On Birth Rape, Definitions, and Language Policing

Trigger Warning for discussions of rape apologism, specifically related to birth rape and other medical rape, and graphic descriptions of rape, including birth rape.

This post has been slowly brewing over the past week, as I was sincerely hoping to not feel ultimately compelled to write it. I note this simply because in the meantime, there have been many conversations taking place elsewhere on the same subject — conversations which I have read or participated in, and which have helped to shape my own visceral reactions and thoughts. Several of the posts which have influenced the ideas in this one are linked in this one, leaving the words in their original contexts. Some of those conversations were private, which I note with a very special acknowledgment to bfp. And some writers have asked not to be linked. But I strongly encourage you to click through on everything that is present, with a note that the above trigger warning applies, and a reminder that just because other writers have influenced my thoughts, that doesn’t mean they necessarily agree with all that I have written.

In this post, I’m just going to be entirely honest about what I think and feel.

For the past month and a half, I’ve largely been away from the internet for personal reasons. As life began to settle down and I started to make my return to the web at the end of last week, I slowly started coming across several posts written in my absence that made me wish I’d just stayed away. The first I encountered was “Bad Birth Experiences Aren’t Rape” by Amanda Marcotte over at Double X. The second was “When Giving Birth is a Traumatic Violation, Is It Rape?” by Brittany Shoot over at Change. And the last was “The Push to Recognize ‘Birth Rape'” by Tracy Clark-Flory at Broadsheet. There are almost certainly other similar posts; I didn’t seek them out, as I don’t wish to read them.

All of these posts were inspired by one at Jezebel that introduced the concept of birth rape to its readers with a highly noncommittal tone (ETA: Jezebel itself has a history of mocking medical assault). For those new to the concept, a decent basic primer can be found here (and links to others in the comments are welcome). Birth rape describes the experience of women and pregnant people of other genders having their bodies violated and penetrated without their consent in the process of giving birth, usually though not always through the forcible insertion of hands or medical tools into the vagina or anus without consent, and frequently with explicit non-consent. Victims are often physically held down, told to shut up, ignored when they scream or cry or plead, threatened, and/or called names as their bodies are violated. Just as survivors of other forms of rape, birth rape survivors experience physical and emotional trauma, often rising to the level of PTSD — only compounded by the general lack of recognition that birth rape is real, and the frequent guilt at having such trauma associated with their new child coming into the world.

In other words, birth rape is a term used to describe a specific form of rape that is committed in a birthing context, without the use of a penis.

But as in the posts linked above, this concept is extraordinarily challenging for some people, including feminists, who have taken to outright denouncing the use of the term — though, to her credit, Shoot’s post is by far the most ambivalent on the subject. Marcotte argues that birth rape should not be called rape because unlike supposedly real rape, it is not sadistic in intent. The definition of rape, she argues, should be based on the rapist’s motivation, not the victim’s experience, or we otherwise have lost our tools to combat rape effectively. Clark-Flory argues that birth rape shouldn’t be called rape, on the other hand, because rape is a special word, and using it to describe these experiences is “a violation in its own right”:

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’).

I’m used to seeing this sort of thing — discussions about whether or not an event that is admittedly horrible really deserves to have the title “rape” attached to it, accompanied by convoluted reasons as to why calling it rape would just mess everything up for real rape victims. What I’m not quite as used to is seeing it being done in the name of feminism and/or anti-rape activism.

To see rape defined by the perpetrator’s intention rather than the victim’s experience is particularly devastating for me — personally, I thought that a big part of anti-rape activism was getting people to realize that it doesn’t matter what the rapist supposedly meant, what matters is that sie raped someone. I thought that anti-rape activism was about centering victims’ voices. And I never thought that all rape had one solution, anyway, so to suggest that we can’t incorporate birth rape experiences for practical reasons of activism is absurd to me, and dismissive of the nuances inherent in our actual cause. And when we dismiss nuance, marginalized lives and bodies are always the first to get tossed out.

I also thought that a big part of anti-rape activism was about broadening our definition of rape, not narrowing it — throwing out the stranger jumping from the bushes with a knife as the only model of rape, and recreating a model that encompasses a wide variety violent experiences and promotes affirmative, enthusiastic, meaningful consent as minimum standard of decency rather than a nice bonus if you can get it. I thought that anti-rape activism was about acknowledging that rape is not just one thing, that there is more than one way to violate a person and to be violated, and that whether consent was given was more important than how much force was used. Especially in this context, the posts in question come off as nothing more than language policing, against particularly marginalized populations, no less.

But even questions of technical definitions and what exactly it is that we wish to eradicate in fighting this thing called “rape” aside, I do know one thing for sure. When women come forward and start saying “I was raped,” when they find the power to use that word to describe their own experiences and open up to share their trauma with the world, responding with “no you weren’t” — with whole blog posts about the subject, in fact — is about the worst possible way that a person can do feminism.

And doing feminism this way has consequences, just like using feminism oppressively always has. As far as consequences go, I don’t care whether or not it “turns people away” from the “movement,” frankly — after all, if this is what they hope to encounter upon sticking around, I think that they deserve fair warning, and I can’t exactly blame them for wanting no part. What I care about is the pain and the harm that it causes. What I care about is the fact that if, after years of struggling to finally claim the word “rape” for my own experiences, someone had immediately responded to me in this way with something about how calling myself a rape survivor was insulting to real survivors or harming their activism, I just might have died. Literally.

What I care about is the fact that I am a woman who was raped, and my rape did not consist of what most people think of when the word “rape” is uttered. It certainly wouldn’t fit under Clark-Flory’s narrow definition of “forced sexual intercourse,” the most common understanding of which would be limited to only involving a penis inside a vagina. I care that as a survivor who already doesn’t “count” under a lot of people’s definitions, these posts have all personally hurt me deeply.

I care because I am not a survivor of birth rape. And if these posts have cut me as deeply as they have, I cannot even begin to imagine the effect they’ve had on many victims who have experienced birth rape, or on victims who have experienced other forms of medical rape. I care because none of them deserve that. No survivor does. I care because they’re being told how to name their traumatic experiences by those who mostly have never been faced with those same experiences themselves. And I care because they are being harmed in the false name of anti-rape activism.

The theme has come up several times that calling birth rape “rape” is somehow insulting or even violating to survivors of real rape, because real rape victims are special, and their trauma is more real.

And I’m here as a survivor of rapes that are supposedly at least somewhat real to say that the only insulting and violating thing going on in this “conversation” is women being told that their rapes don’t count because they were committed by doctors instead of dates, in hospital rooms instead of the back seats of cars, with forceps and gloved hands instead of penises and ungloved fingers. I’m writing this because it’s patently arrogant and repulsive to insinuate through such language policing that those survivors who have experienced one of these violations haven’t also experienced the other.

Telling other survivors that their experiences of violation aren’t real enough, and just weren’t sexual enough of all things, to use our special fancy word is wrong. And if this is how the word “rape” is going to be used against other survivors of abuses of power and abuses of bodily autonomy and violations of self — as a weapon, like it is right now — then I don’t want it. If the word rape doesn’t include all of those victims of violence that it needs to include, we need a better word. If the word rape is so fragile that we must minimize the horrific experiences of some survivors, the violence they lived through, and the violations they felt in order to protect it, we need a better word. And when the major response to a somewhat mainstream conversation about birth rape is quibbles about words rather than compassion and organizing, we need a much, much better feminism to become the dominant one.

0 thoughts on “On Birth Rape, Definitions, and Language Policing

  1. Lisa Harney

    This is a good post. When I posted my response on tumblr (and tweeted it) someone attacked me because she thought your snarky response was mine and because she felt that you and I both were putting words in Amanda’s mouth, and that interaction really put me on edge.

    I totally agree with you about the horribly minimizing impact of defining rape as narrowly as the FBI. I am not a survivor (as far as I know) but I have some complicated history, and it was not pleasant to read that the only thing that matters when defining rape is what was in the rapist’s head at the time it happened. And of course knowing women who really have been able to name what happened them to them as rape. Claiming it doesn’t count for the good of feminism seems to sacrifice the good of women.

    Thanks for writing this.

  2. Kristen J.

    I very much agree. I’ve been avoiding this discussion because it isn’t something I have the energy to engage, but I’m glad someone has been pushing back.

  3. faye

    Thank you for writing this. When people start to talk about intent wrt rape I get indescribably angry. No. The problem is not (solely, anyway) malicious guys deciding they have a right to a woman’s body consciously. A rapist is not some creepy person out to get you, sie’s your partner, friend, sibling, neighbor, doctor, and this is because we live in a society where the things that are rape would never be parsed as rape. Someone pressuring a date or having sex with a drunk partner would likely never see themselves as an aggressor, why would a doctor see themselves as doing anything but their job? But it’s the response of the patient, in this case, that matters.

  4. Summer

    Yes, yes, yes! This entire conversation has made me screaming mad. As a rape victim, hearing “that’s not really rape” and “he didn’t mean it that way” just enrages me. To hear other so-called feminists use those terms because the rape in question is medical in origin (and trust me, there are enough doctors getting ego-strokes from their actions) is disgusting. I thought we were all about giving the victim a voice, and putting the consequences above the intentions? This attack on women who have suffered a violation so traumatic that it seems like rape to them is vile and down right anti-feminist.

    Today it’s not rape because he was your doctor, tomorrow it’s not rape because he was your husband/boyfriend. Hell no!

  5. Ellie

    It makes me sick that a feminist would be more concerned with policing the integrity of a word than she would be with honoring the experiences of women that have been brutally violated.

  6. Kelly

    You are 100% correct here. Feminists (I read their work and support many of their goals) is doing an incredibly poor job re: mothers and birth. I hope more people read more posts like yours. It will not take away from the so-called “real” issues of feminism, except it might challenge a few people to quit behaving like insensitive assholes.

    It’s irritating how people slice and dice their definitions of sexuality. As if the oppressive machinations that lead more women to be violated sexually just end when there isn’t an erect penis involved; as if birth culture and the reification of the “mommy wars” (by most men and many feminists) much like pro-choic/life culture isn’t formed the same kyriarchal/misogynist root.

    Claiming it doesn’t count for the good of feminism seems to sacrifice the good of women.

    Yes, and our babies/children. Birth culture in America is loaded with horrors – which most men, and many feminists, do little to nothing about, including their lack of support on the issues Cara is bringing up, which are essential.

  7. RMJ

    Excellent post, Cara. I was having a conversation about this with my partner this weekend, and he did not seem understand the vulnerability that comes with the birthing experience. This is not only an excellent explanation of that particular phenomenon, but also a fantastic rhetorical rebuttal on the too narrow definition of rape promulgated by some.

  8. Amy Bradstreet

    Yes, also 100% agree with the arguments put forth and that this post is excellent. My personal experience tells me that birth rape is definitely real, though I would never begin to claim it was as traumatic as some birth stories I’ve encountered. I also agree with Kelly, that to the detriment of all, mothers and children are ignored, disturbingly so within the realms of feminism.

  9. Aerik

    Has Cara recently invented a new gender-ambiguous pronoun ‘sie’ ?

    Kudos to a great post. Unfortunately a certain “skeptical OB” blogger is dismissing birth rape as the hyperbole of home birth woosters. I think we should get together and show sier what’s what.

  10. Janet

    Yes! This! And thank you so much for saying it. I’m really tired of being dismissed by my own movement around this. I’ve been told I’m taking away from “real rape” survivors, that birthrape is “like workplace harassment” (as if that’s ok anyway?) not “real” violence. I’ve been accused of calling all birth interventions “birthrape” (uh no just like all sexual contact is not called rape by those participating?) or that I think women should die rather than have lifesaving surgery (um really?) and all the time I support and counsel women who come to me with horrific trauma stories that would even speak to the police were they not committed in a hospital by a doctor or midwife.

    I keep thinking about how we once refused to consider rape by a spouse as rape because consent is a given in a marriage and how people denied that children could be raped. Not that we have ideal circumstances with either of those examples now but it’s a darn sight better than it once was.

    If women describe their experience as rape, that’s enough for me. Most women I’ve supported, and myself included, have been suicidal as a result of birthrape. Add denialism to that and it’s a devastation I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

    Birth trauma info here might be interesting to those still learning about this area or those seeking validation and support. http://www.joyousbirth.info/birthtrauma.html

    I tried to get Reclaim the Night interested in this a few years ago. The collective I approached got a student obstetrician to come and argue with me and deny that what I described could be possible. Nice to be ambushed and shat on by my sisters like that. Caused some significant PTSD flare ups from the thing I clearly imagined happened to me.

    Thank you for this entry.

  11. lauredhel

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I haven’t been able to write in this latest round, partly because I’ve just been too incandescently FURIOUS to put fingers to keyboard. I’m just ragingly disgusted, and even more so because this round of denialism is (a) on the part of *F*eminists who get large amounts of media attention and paid gigs, and (b) part, as I see it, of the deep-and-wide anti-mother sentiment in white middle-class American Feminism.

    “What I care about is the fact that I am a woman who was raped, and my rape did not consist of what most people think of when the word “rape” is uttered. It certainly wouldn’t fit under Clark-Flory’s narrow definition of “forced sexual intercourse,” the most common understanding of which would be limited to only involving a penis inside a vagina. “

    Same here (and I took decades, in one case, to put the word to my first rape). I stand beside all the people who have been raped in labour and postpartum settings that should have been about care and respect, but instead were about domination and violence. I find it hard to imagine how horrifying it must be to approach each birthday of a beloved child with anniversary PTSD symptoms alongside the joy and celebration of your parent-child relationship. How soul-tearing it must be to avoid having another much-wanted child because of the fear of being raped again, knowing that resistance may be impossible and that justice will never be done. Or how much courage it must take to go ahead and have another child, carrying that experience with you.

    I raise my fist in support.

  12. Blue

    Thank you for this post. I’ve been so angry and, honestly, baffled by the comments from supposed feminists on this issue that all I’ve been able to do is link all the supportive (or mostly neutral, in the case of the Jezebel piece) posts that I’ve seen on the subject lately. My blog is birthraped.wordpress.com I’ll be linking to this post when I update tomorrow.

  13. Brandann Hill-Mann

    Thank you, so much, Cara, for writing this. I couldn’t form polite, or even just snarky words in my head to come up with this. I wanted to. You did a smashing job and this needed to be addressed.

    I also thought that Shoot’s post was mostly ambivalent, as if she was more asking if this was a correct term, or trying to parse it out, rather than the accusatory “this is not correct” tone that I got from Marcotte and Clark-Flory. Her’s left me feeling awkward (and not just because we write on the same blog and I didn’t know how to talk about it), the other two left me seething with rage.

    And I didn’t want to play the “you can’t critique from the outside” card, because I don’t believe that fully, but when Marcotte says loud and clear that she hasn’t and never plans to give birth, stating that she has in no way any experience with what it is like to have that helpless feeling of having your body subjected to so many things happening so fast and being told that you just have to trust the doctor because your baby’s life depends on it…then I wonder who the hell is she to tell anyone that they can not call that experience what it feels like… You don’t have to have given birth to know, but don’t stand there and tell women who have how to define their own damned experiences, KTHXBAI.

    It is a rape with the extra bonus prize of being told you have to go along with it for your own good.

    Last I checked we, as anti-rape activists, still considered the violation of bodies, when things are forcibly shoved into your body against your wishes and will, rape, yes? That whole walks like a duck thing…

    Thank you. Just…thank you so much.

  14. annajcook

    My rule of thumb is that if your definition of something (“rape”) depends not on the thing itself but on saying what doesn’t belong, then you’re doing it wrong. Then you’re constructing something based on exclusions … and as feminists we really should know that exclusion and marginalization is not the best way to dismantle the kyriarchy!

    I get that the casual use of the word “rape” to describe non-violent experience (i.e. a hard workout) feeds a culture that minimizes violence by making light of it. But in this case, these are women who have been physically violated. What on earth do we gain from telling them their experience doesn’t count?? I really don’t get the prickly reaction to this language. I have friends who have had traumatizing medical experiences around reproductive healthcare and it absolutely fits into the big-umbrella picture of sexual assault and rape.

    Thanks for this post.

  15. lauredhel

    ” I really don’t get the prickly reaction to this language.”

    I do. I don’t share it, obviously! but I do get it.

    I think that to really understand the reaction, one needs to look at the broader picture of mother-exclusion in this particular brand of Feminism. Once you’ve had a kid, you’re ripe for the exclusions – it’s ok to keep you out of feminist organising because kids are all complicated and loud and annoying, it’s cool to dismiss you as ‘merely’ a ‘m(u)(o)mmy blogger’ and not politically relevant, it’s fine for you to be excluded from public spaces (with a hefty dose of Feminist shaming for your temerity in having a child-accompanied life outside the domestic and playgroup sphere), and you need to lie back and think of England when doctors are doing their thing, because it’s for your own good, dear, you made your motherbed, now lie in it and don’t get too uppity while the real feminists are talking. As soon as you make it clear that that fetus is staying put and coming out of you, you’re out of the club.

    Ask the same people whether it’s rape when a doctor or nurse or midwife does a forcible speculum exam or bimanual examination on someone without their consent when they’re not pregnant. Then ask them if it’s rape when they’re in labour. The mumbling equivocation and attempts at justification will be illuminating.

  16. SunlessNick

    The way Lauredhel illustrates this anti-mother sentiment, I can’t help but wonder if its leftover internalisation of “birth as a woman’s purpose” and anti-choice sentiment. We’re all used to hearing that abortion, or even contraception, is wrong because of them interfering with a woman’s so-imagined* reproductive duty. Here, with women who’ve elected to carry on a pregancy – I don’t know, is it seen as a surrender of body followed by implicit charge of hypocrisy to want that body back?

    * I say so-imagined rather than so-called, because it’s usually said with enough deniability that it’s not quite called that.

  17. InfamousQBert

    thank you. i’ve read some of the posts you linked to and just couldn’t wrap my brain around some of the arguments being made. thank you for standing up to them to eloquently.

  18. Adam

    I love this post. As I was reading it, having been unfamiliar with the background posts that prompted it, I kept thinking, “why don’t people see that it all falls under non-consensual bodily violation?” That combination seems to me to be the essence of rape. And to the extent that it’s a feminist issue, would seem to me to have to do with most rape victims being female, due to the gender component of kyriarchy.

    And I really like what annajcook said about definitions based on exclusions.

  19. Mary

    with women who’ve elected to carry on a pregancy

    This is something of a tangent, but related: elected is the wrong choice of word. Many labouring people did choose to conceive, or were happy to continue an unplanned pregnancy, but many did not choose or want pregnancy, and some of those were denied reproductive choice by medical professionals even in countries where abortion is not banned or publicly contested. (It should go without saying that none of those people should experience birth rape.)

    As soon as you make it clear that that fetus is staying put and coming out of you, you’re out of the club.

    Quoted for truth.

  20. kissmypineapple

    Cara, thank you so much for this. As another woman whose rape doesn’t fit so neatly into what is commonly regarded as rape, this cut me to the quick.

    I’ve been deeply saddened by some of the posts I’ve seen recently on sites that used to be my very favorite feminist blogs, and you’ve highlighted some more.

  21. shallowwater

    Thank you so much for this post. I was seeing red for days after reading Marcotte’s screed and I’m glad to hear from other women that I am not crazy for thinking it was an offensive and hurtful load of horseshit.

  22. Emmy

    Ask the same people whether it’s rape when a doctor or nurse or midwife does a forcible speculum exam or bimanual examination on someone without their consent when they’re not pregnant. Then ask them if it’s rape when they’re in labour.

    The presumed difference is that one is an emergency situation and the other isn’t? If it’s just during normal albor, of course, that argument doesn’t apply. But people hearing “involuntary” and “in labor” are probably thinking intervention at first.

    Even if it *was* in an emergency it is still a traumatic violation that any decent doctor ought to have plans in place for dealing with the aftermath…

    1. Cara Post author

      But the presumed difference is really just that certain people have fewer rights and certain rapists have better reasons for their actions. It’s just like how it has been shown time and time again that if you ask people in a survey “Does a man have the right to force a woman to have sex if she doesn’t want to?” most will say no, but significantly more will say yes if the question changes to “Does a man have the right to force his wife to have sex if she doesn’t want to?” It’s the exact same set of actions, it’s only the social understanding of those actions, and the idea that some people have less reason to refuse access to their bodies and some people have more right to demand access nonetheless. Immediately jumping to the conclusion that “oh, well it’s an emergency” isn’t really very different from “well she’s his wife.” Just in some cases we’ve finally been trained to perceive these circumstances from the victim’s point of view, but in others we’re still socially conditioned to immediately identify with the assailant.

  23. SunlessNick

    Many labouring people did choose to conceive, or were happy to continue an unplanned pregnancy, but many did not choose or want pregnancy, and some of those were denied reproductive choice by medical professionals even in countries where abortion is not banned or publicly contested.

    No argument there. I was responding to what Lauredhel said, which (I thought) was more specifically about women who have planned or chosen to continue a pregnancy.

  24. Emmy

    Immediately jumping to the conclusion that “oh, well it’s an emergency” isn’t really very different from “well she’s his wife.

    Well, there’s the difference that ’emergency’ is an actual reason to cross boundaries, where being married to someone isn’t. 🙂 But yes, as soon as people hear there’s a doctor involved they’re more likely to jump to conclusions that the doctor HAD a good reason for doing what e did, which can be a very problematic assumption… problematic enough to get people killed at times.

  25. aeronwy

    This kind of language policing strikes me as part of that discomfort with mothering that Lauredhel laid out so well. It’s like you lose your Feminist Credentials the moment you decide to not be a Determined Single Urban Woman With An Important Professional Career. Which is so counter-productive and frankly, anti-feminist, that I don’t even know where to start. I must have missed the memo where you had to conform to a certain demographic stereotype in order to get in the Feminist Club, I guess.

    I’m approaching full term with my second child and living in an area where my medical care has been very, very mother centered and non-interventionist; we don’t have legal home birth in my state (BOO) but we do have a wonderful CNM program that uses a group care model called Centering and a labor and delivery unit at the local hospital that’s one of the few places that I know of where your birth plan won’t get snickered at and tossed. There is absolutely no reason why this should be a privilege and not the norm.

    I don’t know what the actual demographics are for how many folks will become mothers* during the course of their lifetimes. But I do know that if even one person goes through that event, it behooves the rest of us to support that as a feminist issue. Besides, don’t we need to redefine mothering/parenting in a radical, non-patriarchal mode anyhow? And isn’t the experience of birth central to that experience? Besides, since when did it become ok to minimize forcible assault of this nature just because it occurs in a hospital setting and not elsewhere? If a random person walked into a room in a labor and delivery ward and attacked a laboring individual with a medical instrument, then defining it as rape or sexual assault wouldn’t be so damn difficult, now would it? So why is an MD or a RN exempt from that?

    *trying to avoid cis-centric and heteronormative language here. My apologies if that needs more work on my part.

  26. Lishra

    Thank you so much for this superb post, Cara. Most infuriating for me is the argument that birth rape isn’t “real rape” because of the intentions of those assaulting a woman. As you said, since when is that how we (anti-rape activists) determine who has been victimized? It should always be the victim who decides whether or not they have been violated. Again, thanks for writing this.

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  28. Mary

    I was responding to what Lauredhel said, which (I thought) was more specifically about women who have planned or chosen to continue a pregnancy.

    that fetus is staying put and coming out of you read as simply a fact to me, and thus inclusive of women who are continuing with a pregnancy primarily due to lack of choice otherwise. But I can see your reading too.

  29. lauredhel


    “Well, there’s the difference that ‘emergency’ is an actual reason to cross boundaries, where being married to someone isn’t. ”

    Firstly, labour and birth are not emergencies, though emergencies may arise during them, as during any other activity of life. Secondly, no, medical emergencies are not reasons to perform non-consensual procedures. The ONLY situation where healthcare staff can ethically and reasonably perform true emergency procedures without explicit consent is when the person is unconscious or truly incompetent to make a medical decision.

    That latter area – medical incompetence – is very heavily contested and has been used against marginalised groups in many ways – people who aren’t able-bodied, white, cis, male, etc. Some people try to argue that being in labour makes a person incompetent by its very nature, and I vehemently, vehemently disagree with this – it is a tool of rape apologism and justification.

    Lastly, and this is not an essential part of the argument but is important as context, a lot of medical “emergencies” in labour and birth are either not actually emergencies, or are iatrogenic. Failure to wait, pit to distress, the effects of lithotomy position on fetal blood flow and labour progress and perineal damage, the effects of constant interruption on a woman’s labour, emergencies associated with artificial rupture of membranes (an unnecessary and typically coerced procedure), unnecessary inductions that don’t progress, iatrogenic prematurity, etc etc etc. Simply being in labour with a breech fetus, twins, or a previous C section is treated as a lights-and-sirens surgical emergency by many obstetricians. And don’t get me started on Labouring While Fat.

  30. lauredhel

    Sorry, blockquote closure fail!

    Also, yes, “that fetus is staying put and coming out of you” were words carefully chosen to not include only planned, chosen, wanted (on an ongoing basis) pregnancies.

  31. vibes01

    when i first read this, my immediate reaction was “what?”

    but thinking about it has made me draw parallels with how i am treated by the medical world (and wider audience) due to my severe illness…i have been demeaned, marginalised, isolated, patronised (one doctor even wanted to examine me internally for some reason, when i outright refused he shouted at me then stomped off)etc…and feel that women who are in labour are treated the same way

    i believe this is because we are viewed as incompetent and not worthy of any sort of independant status…that we should be grateful that we are being treated in any form that “treatment” takes and everyone around says “its natural, you were helped, they did their best” while ignoring the emotional impact or writing it off as just your mental illness (depression post birth anyone?, you tell me as i am so far removed from anything mother/child)

    maybe im wrong here, but i can imagine that giving birth doesnt have to be as traumatic as its found within hospitals so why do people go?

  32. Sunset

    I have to wonder about this. My own experiences with rape – dare I call it that? – were not from someone who I would describe as sadistic or getting off on fear or whatever else. They were simply from someone who, on some level, could not comprehend that I might not want to have sex with him right then. He wanted to have sex, I (in his mind) must want to have it with him by virtue of being female, so it was ok in his mind.

    We need to extend the concept of bodily integrity past simple sexuality. I went through a number of years of constant forced physical contact in the name of medicine, for a condition that did not require treatment – I had a cosmetic condition that bothered my parents. I will tell anyone that those experiences were a significant violation and set me up to later be raped by a boyfriend. It wasn’t less of a violation for not being sexual in nature.

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  34. Amity Reed

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Cara. As the author of an article on birth rape which was quoted in many of the original pieces criticising the term and as someone left very disillusioned after my attempt to get a response published on Salon but was turned down because my argument “wasn’t sufficient to advance the discussion further” (i.e. I didn’t acquiesce or shift my position), I cannot put into words how grateful I am to hear someone stand up to this despicable behaviour.

    Lauredhel hit the nail on the head — once you’ve ‘sold out’ by having a baby, you’re out of the club that obviously gets to decide how we’re allowed to feel and what we’re allowed to call our experiences. It sickens me, truly. I can now see why so many women are reluctant to identify with those who think they’re steering this ship and that we should just be grateful we’re here for the ride.

    Bullshit. Completely and utter bullshit. Thank you for calling them out on this.

  35. Charlotte

    Thank you for this. What actually made me fully understand how the uproar about birth rape being a harmful term was so off-base was in fact when I saw that it was being dismissed because of the “intentions” of the rapist. Which struck me as completely antithetical to all the basic feminist principles regarding rape, enough to realize that there really isn’t any reason not to use the term birth rape.

  36. Austin Nedved

    Just in some cases we’ve finally been trained to perceive these circumstances from the victim’s point of view, but in others we’re still socially conditioned to immediately identify with the assailant.

    I don’t know if marginalizing medical rape has so much to do with identifying with the assailant as it does to assuming that Doctors Always Know Best. People assume that if a doctor performs an act in the name of the best interests of the patient, then it’s OK. We need to recognize the rampant paternalism that exists within the medical community. Medical rape is not an accident nor is it merely malpractice. It is arrogant, violent paternalism that entirely disregards the autonomy of the patient. Doctors who medically rape their patients may not be motivated by malice, as Amanda pointed out, but they are motivated by their belief that they are the experts, they know what’s best, and no one has any right whatsoever to question their authority. So when you think about it, there really are no morally relevant differences between sexual and medical rape.

    The correlation between power and what constitutes “real” rape is interesting. Traditionally, husbands have had more power over their wives than they had over other women, and many people see a difference between spousal rape and other forms of sexual assault. Doctors are in a position of power over their patients; they have more power over their patients than they do over other people. Society draws a distinction between medical rape and “real” rape. This isn’t a coincidence.

    Power creates knowledge that replicates itself and serves as the foundation for systems of oppression. The knowledge that power creates serves to protect and preserve the power structure that created it. This knowledge generally does so by both justifying and obscuring the exercise of oppressive power. “It is justified because doctors are doing it (justification) and it isn’t really rape (obfuscation).” According to this discourse and those who perpetuate it, medical rape is not only not rape, it’s nothing. There is no unique term to describe it. Amanda says that it is simply one more form of assault.

    An understanding of the origins of any given piece of knowledge is essential to undermining the power structure that created it. Why do so many people believe that medical rape isn’t rape? It’s not as though a bunch of doctors all got together and decided that they should be allowed to violate the autonomy of their patients, and that this violation shouldn’t be called rape.

    It probably went more like this: doctors are in a position of power over their patients, by definition. They know more than their patients do, and it upsets them when someone who is less of an expert gets to decide what the best course of action is, even when this person is their patient. They perceive their patients’ objections to their advice as an attack on their professional expertise, so they respond by doing what they think is best regardless of the wishes of their patients. The patients complain, and say that they were violated by their doctor, the doctor responds to the accusation by reminding everyone that he is the expert here, and the people who are being complained to credulously accept the testimony of the supposed experts rather than the patients because the experts are more powerful.

    This happens again, and again, and again, over a period of time. The doctors are in a position of power and are generally more respected than their complaining patients are, so they are believed. Thus, the idea that doctors know best and patients should do what they are told has more influence in discourse. It quickly becomes common knowledge, and this knowledge replicates itself whenever the subject is brought up.

    What all this tells us is that the doctors themselves are responsible for the origins of this knowledge. Any attempt to eradicate this knowledge and change the discourse should begin with them. Medical schools should teach doctors to respect the autonomy of their patients, and those who violate that autonomy need to be disciplined more severely. I think that raising public awareness of this problem is important, but I think it is even more crucial to develop a course of action so that the problem can be addressed at its roots.

  37. bronwyn

    i was date raped many years ago. i was very young and i got in a car with a guy i had just met at a party where we had been drinking and flirting. he was supposed to be taking me home from the party but stopped at his house ‘for a minute’ on the way. i came in, he pressured me into sex, i said no and kept trying to get up but i didnt really fight him off. i eventually let it happen. it was awful. instead of taking me home he silently drove me back to the party and dropped me off on the corner of the road. i got out, silently, and went back in. my friends were still there and they teased me, asking what happened. i tried to laugh it off. i was sure it was my own fault. the next time we all got together this man had told everyone i had fucked him. i told some of my friends that i had said no but no-one took me seriously – after all, hadnt i been flirting with him? i got a reputation for this. years later i still want to kill that man.

    it was only many years later that i found out that it was okay to call this rape. no, it was not some stranger beating and forcing himself on me, it wasnt at gunpoint and no, i didnt push him off me forcibly enough, i didnt scream. but i was raped, and for people to deny me my right to proclaim my truth is a despicable form of mysoginistic abuse.

    i was never birth raped but i feel the pain of those women. i would never deny them the right to call it what it was.

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  39. Nora

    (TRIGGER WARNING) I can’t tell if I agree with you, maybe differ slightly.
    Preface: Survivors of birth rape have the same right to identify themselves as survivors of rape as I do. I have no way of knowing what birth rape is like or if it feels like what rape feels like. I whole heartedly believe that if you feel raped you were raped.
    As a survivor of multiple rapes I know what it is like to be victimized by other feminists. I have a women’s studies professor who sends me emails after every class encouraging me and asking how dealing with rape is going. It’s like, fuck you I’m not a victim. I have agency and I have fucking used it. I don’t want to sit here on my high horse of not-a-birth-rape-survivor and not voice that by definition rape is forced sexual intercourse and there is a reason we have that word because THAT would be victimizing these women (sry run on). Perhaps it is myopic and self-righteous and I am open to hearing that but, there is power to be found in defining yourself and I wouldn’t force or deny that to anyone. I wouldn’t not say that, “maybe the intentions of the rapist do affect how rape feels.” e.g. if I had been raped with a cactus and not a penis I might feel that being raped with a cactus is slightly more hateful and btw being raped with a cactus makes you bleed a bit more than a penis. Not worse, different. There are differences, let’s not ignore them out of pity or fear. Ignoring difference is just as de-humanizing and disrespectful to survivors of birth rape as denying them the term rape. Can we change how we see this? Can we let survivors of birth rape define themselves? But really, can we not gloss over difference and stop making one experience better or worse than another?
    Tangential: What I think people who oppose the term are worried about is that rape is already barely legitimate. It is as lost to the world beyond feminisms as the word feminism itself. Rape is “sexual assault” at most and more commonly “being taken advantage of.” How do we bring those terms back to life without losing their meanings to generalizations? I’m seriously asking that, I don’t want birth rape or other forms of rape to be excluded but maybe having clearer definitions will help us with our ontological problem. (btw Sexual assault, really? Honestly, wtf does that even mean anymore?)

    1. Cara Post author

      Nora, of course there is difference — I said right in the post that the problem of rape is not going to be solved with one single grand solution, and that to ignore nuance — or to use your word, difference — would be foolish at best, and actively harmful at worst. Just like you said: “Not worse, different.” That is pretty much my motto when talking about the nuances of sexual violence. I don’t believe it helps anything to say “this rape is worse than that rape, rapes that look like this are the worst ones, but these ones aren’t quite as bad,” etc. But I do believe that it’s vital to sit down and say “look, what is the difference between these two” because finding the differences helps us identify the causes and work towards solutions. A lot of strategies for fighting birth rape are going to be highly connected to and related to those for fighting other forms of rape, but far from exactly the same. They can’t be.

      As for the word rape itself, I think it is simultaneously and only somewhat paradoxically both devalued entirely and put up on a pedestal in mainstream spaces, but that’s probably a whole separate conversation.

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  41. badgermama

    Thanks Cara. Right on. I agree with you 100% here. Doctors get away with murder and they certainly get away with rape as well. Being in labor, or pregnant…. does not equal license to deny a woman’s agency over her own body!

  42. Stephanie

    I agree, totally. I always thought that if you said no to something being done to your body and then it occured anyway, that it was rape. Especially if it occurs in an area that most women feel incredibly sensitive about to begin with, such as the vagina. For those who use the rebuttal of “the doctor/nurse/midwife/resident is more knowledgeable and/or has more training than anything I can feel going on” I call bullshit. Is that what those first parents said about their children who came to them and said that the family priest touched them in an inappropriate way? Doctors and priests have the same sort of historical authority in a manner of speaking. Priests no longer can abuse/molest/rape people, neither can other authority figures such as law enforecment/prison guards, teachers, and so on. Doctors are apparently the only ones who can get away with doing something to someone’s genitals *against their will* by saying “It was mediacally necessary”, even when it can be proved later that it wasn’t. Modern medicine has only existed as such for the last 100 years or so. For the 9900 thousand years before that, women gave birth naturally. Yes, there were deaths that could have been prevented with modern medicine, but that doesn’t make all the things done in modern hospitals for birth necessary, including some of the things done to these women that others are saying isn’t rape. One last question to those who say it’s not rape, because I’m confused; If someone shoves something in my vagina after I tell them no, and it’s not necessary, medically or otherwise, then that’s not rape? If that’s the case, what is it, assault?

  43. Amanda W

    I really love this article, and I’m using it in a paper I’m currently writing for a class. Thank you for so eloquently defending birth rape survivors.

  44. Aerik

    I’m extremely disappointed with Amanda Marcotte on this one. No, I’m downright offended.

    A doctor in a birthing room is a doctor that has tailored to their career around childbirth. I do not accept the argument that the doctor is treating the birthing woman (no, I won’t call her a mother until it’s over, else I think that does a pretty good job of denying her person-hood based on pregnancy) is treating her with the same flippancy as other patients. Even if they were, it would still be rape. And it’s still rape if you define it as the rapist’s intentions, the pathology behind it. I quote myself from an online forum on the subject:

    There’s no reason to classify this “birth rape” as any different than any other rape. Separating them plies that they have different causes, different pathologies. They don’t. They are all about power and entitlement.

    Somebody who rapes and claims they were just getting laid, that it was sex, is lying. They felt entitled to another person’s body, and penetrated it without their consent. This applies when you force somebody against their will, or they had no will at the time (unconscious / intoxicated). That these same people will use an object or hand when their genitals are not ‘functioning’ how they want when they rape is proof that rape isn’t about sex. It’s about violence. It’s not violent sex. It’s sexualized violence. There is a very important distinction.

    In the case here today, we’re seeing doctors feeling entitled to make decisions about penetrating women’s bodies, and following through with enacting them, all without the women’s consent. This is also rape. It’s rape regardless of the gender of the person. It’s rape to stick your finger or something in somebody’s vagina or anus without their consent. Whether it’s sticking something up a passed out drunk person’s butt, or ‘fingering’ a woman without asking if you could, or “accidentally” switching orifices during intercourse, or in this case, inserting fingers, forceps, and other tools while a woman is delirious or unconscious.

    The entitlement comes when a doctor assumes that what they see as the most efficient way to carry out childbirth must therefore be what the woman would choose for herself. Because we are finding that in many of these instances, the doctor is way off base, that his assumptions do not match empirically with what the women say when asked, what we have is doctors penetrating women without their consent, without even the flimsiest kind of consent. That is rape and nothing but rape.

    The basis for tentative exceptions under law about what a doctor can do while you are debilitated (unconscious, intoxicated, or otherwise mentally incapacitated) is that there are a few actions a doctor can take that, if the patient were given all available information, would choose for themselves. These few assumptions are i) the patient wants to live ii) the patient wants to be repaired, and iii) the patient wants to avoid crippling pain.

    Is the doctor using any of this when sticking things into your vagina that aren’t saving your life or even saving your fetus during a crisis? NO. That makes it a violation. We all know that we never stop thinking of our genital organs as sexual. We are seeing a pattern in these cases that doctors will dismiss this will of the patient, instead favoring what the doctor thinks is efficient. And they are doing it in ways that they just don’t get away with during any other medical procedure. Childbirthing women face the experience of having all their autonomy stripped away. The fetus gets priority. For many that’s fine. They’re there to birth and that’s also their priority.

    But when the doctor assumes that is the woman’s priority, the doctor is assuming how a woman wants her sexual organs to be treated, and assuming what s/he is allowed to do. And doing it in a way that doesn’t happen when one’s in for heart surgery, or an appendectomy, or an amputation.

    It does not demean the experience of other rape victims. People who say this think only the most violent of rapes get to have that name. They are wrong. What defines rape is not just the resulting trauma. It is the motivation of the perp.

    End quote. Addendum: I also do not accept any arguments that equate procedures intended to mitigate risk as on par with live-saving procedures.

  45. Aerik

    As always, I have one more important thought hit me just after I submit one comment. Something about my comment seemed almost circular.

    >We all know that we never stop thinking of our genital organs as sexual.

    Yeah. Of course childbirth is a sexual experience. Sex is both a pleasure-seeking experience as well as a reproductive one. It is disturbing to see a feminist like Amanda Marcotte somehow separate in her mind the realms of reproductive rights, sexual rights, and bodily rights, just because of the aggregate urgency of the situation, so as to dismiss the trauma these survivors are feeling as anything else but what it is.

    If the topic is birth control, we’re talking about sexual autonomy. Pills, condoms, patches, whatever. One simply cannot say, “Well sie wasn’t naked and we didn’t discuss her sexual history, so this appointment about a birth control prescription wasn’t about her sexual rights.”

    So there’s Amanda, arguing, basically, “It’s not a sexual situation; just sexual reproduction.”


  46. lauredhel

    Aerik, I think you might have the wrong end of the stick just a little in your comment about women being “delirious or unconscious” during birth rape. This does happen, yes, but it’s not the only situation – many people raped during the birthing process are not delirious, unconscious, or otherwise incompetent: they are raped either without the rapist seeking informed consent, or while they are actively resisting. Read some stories, if you can handle it – we’re not talking about well-meaning doctors saving (or “saving”) fetuses while the person happens to be unconscious, we’re talking about rapes performed with assistants holding the victim down, while the victim screams “NO”, while the victim kicks the rapist in self-defence attempts. These aren’t the only types of birth rapes, but they are a big subset.

    In addition, it is NOT ok to penetrate an non-incapacitated person even to perform a life-saving procedure without consent. _Even if the procedure will save her life or the fetus’s_. No means no, full stop.

  47. Aerik

    I didn’t mean that women are delirious or unconcious _during childbirth_. I meant that the same reasons you shouldn’t do things to people’s body when they’re sleeping, drugged, and knocked out should also apply when they are physically restrained (which childbirthing mothers definitely are), or in any situation in which they are not allowed to physically or verbally resist an attempt to insert something into their body. Childbirthing definitely counts as this, because whether on a bed, in stirrups, or even in the tub-based water birth method.

    The women are surrounded by people who are physically holding them down, surrounding them so they can’t go anywhere, and constantly telling her what she *must* do. That is the same as drugging them or knocking them out. It is removing their ability to exercise their free will.

    I’m WITH you, lauredhel. I was saying that one is not better than the other. It was marcotte and others in this case who said that.

  48. MomTFH

    Thanks for this post. I have been following this conversation on the birthy blogosphere, and I am happy you also feel that this is “doing feminism wrong.” I think feminists are supposed to advocate for the victims and allow them to define the terms they want to use to describe their victimization, not side with the patriarchy and tell them to tone it down. Having witness various forms of birth rape, it is a horrifying violation and does not need to be toned down with a more benign term.

  49. hypatia

    Ok, I’m late, but this is excellent.

    “One last question to those who say it’s not rape, because I’m confused; If someone shoves something in my vagina after I tell them no, and it’s not necessary, medically or otherwise, then that’s not rape? If that’s the case, what is it, assault?”

    That’s honestly very similar to the question that went through my head when I was reading the Marcotte and Jezebel pieces. What if someone had done this on the street instead of a maternity ward? What in the world would you call it?

  50. Pingback: Fertile Feminism | Birth rape: I’ll say it again

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  52. Pingback: Why Women Should Be Allowed to Use the Term Birth Rape « Radically Queer

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