Health Pregnancy

Sexual trauma in birth

6 min read

Content Warning: This article discusses the sensitive topic of people who experience sexual trauma while in labor, or related to their pregnancy care. If this is a topic that is potentially triggering to you, please consider this before reading.

Labor and birth are far from straightforward. The experience doesn’t always go as planned, and sometimes people experience trauma while giving birth. 

This trauma can be due to medical situations that arise, unforeseen procedures, and sometimes – incompetence from their medical providers. 

Swept Under The Rug

The medical industry, but specifically obstetrics and gynecology, has a history of disregarding patient’s rights and autonomy

This goes back to the founding of “modern gynecology”, in which the 19th-century physician, James Marion Sims used enslaved Black women to research and create innovations in the field. This was done more likely than not without consent, oftentimes without anesthesia, and resulted in multiple patients’ deaths.

Throughout the 19th century, and into the 1960s, a practice known as “twilight sleep” became widespread. This involved the use of medications that resulted in the birthing person not remembering the experience. 

A 2014 survey across the United States and Canada found that amongst over 2,000 doulas, childbirth educators, and labor and delivery nurses, over 90% had witnessed a medical provider without consent, and 60% of them had seen providers perform a procedure against their patient’s wishes. 

There is an epidemic of obstetric providers harming their patients, whether that be through unnecessary surgery or interventions, or blatant abuse, sexual or otherwise. This issue is not new, and it’s unacceptable. 

As a full spectrum doula myself, I can tell you that I have witnessed this firsthand, and often hear stories from other doulas and providers of this happening. 

What is Considered Sexual Trauma in Birth?

The tricky thing about sexual trauma in birth, or trauma in general, is that everyone perceives events differently. What one person processes as traumatic or harmful, another may not.

When it comes to the medical industry, there is often a power imbalance built-in. This can put medical providers on a pedestal, and leave people not knowing their rights as a patient. 

Oftentimes birthing people don’t know what is, or isn’t normal for a provider to do, even if they have given birth before. The general public is also not aware of the idea of informed consent – that patients have the right to a full explanation of procedures being done to them, as well as the right to say no. 

In some cases, this allows providers to assume that they can do anything to their patient, without taking into account that their patient might not want that, or if it’s medically necessary. 

Practically speaking, this can look like forceful or non-consensual cervical checks, fondling of the birthing person’s body, coercive or non-consensual violations of their body, emotional manipulation, and verbal abuse. 

This already tricky territory becomes even more sensitive in the context of birth because providers will most likely need to touch your genitals at one point or another during the process. 

In some cases of obstetrical violence or trauma, providers may not have had malicious intent, but that doesn’t mean that the patient can’t be triggered or perceive the event as traumatic. This is especially true for people with a history of sexual trauma or abuse, where a “routine check” can trigger past traumas. 

Preventing Sexual Trauma in Birth

Birth is unpredictable, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take the steps necessary to help prepare yourself.

Research Providers: While not everyone has the privilege of being able to carefully choose a provider, try to research and ask other recent parents, doulas, and childbirth educators about the providers in your area. 

When speaking with medical providers, ask them about their opinions on informed consent and how they navigate trauma-informed care.

Birth Education: Even if you are unable to attend childbirth education classes, there are so many free resources online that can help you familiarize yourself with the process of birth. 

Knowing specifics about certain birth procedures and interventions can help you better understand what is within the range of normal, and how to interact with your medical providers.

Advocate for Yourself: Knowing how to advocate for yourself in the medical system can help prevent unnecessary trauma or occurrences. Don’t be afraid to be assertive, ask any question that comes up, know that you can say no, and that you can always ask for a different provider if yours makes you uncomfortable in any way. 

Because birth can be so intense, it’s important that your partner or birth companion also knows how to help advocate for you. This way if they see something occurring that shouldn’t, they will know how to speak up. It’s also important for them to document any wrongdoings, as this will be necessary information if you choose to press charges. 

Hire a Doula: Doulas are non-medical providers that support people through pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. While not all doulas are equipped to do this, hiring the right doula means having someone on your birth team that is there 100% for you, and knows how to advocate for you. 

Just as you would with your medical providers, you can also ask potential doulas about their approach to informed consent and trauma-informed care. 

A Systematic Issue: Understand that obstetric violence is a systemic issue within the medical field and society at large. It should not be the individual patient’s responsibility to prevent abuse from occurring. 

Have You Experienced Trauma in Birth?

If you can relate to this, first know that we are truly sorry. You did nothing wrong, and you did not deserve what happened to you. 

Try to report the incident. There are systems in place to protect providers, and reporting doesn’t always lead to justice, but it’s worth a try if you are emotionally able to. You can try reporting it to the hospital or clinic, as well as the medical or accreditation board that the provider is affiliated with. Another option is to spread the word in local parenting groups, review pages, and on social media. 

Some specialized therapists and psychologists can support you through this delicate process. If you are struggling, please reach out to a mental health professional.

When birthing people talk about experiencing traumatic labor, oftentimes the response is “Well as long as the baby was healthy.”. This is not a valid response, and that’s not all that matters. People should be able to go through labor and access medical care, without experiencing trauma, especially at the hands of those meant to serve and protect them.