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.
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.