Would a woman doctor have joked about her ability to behave herself in my presence without a nurse chaperone?
Recently, I’ve been tempted to write off male doctors entirely.
I haven’t yet.
It’s not that I won’t see male doctors, because I will. I still see them because I remember some of the great male doctors who have helped me most throughout my healthcare journey.
I think of my gastroenterologist, who has always approached me appropriately, and who’s been kind and respectful in his rapport with me.
I also think of my dermatologist, who’s been nothing but professional while providing me with a routine skin check — an all-over body procedure that’s inherently intimate by nature.
These doctors have been the good ones.
But over the past few years, I’ve experienced too many bad run-ins with male doctors who left me feeling violated.
Too many times, I’ve encountered male doctors who think it’s okay to give an offhand, sexist comment — the kind of remark that feels more like an assertion of power, or implies a shared comfortability that isn’t actually shared.
This includes the male OB-GYN, who, after reviewing my history, said: “Well, you must have been wild and crazy, huh?”
I was stunned. I didn’t have words in the moment — but no, I hadn’t been wild and crazy at 18. I had been sexually assaulted.
I was only silent until I got home, got into my bed, and wondered why I was crying.
This kind of “micro-misogyny” is all too common in some male doctor’s offices, a context in which the patient-doctor dynamic can already leave us feeling vulnerable and even powerless.
There was also the comment from the resident-in-training and medical student — both men — at my dermatologist’s office, who said to me: “I’ll go get the nurse chaperone to make sure we behave ourselves,” as if there was a chance that they would not “behave” themselves with me.
I was sitting naked in front of them, save for the thin paper gown covering my body. I wasn’t feeling unsafe before, but I certainly didn’t feel safe now.
Would a woman doctor have joked about her ability to behave herself in my presence without a nurse chaperone? I can’t help but believe the chances are slim-to-none.
As someone who has experienced sexual assault, these particular instances felt like subtle power plays.
Why did this resident-in-training and medical student feel the need to have a laugh at my expense? To make themselves more comfortable about the fact that they could take advantage of me if it weren’t required to have a nurse in the room during that time?
I have yet to figure out their purpose, but can share that the joke didn’t land. Not for me, at least.
I’ve always been small at 4’11”, and I’ve been a soft-spoken woman as well. I’m 28 and still pretty fresh-faced. All of that is to say, I can only imagine they view me as someone they could make these comments to.
Someone who wouldn’t say anything. Someone who would let it slide.
Having lived with sexual assault lingering in my past, these comments are especially colored. They’ve triggered and dredged up old memories of the time my body was taken from me without my permission.
As a patient, many of us already feel helpless and vulnerable. So why is this sexist “banter” so normalized when it’s really only designed to make women feel even more powerless?
The truth is, I don’t want to be seen as overly-sensitive, but the fact remains: These comments are inappropriate and they shouldn’t be tolerated.
And as it turns out, I’m far from the only one who has experienced something like this.
Angie Ebba shares her story with me: “While on the birthing table, having just gone through labor and delivering a preemie baby, my male OB-GYN, who was in the process of stitching up where I’d torn, looked over at my then-husband and said, ‘Want me to put in a husband stitch?’ and laughed.”
She tells me that her husband had no clue what the doctor was talking about, but that she did.
Apparently, he was joking about putting in an extra suture to make her vaginal area smaller, and therefore more pleasurable for a man during sex.
She says, “If I’d been any less exhausted (and you know, not in the middle of getting sutures) I’m sure I would have kicked him in the head.”
Another woman, Jay Summer, shares a similar experience with me, though this happened to her when she was 19.
“The visit was totally normal at first until I asked for birth control,” Jay says.
“I remember he froze and his voice was so judgmental when he asked, ‘Are you married?’ as if he were totally shocked an unmarried person would want birth control. I said no and he asked how old I was and sighed, like [being 19 and wanting birth control] was the most disgusting thing ever.”
These moments of ‘micro-misogyny’ put women in an impossible position.
Do we play along to get what we need? Or do we risk being seen as ‘difficult’ and potentially jeopardize our health?
We don’t always have time to take off work again, or the luxury to walk out of the doctor’s office and find someone else — some other doctor in our network, under our insurance plan, in that same month that we may need answers to urgent medical queries concerning our bodies.
We don’t have the luxury of walking out because what we want (our test results, answers to our questions, a prescription) is held above our heads, and we have to play nice in order to get it.
It becomes survivalist in a way: If I can get through this, if I just don’t say anything, perhaps I will get the answers I need and can go on about my day.
In this dynamic, male doctors have the power. They can say what they want, and presumably, there’s little that can be done to change that if you want your needs met.
It’s an obstacle course no woman should have to navigate in pursuit of her health.
While it’s easy (and understandable) to feel powerless in these situations, I’ve started pushing back.
In the case of my male OB-GYN, I reported him to my state’s health department who followed up with me and investigated the matter further.
As for the resident, I emailed my dermatologist to explain the situation and suggest that, because he’s training and in a learning environment, someone teach him a little more about professional bedside manner and proper patient rapport.
In response, my doctor called to apologize and let me know that he did speak with the resident about the situation and that it was being taken seriously.
It’s never my pure goal to punish or penalize. But it is my goal to teach and correct, and to let a practitioner or practitioner-in-training know when something inappropriate took place.
And at the end of the day, it benefits everyone.
It can help ensure that doctors avoid future missteps, lost patients, or potential litigious routes. And in some small way, I feel empowered knowing that these sorts of triggering and harmful comments (hopefully) won’t persist or continue to harm other women in the way that they’ve harmed me.
While it doesn’t always feel like enough, these are the sorts of actions I’m taking: speaking up, changing doctors, and filing complaints when a “micro-misogyny” takes place.
I’m grateful to the male doctors I’ve had who keep the bar high and provide excellent care, assuring me that I can and should feel safe as a patient.
And if a male doctor crosses a line now, I’ve made it a point to hold them accountable when I can.
I hold them to a higher standard because I believe that all patients — particularly women and survivors of sexual assault— deserve the best possible care.
Annalise Mabe is a writer and educator from Tampa, Florida. She currently teaches at the University of South Florida.