing aspects of our culture? The more I work with women, the more I realize how many of us are affected have been direct victims of sexual predation and rape culture. Most of us have sexual trauma.

It is possible through the birth process and postpartum time to cultivate healing around sexual trauma. However, standard birthing practices in hospitals and even in birthing centers often trigger more trauma, by taking the power of choice and intuition away from women. They push interventions and medications that can often be avoided, many times without offering full informed consent about a particular treatment. They create rigid timelines and structures that interrupt the juicy labor flow of a woman. This often has more to do with profit, than it does to make way for the gentle entrance of our babies. Even the consistent monitoring of the mother and baby can feel intrusive in its frequency as well as the nature of how it is done. A homebirth midwife will often work around the laboring mother’s comfort to monitor for the information she needs, whereas many hospital personnel will require a woman to shift her position for monitoring to accommodate their own comfort and ease.

I was recently talking with a friend about a series of dreams I had immediately after my son was born. In each of these dreams, he died, and I woke up anxiety-stricken and devastated, even though he was right there and obviously perfect in every way.

I have been considering how this series of dreams relates to birth trauma, rape culture and the diagnosis, “postpartum depression”. Such a diagnosis of “postpartum depression” does us all a great disservice. It is a diagnosis that paints women as being too weak and vulnerable to our hormones. It does not account for all that we go through to create, sustain and birth life. It stigmatizes women as having a mental illness, as opposed to a hormonal experience that results from the extreme experience of birthing, in a culture and paradigm that is not set up to be nourishing and supportive.

Even if it all goes as well as we can hope for, the birthing process can be inherently traumatic. I know orgasmic birth happens, but it is not the norm, especially in our culture of medicalized birthing. We labor for hours, sometimes days, and then give birth to this amazing creature. We begin from a place of exhaustion in a culture where we do not have enough support and more value is placed on how quickly we can attain our pre-pregnancy, pre-birthing body and productivity level, instead of how well we can slow down and be in each sacred moment, of the raw tender and magical postpartum time. How much can we nourish ourselves? Can we ask for support?

In their divinity, the feminine and the masculine both have essential qualities that balance one another. The feminine brings chaos, creativity and intuition. The masculine brings structure, order and rationality. Men have been governing the birthing industry and applying qualities of structure, rationality and order to a process that is inherently chaotic, creative, mysterious and intuitive.

When we apply rigid structure to the birthing process, we desecrate the sacred feminine. We traumatize women, and thus we traumatize babies. We never name this as rape culture, because it is “medicine”. The first step is naming this. The next steps are already in motion, yet we still have much work to do here. These steps are propelled forwards by the doulas and midwives whose mere presence decreases the number and intensity of medical interventions in hospital births.

I hold a vision of taking birth back into the hands of the wise women. As we slowly work on that, I continue to hold the vision and step forward personally to be an advocate for women’s rights, and a support for women to fully inhabit themselves as they walk the path of pregnancy, birthing and motherhood. The more we step into our power, the more we can learn to trust our selves and our bodies along this journey.

Next installment:
How to Heal When Being Empowered was not Enough


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