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Stitched into Silence

By: Sarah Ansari

Yawning, I curl up in bed, clutching the story I need to read for homework to my chest. My eyes are blurry and dry from wearing contacts all day, and now that I’ve switched to my glasses, I am ready to fall asleep, already having decided to just skim the day’s reading.

Eyes half-lidded, I zero in my focus on the page in front of me, waiting for the letters to stop swimming long enough for me to decipher the title of the piece:

“The Husband Stitch”

I do not think much about the words– all they offer me is the faintest brush of a preconceived story in my mind. I’m thinking something wholesome, maybe with a twinge of sadness. I see a faded quilt– the collaborative art of a family– missing a father figure. I see someone unable to open themselves up to another, finally finding a confidant in their husband. I see a single mother, sifting through whatever troubles she’s facing, and building her life anew–

In every case that I imagine, “stitching” is a good thing. It repairs, puts things together once more. It heals.

But the story is not what I am expecting.

The main character is cast with a green ribbon around her neck, a nod to the old horror story from “In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories”. As the tale goes, a man and a woman love each other dearly, and live happily with one another. There is but one restriction in their marriage: the husband is not allowed to untie the green ribbon that encircles his wife’s throat. But one day (because, ‘ya know– horror anthology), curiosity gets the best of him and the husband unwraps the ribbon as his wife sleeps. Her severed head, which the ribbon concealed, topples to the ground.

So, no quilts, then.

At first, I try to imagine that this story is secretly a happy one (Maybe in the version I’m reading, the husband will sew her head back on!), but I watch, terrified as the man who claims to love the narrator continuously violates her wishes, ignoring her cries of indignation when his fingers venture to tease the ribbon at her throat, offering the slightest of tugs.

In another instance– the same one that lends the story its moniker– the main character has just given birth, having experienced a small amount of tearing in the process (an occurrence that happens in 44-70% of all births). She lies, half-conscious and exhausted on the hospital bed, waiting for the doctor to sew the tear and to hold her newborn. She should feel safe– happy– in this moment, but instead, she overhears a conversation the doctor is having with her husband.

The man she has married– trusted herself with– asks the doctor how much it would cost for an extra stitch. The doctor, rather than reprimanding him, laughs along– all while the narrator tries to protest, finding herself too drugged and tired to make anything more than feeble noises which are ignored by both the men in the room. 

Whatever sleepiness had pressed upon me before is gone. I am wide awake. I feel as though I’ve been carefully creeping across thin ice, and that I have just stepped on a pressure point. The world around me begins to crack, etching its way from my epicenter, and then–

I shatter.

The sick feeling in my stomach drives me to the internet, searching, searching, praying that this can’t be– is anything but– true. But was it that they say? Life imitates art? Art borrows from life? Either way, heart-in-throat, salted tears stinging my eyes, I scroll. I scroll through pages and pages, and by the end of it all, I am trembling, shaking from the cold realization that the horrific experiences of this fictional character are not grounded in fiction at all.

The Husband Stitch is an actual practice, often disregarded as a myth due to the lack of discussion surrounding the topic. Many patients are unaware they’ve even had it done to them until told by another medical professional during an examination. They live on, unaware of the cause behind the excruciating pain during intercourse, running, biking, etc. 

Assuming a heterosexual, cisgender relationship, the motives behind the husband stitch entirely rely upon the objectification of the female body. By sewing the opening of the vagina “tighter”, the man supposedly enjoys sex more (this is false; “tightness” doesn’t come from the vaginal opening, but from the pelvic floor muscles). Medical professionals, therefore, modify people’s bodies (and inadvertently, their lifestyles) in order to make them of greater “use” to another. Tattered ribbons fall to hospital floors as people have their self-agency torn away from them– another price to be paid for having dared to be born with a vagina and for thinking that surviving birth complications was the only thing to be afraid of in the delivery clinic.

Let’s go back to the moment where I shattered. For a while, I couldn’t pinpoint what the cause of that feeling was. I knew how horrible all these articles I read were, but what I didn’t quite understand was the underlying feeling of dread that permeated my thoughts.

But thinking back, I realize it has to do with the fact that so many people defend the actions of the medical professionals who perform these procedures without consent. Another common practice in the medical field has doctors-in-training perform pelvic exams on women under anesthesia. Despite stipulations that dictate the necessity of informed consent in the medical field, a majority of states still allow for the procedure to take place, fighting against the backlash under the guise of education.As early as May 2018, only four states had issued out-right bans on the exams: California, Hawaii, Illinois, and Virginia. Many people maintain that those practiced upon are already naked (because they are often surgery patients), and have consented to have their body cut open in a process that is arguably more invasive than the pelvic exam. Hiding beneath the veneer of this argument is the logic of rape culture. Consent to one thing does not equate to consent to another, and the future generation of medical professionals should be taught that, rather than treating humans as though they are lab experiments, taking their voice, and stitching them into silence.

Other Instances of Non-Consensual Medical Practices for further reading (summarized): 

People with vaginas from poor backgrounds, who have mental disorders, or who are non-white are often forcefully sterilized:

  •  Immigrant women in the 60’s and 70’s. 
    • Cases such as these incited lawsuits such as Madrigal v. Quilligan, wherein Mexican women of working class were forced or tricked into signing documents that allowed their tubes to be cut.
  • Buck v. Bell.