Why ‘normal’ feels so bad: violence and vaginal examinations during labour – a (feminist) phenomenology

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In this article, I argue that many women lack the epistemic resources that would allow them to recognise the practice of vaginal examinations during childbirth as violent or as unnecessary and potentially declinable. I address vaginal examinations during childbirth as a special case of obstetric violence, in which women frequently lack the epistemic resources necessary to recognise the practice as violent not only because of the inherent difficulty of recognising violence that happens in an ‘essentially benevolent’ setting such as the medical one, but also, and mainly, due to the pervasive sexual reification of women under patriarchy and the pervasive shame to which women are subjected. My argument is that the practice of vaginal examinations is indeed experienced – bodily apprehended – as violent by many women, but that full epistemic recognition of this violence is frequently obstructed because the experience perfectly coincides with the normal phenomenological situation of women within patriarchy and thus cannot really be framed as violent. A phenomenological analysis presenting the embodied experience of women under patriarchy as always already essentially tied to sexual availability and commodification, and to shame, will explain this epistemological impairment. A phenomenological take on Judith Butler’s distinction between ‘recognition’ and ‘apprehension’ informs my analysis: I deploy it to provide a richer, more nuanced response to the question of why vaginal examinations are not fully recognised and expressed as violent – even when they are, frequently, apprehended as such. Furthermore, Butler’s ideas about the epistemic ‘framings’ through which we make sense of different kinds of lives (grievable versus ungrievable) will help me to explain how the patriarchal sexual reification of women in fact already frames sexual violence as not-violence – which ultimately also prevents labouring women (and obstetrics staff) from recognising vaginal examinations during labour as violence.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)443-463
Number of pages21
JournalFeminist Theory
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
I deeply thank the anonymous reviewers of this article and Srila Roy for their illuminating recommendations. The first version of this article was written to be presented at a seminar in Oxford on vaginal examinations in childbirth and the question of consent, in February 2019. The seminar was funded through the British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship Programme (awarded to Camilla Pickles) and the Oxford Faculty of Law?s Research Support Fund. I want to warmly thank Camilla Pickles, as well as her advisor Jonathan Herring, for their kind invitation to participate in this seminar. I also thank the 'Philosophy of Birth - Rethinking the Origin from Medical Humanities' project (PHILBIRTH) for its support and Marie F. Deer for her helpful comments. The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This research was supported by the Israel Science Foundation (grant no. 328/19).

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2020.


  • Butler
  • childbirth
  • embodiment
  • epistemology
  • labour
  • obstetric violence
  • phenomenology
  • sexual violence
  • shame
  • vaginal examinations

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Gender Studies


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