Misconduct from Doctors
In 2016, The Indianapolis Star broke the story about former USA Gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar’s history of sexual abuse. The story exploded as more than 250 women came forward with allegations of abuse against Nassar. Higher-ups within USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, where Nassar was an osteopathic physician, have been accused of enabling and failing to prevent sexual assault by Nassar.
Two sisters, Tasha and Jordan Schwikert filed civil suits against the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics for their mishandling of the allegations. Another set of sisters, Morgan, Lauren, and Madison Margraves, also testified against Nassar.
One in four women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Because of this and Nassar’s status and access to families, it’s not surprising that some of the victims are related.
In October 2017, during the wake of the #MeToo movement, my aunt Jenny wrote a blog post about the sexual assault she experienced, particularly an instance with a doctor. My mom commented on the post sharing a story of mistreatment she received from a doctor, ending with #MeToo. Jen’s post and my mom’s comment got me thinking about my own interactions with doctors and how heartbreaking it is that two of my close family members experienced sexual misconduct from doctors.
At 16, my skin was a huge insecurity for me, so my mom scheduled a dermatologist appointment. My first visit was with a male doctor. He told me he was going to take a close look at my face to see what kind of acne I was dealing with. Though the closing gap of personal space was a bit uncomfortable, I felt fine about it.
He started touching my face and swiping his hands across my cheeks. Suddenly his hands were down my shirt. No warning. My mind and body froze. I didn’t know if I should say something or trust that this was normal procedure. After his hands were already under my top, my doctor explained that he was feeling for acne on my chest to see if I would need a prescription-strength body wash.
His explanation made sense, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of being violated. I was a young girl who was already uncomfortable in my body. Having an adult man whom I had just met shove his hands down my shirt made me feel extremely uncomfortable. My mind would have been more at ease had he first asked or explained what he was about to do. I only went back to the dermatologist a few more times. Being there just never sat well with me after that first appointment.
My case is a very mild example of the violating or uncomfortable experiences women and girls often experience with a doctor.
In a survey of nearly 500 women conducted by Women’s Health and RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), 27 percent reported that they had been violated by a doctor. These violations include obscene comments, masturbation, inappropriate touching, and rape. However, physician sexual misconduct often goes under or unreported, so the actual number is likely much higher.
Sexual misconduct can come from a doctor in different forms. It doesn’t always have to include touching of the genitals. It also can occur in any sort of medical setting, not just in a situation where the patient may be undressed.
According to RAINN, there are procedures that are acceptable and not acceptable when undergoing an examination of private areas. The standard procedure includes an examiner explaining what they will be doing, using gloves, and only asking a patient to undress if it is necessary for the examination. This is where my dermatologist went wrong. While he didn’t explicitly touch me inappropriately, he didn’t let me know when and where he would be moving his hands.
If a doctor violates any of the aforementioned procedures, the patient should speak up. Knowing when and how to speak up can be tricky, though. Many women don’t say anything, which could be because they don’t know how or they’ve tried to rationalize and downplay the incident.
After giving birth to one of my cousins, my aunt noticed something felt a bit different when she was inserting her tampon. She said she wasn’t overly alarmed, but contacted her OBGYN for an appointment to be sure everything was healing properly.
The appointment started like any other—she was uncomfortable with her feet up in stirrups while wearing nothing but a paper robe. Her male doctor began with an examination to make sure everything was all right. He said all was good, so Jen thought, Awesome, time to go.
But then the doctor began running his fingers around her genitals while explaining each part to her—a full grown woman who just gave birth to her second child.
“This is your outer labia,” he said as he traced his finger slowly around the edge.
And again, “This is your inner labia.”
I don’t like this.
Then, “this is your clitoris,” he said as he began rubbing her.
It didn’t last long, but it didn’t have to. My aunt felt violated. She stared at the ceiling, trying to stop the tears from falling. She was silently begging for him to stop and leave the room so that she could get up and run out. Her insides were yelling, but no sound was coming out.
“If he wanted to explain my anatomy to me, there are plenty of posters and life-size models laying around the office he could have used. He could have just done the exam, had me sit up and then get out a diagram or a picture,” Jenny said. “There are so many other ways that appointment should have gone.”
Eventually, the doctor did leave and Jenny booked it out to her car and sat and sobbed.
What happened? Did I make it up? Was that for real? Is this what doctors do?
“It took me a while to realize that what he did was not okay,” Jenny said. “He was my doctor and I trusted him and because of that, I believed I was the one who must be wrong. The one who must be exaggerating.”
She never went back to that doctor again and the office never called to check back up on her, which Jen thought was odd.
It can be paralyzing to say something at the moment, so it’s also OK to speak up after the fact.
My mom was experiencing pain in her tailbone that was so unbearable she wasn’t able to sleep. After eight months she finally decided to see a doctor for it. She saw a doctor who took X-rays but couldn’t see anything wrong. So she was sent to physical therapy, which didn’t help. At the time, my grandma was head of the emergency room at Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne before she retired, so she set up an appointment for my mom with a doctor she knew.
He was an ER doctor, so it wasn’t a typical appointment. He also wasn’t going to charge my mom. She was just going to stop by the hospital to have him look at her back.
When she got there he told her to take her pants off and lie face down on the hospital bed. She wasn’t expecting to have to undress, so she had a thong on. But she obliged and took her pants off and covered herself with the bedsheet.
When the doctor came in, he pulled back the sheet and said, “I like seeing one of these,” as he snapping her underwear. She was mortified, but something in her head didn’t fight back.
Don’t overreact, he’s doing you a favor.
He then pulled her legs apart and sat in between them. My mom remembers thinking, What is going on? Stop him. But she did nothing. He moved her legs around and completely exposed her for about five minutes, then said he couldn’t see anything wrong but would prescribe her some pain medicine.
My mom, being the people-pleaser that she is, thanked the doctor for seeing her while internally screaming. He stood up, smacked her butt and said, “honey, with an ass like that it was my pleasure.”
My mom sat there stunned. She wanted to cry. She could hear him outside the door talking with my grandma, saying, “if it continues to hurt her, I will probe her where the sun doesn’t shine.”
My mom got dressed, went out to my grandma and said, “let’s get out of here right now.” My mom shared the details of the appointment with her mom as they walked to the car. My grandma responded by saying, “oh, he’s just playing around I’m sure.” She didn’t take it seriously. The next day my grandma saw the doctor at work and he told her how much he enjoyed looking at my mom’s butt. After that, my grandma took it seriously and filed a complaint against the doctor.
The regret lingers within my mom for not stopping the misconduct as it was happening.
“I was so upset that I didn’t stand up for myself and let him do that to me,” my mom said.
Often times these incidents go unreported because of the respected roles doctors play in society. Deemed as experts, they are able to hide under a shroud of trust and power; breaching an unspoken boundary between patient and doctor. Though they aren’t the only ones complicit. They navigate in a system that allows them to abuse.
In 2016, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published the “Doctors & Sex Abuse” project. In the series, they reported that in states like Georgia and Kansas two out of three doctors were allowed to return to practice after being disciplined. In Minnesota, it was four out of five. And out of the 2,400 doctors publicly disciplined for sexual misconduct, the AJC reported that half still had active medical licenses.
As more sexual abuse scandals appear in the news it’s important to remember that these are not isolated events that we read about every once in a while. This sort of thing happens on all sorts of scales on a regular basis. It’s happened to three women in my close family alone—and we’re just the ones who are openly vocal about it.
THE EXAMINER SHOULD
Explain each part of the exam before and while it is happening
Encourage patients to speak up if something feels wrong
Only ask a patient to undress the part of his or her body that is being examined
THE EXAMINER SHOULD NOT
Refuse to answer questions or tell the patient to be quiet
Examine private parts without gloves
Refuse to disclose what they are doing and why they are doing it
Decline a patient’s request to have another person in the examination room
Insist a patient undresses a part of his or her body that is not being examined
Ask uncomfortable questions about a patient’s sexual activity