Mums forced into sex too soon
TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains graphic discussion of rape and domestic violence.
THE birth of Celeste's* third child was rough. For six days, she wasn't dilated enough and the hospital kept sending her home. Finally, when the labour started in earnest it dragged on for 18 hours.
After Olive* was born, mother and baby were exhausted. Instead of sending them home, hospital staff kept both of them there for two days.
"It was a natural birth and I did suffer tears, of course, and was sore and had very heavy periods," 34-year-old Celeste recalls, "It was explained to my [former] husband that we couldn't have sex for six weeks, but of course he didn't listen."
Celeste's husband, Neil,* was violent and drug-addicted. Just 40 hours after coming home from hospital, she was raped.
"I told him I wasn't ready but he didn't care. He forced me to have sex with him. It was the worst feeling and I hated every second of it. It wasn't the gentlest of sex either. It became very violent.
"After he had finished all he could say to me was that my vagina didn't feel the same and that I better fix it.
"I was mortified and in immense pain because of him forcing himself inside of me. I couldn't stop it. I tried. I told him 'no.' I felt powerless. I kept saying to him, 'You know, you said you wouldn't hurt me'," she tells me.
"Afterwards I had massive clots but he wouldn't let me go to the doctor. I'm no longer with Neil. But it's been five years since then and sex still hurts. I think he did permanent damage," Celeste says.
This is a side of pregnancy and childbirth we rarely discuss - women being pressured either verbally or physically into sex far too soon after childbirth.
Although there is scant research into this area, a social media call-out for stories prompted numerous women to contact me. Some related stories of being verbally nagged or pressured by their partner to have intercourse before they were comfortable. Other experiences women related have far more in common with Celeste's story of being sexually assaulted.
Yet a third group of women pressured themselves into having sex too soon because they felt obliged to "service their man."
In a Facebook message to me, Sally*, 42, explains she had traumatic births with both her children. She recalls her former husband pressuring her for sex within a fortnight of the births.
"There was a lot of 'I need sex to feel love' and sulking if he didn't get it," she writes.
WHEN IT COMES TO SEX, WHEN IS TOO SOON AFTER CHILDBIRTH?
"The biology of childbirth is such that there is a six week period of time after childbirth, where the woman's body gets back to normal," says Dr Gary Swift, president of the National Association of Specialist Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
He explains that this healing period is especially important for women like Celeste who have experienced birth trauma: "Not only would sex within that six week period be painful and uncomfortable for women, there is the risk of disrupting the suture lines and causing … injury that might adversely affect healing and long term sexual function. That would be my concern, particularly if it was a violent episode."
While women are bleeding after childbirth, Dr Swift says it means "the cervical canal is open so the normal infection barriers that stop bacteria going up inside the uterus and causing endometritis and upper track infections, haven't restored themselves properly so … it's not time to be sexually active."
Dr Swift stresses that the six-week period is "just a biological time frame" and that "it was never meant to be a sexual starting line."
"[The] issues of biological recovery and sexuality need to be separated," Dr Swift says, "It's not as if in six weeks one day you're back in the saddle and it's safe to have sex again. It's very much and individual scenario."
Dr Anastasia Powell is a criminologist at RMIT University and a co-convener of the Gendered Violence and Abuse Research Alliance.
She worries that the six-week mark is a damaging and misleading deadline, especially as some women report that their male partners ignore their physical health and simply cross off the days after childbirth until they are supposedly "allowed" have sex.
Her first book investigated young people's negotiations of sexual consent - and she sees many parallels here.
"The idea that a male partner would be either aggressively or persistently insisting on sex so soon after childbirth … speaks to that sense of male entitlement to women's bodies and to sex. It's really problematic that the sexual relationship is really only on his terms and about his needs and what he wants," she says.
A mother herself, Dr Powell notes she wasn't ready after six weeks and bluntly says: "Every woman who's had a baby knows it's bulls***."
She goes on to say: "They [men] need the doctor's permission, not their partner's permission. Isn't that outrageous?!"
Delving into what she describes as "the unwritten" rules about sex in relationship, Dr Powell lists them off: "Good women are meant to be sexually available for their man. Good women are meant to please their man. Good women are meant to put the relationship first and ahead of themselves and their own needs. Good women aren't driven by sexual pleasure or desire, they're driven by love and care in a relationship."
'HIS ERECTION WAS PRESSING INTO ME'
This unequal power position is certainly an experience 35-year-old Amy* can relate to. She met her charming and charismatic husband-to-be, Gary,* when they were just 15.
"He made me feel amazing [and] made me feel like the only woman that existed on Earth. It was a very, very sexual relationship. He couldn't get enough of me," she recalls.
Nearly 10 years later the pair married and started a family. But Gary was only happy within the relationship if Amy did exactly what he wanted, when he wanted. She says that often, Gary would shove his hands down her pants while she was preparing the kids' dinner. To stop him getting angry and frustrated with the kids, she'd agree to unwanted sex.
"He would get shitty and sometimes he'd take it out on the children. It was easier to just get it over and done with," she says.
Likewise, Amy has strong recollections of being pressured for sex within two weeks of childbirth. Just like Celeste, she was still bleeding heavily.
In the middle of the night she'd get up to breastfeed the baby and be dying to go back to sleep: "His erection was pressing into me [and] I remember him going, 'Ah, I'm so hot for you right now. I'm so hot for you. Baby, baby, I've just got to.'"
And despite her protests of "I'm just knackered, honey" Gary would keep kissing her.
Amy says she'd feel there was no other choice, "knowing that I just want to get back to sleep and knowing the quickest way to go back to sleep is to give in."
"One night he made me give him a blow job because I was still bleeding so much and he told me to, 'Hurry up and stop bleeding' so he could get back inside me. I remember feeling upset and like a failure because I couldn't keep him happy," she recalls.
Her memories of forced sex after childbirth are tied together with other types of sexual coercion in the relationship. During their marriage Gary pressured her to take part in a threesomes and swinging. He was also violent, pushing and restraining her and punching holes in the walls.
"He was an SES volunteer. He developed post-traumatic stress from attending a fatal car accident. Directly after that, in the middle of 2010 things got bad, really bad at home," Amy says.
Just two years ago, Amy left Gary and wishes she'd done it sooner.
"I was very protective of my ex-husband. I wanted to protect the perfect, happy successful image of a couple that we had worked quite carefully to portray.
"I wish now that I'd gotten out earlier. I wish I'd been able to protect them [the kids] more. Me allowing my ex-husband to violate me in the way that he did wasn't protecting them," she says.
Pondering the differences between women who are being verbally pressured for sex as oppose to others who are being physically forced, Dr Powell urges us to view this as "a continuum of sexual violence."
"A lot of women's sexual experiences are not simply sexual assault on the one hand and consensual on the other hand. There are a range of behaviours in between with different levels of pressure or coercion or force," she says.
In terms of solutions, Dr Powell questions whether in addition to supporting new mothers, we also need to think about educating and talking with fathers about their expectations once the baby is born.
"As a male partner, you're not going to be priority one in the relationship for quite some time. How do we adjust and prepare for that? Having to adjust to fatherhood, they're dealing with a shift in their masculinity as well," she says.
*Names have been changed
In case you are worried about the safety of the case studies interviewed for this story, all of them have now left their former partners and are no longer under threat of violence.
If you or someone you love is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). In an emergency, call 000.
Ginger Gorman is an award-winning print and radio journalist. Follow her on Twitter @GingerGorman or support her work on Patreon.