Trigger warning: rape and sexual abuse

Since the beginning of gynecology, when male doctors mutilated black women for a theater of men, the study of the female anatomy has been horrific, unfeeling, and emphatically sexist. Despite this precedent, most modern day women don’t give a second thought to the uncomfortable vaginal examinations we endure, believing them to be unpleasant but in our best interests.

Here’s the hard truth: today’s approach to women’s healthcare is less sinister, but it ain’t exactly Hippocratic. As long as the establishment can leverage access to our genitals as pawns in a political fight or use them for medical experiments, they will. For some of us, this is an ongoing terror and worthy of all women’s attention.

My story

I had never planned to become a crusader against certain gynecological practices but in my twenties, I was raped. To bring my viewpoint into perspective, I need you to read to what happened to me: A man pinned me in an elevator, digitally penetrated my anus so forcefully that I bled, and forced me to smell his fingers before he let me escape to choke on sobs in my awful degradation. An experience so ugly irrevocably changes the relationship between your mind and your body.

For a time after my rape, every touch, look, shoulder tap, or ambiguous hug loomed large in my mind, like a shadow-threat that might or might not be a monster. I struggled with intimacy, and I physically jumped when touched unexpectedly. As you can imagine, when it came time for my next “well-woman” exam, I wanted to opt out…except my doctor wouldn’t let me.

An unwelcome pelvic exam

Even after I told her about my sexual assault, she cooed maternally but remained insistent that I endure it. As an added bonus, she refused my birth control refill until I submitted to a pelvic exam and Pap smear—an unconscionable ultimatum that halted my rape recovery, particularly since this doctor also digitally entered my anus during the pelvic exam. As the ultimate insult, I would later come to find out that procedures like these are unnecessary and without any convincing cause.

There are numerous governing boards, advisory panels, task forces, and private organizations that make guidelines about how often you should see your gynecologist. Their recommendations vary and are based on different criteria about what makes an exam valuable. Generally, there is an agreement that a woman should receive a Pap smear and HPV test every three-to-five years if she is between the ages of 21 and 65. When it comes to pelvic exams—by far the most invasive procedure, the one with the nosy speculum and manual insertion of fingers—there is little consensus about what’s right.

Was this procedure even necessary?

There is no hard evidence that an annual pelvic screening spots cancer or other significant illness. So why do it? Some organizations like the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists still recommend an exam based on “expert opinion.” Essentially, their defense of the annual exam is that doctors feel it’s important.

One could wonder, based on the history of gynecology, if doctors’ opinions are always for the benefit of the woman. In fact, a third of doctors freely admitted in a 2013 study reported on by the Washington Post, at least part of the reason is to “ensure adequate compensation” for routine gynecological care. And what compensation it is! In the same study, it was found that the total cost of preventative exams and lab work is a $2.6 billion business.

I might sound hyper-conspiratorial if this were the only troubling data about the intersection of social justice and reproductive healthcare. We know that black women still suffer much higher rates of maternal death per birth, white women still have a much easier time accessing birth control, and poor women continue to fare terribly across the board.

It’s undeniable that regular health screenings are important—when they have been carefully vetted and there is quantitative, scientific value in them. But it is harmful to all women when some women—especially those who have never been devalued or ignored by their healthcare provider—automatically support the status quo or lecture women who question it. We probably have good reason.

How can I make my body my own?

As for me, I began my informal gynecological studies because I felt—and feel—woefully betrayed by my doctor, who forced me to submit to her will after a life-altering sexual assault. I would have come in for treatment when and if it was time, based on my recovery and the measured evaluation of recommendations from multiple sources. But ultimately, I wasn’t trusted to know what was best for me or my health.

As a feminist issue, reproductive healthcare can’t begin and end with Planned Parenthood funding or access to Plan B. Those are symptoms of a broader, systemic problem that I have been forced to relearn throughout my life: My body has never been nor will ever be my own, whether due to a terrible man in an elevator or a governmental body, physician, or panel who decides when I will undergo a procedure I don’t want in order to receive vital medication.

Until we question every medical decision that’s made for us and replace needless, damaging healthcare policies with intersectional, scientific, pro-women ones, our bodily agency is an illusion, whether you’re personally affected by it or not.

Featured photo by Kate Sweeney

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  • What your doctor did is ALSO SEXUAL ASSAULT!

    Your doctor used coercion to assault you.

    he pelvic exam has been a standard part of a woman’s annual checkup for decades, yet it serves no clear purpose and may do more harm than good.

    That’s the conclusion of a new guideline by the American College of Physicians (ACP) based on a review of scientific literature spanning more than 60 years. In an article to be published July 1, 2014 in the ACP’s flagship journal, Annals of Internal Medicine

    The ACP contends that pelvic exams rarely detect “important disease” or reduce mortality.

    In an accompanying June 2014 editorial by Dr. George F. Sawaya, an obstetrician-gynecologist and UC San Francisco professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences, and epidemiology and biostatistics; and Dr. Vanessa Jacoby, a gynecologist and UCSF assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences they conclude:

    “The pelvic examination has held a prominent place in women’s health for many decades and has become more of a ritual than an evidence-based practice…”

  • I have had several Pap smears in my life. I have never consented to any of them. Rather, I’ve been threatened, coerced, ambushed, had medication withheld, and even drugged. Mostly, I’ve just been told I didn’t have a choice. I consider myself to have been repeatedly raped by medical professionals. No one ever attempted to give me info and then ASK if I wanted the test.

    I was over 40 before I found out that these tests are OPTIONAL screenings for a rare cancer and have nothing to do with birth control or any other drug. That was when I realized that my instincts about this test were correct. They are an unnecessary violation.

    I’m in therapy, but I’m still traumatized. I avoid direct gynecological care. My adenomyosis was discovered through transabdominal ultrasound. I will not go to a gyno to have it treated. Instead I’m taking supplements to balance my hormones.

    What I want more than anything is to find something where a doctor or study or somebody official comes out and says that women who are coerced into Pap tests have been raped, that legally it is a sex act and that the perpetrators have not obtained consent.

  • I have been searching for months for a story similar to my own. Yours is not, but still brought me a small comfort knowing that I am not alone. I was given a pelvic exam to check for signs of rape as a minor when I was hospitalized with alcohol poisoning, and my mother ordered the exam. I said I did not consent but they said they had to do what my mother asked of them. I repeated multiple times I do not consent and they did it anyways. They didn’t ask me why I did not consent, or try to understand what I was going through. They weren’t gentle or slow about it at all. They just got it and got out.

    I was not raped, so they found nothing.

    I realized that this combination of events scarred me and is still inflicting pain on my daily life 14 years later. I’ll finally be going to specialized therapy this month.

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so sorry that that happened to you. What that person did was unforgivable. And the doctor as well. I hope that in this life you are able to heal from this 🙏

  • I was forced to endure a gyn exam every year to get birth control pills. I have been shamed, chided and ridiculed for objecting.

    All to screen me for cancer, which I would reguse to treat. Everyone chides and ridiculed me gor that, too….I’m told I have bad judgement, suicidal thinking, and ridiculed. My doctor insisted I can’t possibly make an informed decision without a pap test and that I might or will change my mind about cancer treatment.

    No, I won’t. I made this decision after research and it’s reinforced every time a friend or relative undergoes cancer treatment. Quality of life is more important than qnantity. I don’t want to be hospitalized for surgeries, radiation bombardment and toxic chemicals poured into my body. 5 people died of complications of their chemo instead of their cancer. The ones who lived were so sick or disabled afterward that their quantity of life was degraded.

    Nobody honors my decisions. They tell me how wrong I am and force me to do what they decide. Whose body is it? Whose life is this?

  • I’ve also had a bad experience with a doctor. I needed treatment for a bladder issue, but he wouldn’t do any tests or give me any treatment unless I consented to a Pap smear first. He made me very uncomfortable because he made a lot of comments about sex toys, and things that weren’t relevant to my problem, but I was young at the time, and I didn’t know what to do, so I caved into the pressure, and set up the appointment.

    When I was there, however, I didn’t feel like I could go through with it. I told the doctor that I wanted to stop, but instead of respecting my wishes, he called in his assistant who held me down while he preformed the ‘examination’ without my consent.

    I bled for three days after, and was in significant pain for about a week. It’s been over ten years and I still feel sick every time I think about it.

    I should have reported the incident, but my family was very dismissive of my concerns. They actually felt sorry for the doctor because he had to have someone hold me down since I wouldn’t co-operate.

    The last part of your article about making our bodies our own really stuck with me. I wish that I could feel like my body is my own, but this is impossible until doctors respect informed consent.


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