Sex too soon after birth: A giant crisis in hiding
TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains graphic discussion of rape and domestic violence
AS I sit down to write this, there's white-hot rage coursing through me. Last night, my story about women forced into having sex too soon after childbirth was published on news.com.au.
I knew it was an important untold story - but there's almost no data to show how prevalent this is. What's now clear is that this is a significant problem.
The response to the story was swift and alarming.
READ IT HERE
Mums forced into sex too soon
Among the shocked and disgusted women and men who responded to the story were plenty with first-hand experience.
Take Carrie's (not her real name) horrifying story: "Thank you for writing this article," she says in a private message to me, "I have lived with this secret for 13 years and only my brother and my new partner know.
"I was too embarrassed to say anything to anyone because I thought that I was alone in this happening but now I know I'm not alone.
"I went through a 30-hour labour with my mum by my side and then moved into my mum's lounge room with my baby and the father.
"I needed to be close to my mum [and] she slept on the couch beside me while my baby, partner and myself slept on a foam mattress beside the couch.
"This article brought back horrible memories of his hand over my mouth to dull the sound of my crying as he burst open my stitches five days after having my bubba.
"My hand was on my baby's tummy to soothe him back to sleep and my eyes darted between watching my boy to looking at mum to make sure she didn't wake up. She would've killed him if she knew what was happening right beside her."
Kirri also writes about her split stitches 10 days after childbirth and recalls how she "ended up with a uterus infection."
For, Jaimee the article "reminded me of having my baby as a teen and this happened and I didn't think it had any affect until reading this."
A number of others commented that it wasn't just women who'd had vaginal births experiencing this issue - but also those who endured a Caesarian.
On news.com.au's Facebook page Amy writes: "After my first baby, my then-husband forced himself on me five days after my C-section. I cried and begged him to stop. Worst pain I've ever felt. I left him the next day, and his mother told me that it was my duty as a wife to submit to my husband whenever he desired."
I should point out that many men were understandably horrified other blokes would rape their wives - or verbally coerce them into sex - after childbirth.
However more concerning are the numerous men who minimise or completely dismiss the devastating experiences of these new mothers.
To me, this shows just how far we have to go to stop domestic violence - and how clearly violence against women is driven by gender inequality.
Let's be clear here - forcing a woman to have unwanted sex is rape. Forcing your partner - the brand new mother of your baby - to have intercourse before she's ready is also domestic violence. It's not feminist whingeing.
In my article Dr Gary Swift, president of the National Association of Specialist Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, stresses women's bodies takes at least six weeks to heal after childbirth - and often longer.
He abhors the notion "that a women is property rather than a relationship being a partnership" (and rightly so).
"[Any] environment where women are subservient, or required to be obedient - I don't believe that has any place in modern Australian society," Dr Swift says.
RMIT's Dr Anastasia Powell, an expert in gendered violence, says that even verbal pressure for sex too soon after childbirth speaks to a sense of entitlement some men have over women's bodies.
There's nothing minor about this grim picture; it slots right into a pattern of coercive control that can have dire consequences.
As stated on Our Watch's website, "intimate partner violence contributes to more death, disability and illness in women aged 15 to 44 than any other preventable risk factor.
"On average at least one woman a week is killed by a partner or former partner in Australia." (Some experts believe it's closer to two women a week.)
While we may not know the numbers of women forced into sex straight after childbirth, my previous investigation shows more than 400,000 Australian women experienced domestic violence while pregnant.
How can we allow the women who are carrying the next generation to be brutalised and abused in this way? What messages lead women to wrongly believe that they must be silent and "service their man"?
When news.com.au approached The Australian College of Midwives about how midwives discussed the issue of sex and childbirth with Dads-to-be, it was clear they were not always included in the conversation with health practitioners (sometimes midwives only have a one off or fleeting visit with expecting parents).
Although some groundbreaking work is being done by midwives in the area of domestic violence intervention, it's usually with the mother.
Perhaps we need to go a step further. Perhaps all fathers-to-be need to attend mandatory education sessions - not just about childbirth and how their partner may be physically affected - but about notions of entitlement and sexual consent.
Or maybe, as one correspondent suggested to me on Facebook, these conversations should start much earlier:
"Could this be addressed in health education in high school? [And] help boys understand the impact of childbirth and the importance of respecting their partner/consent at all stages of a relationship before they enter a proper relationship."
The solution may still be emerging, but this is urgent. Australian women should not expect to be forced into sex straight after giving birth.
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.