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My #MeToo Moments Happened in the Doctor's Office

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Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

I love watching gymnastics. But I confess that my concern for elite female gymnasts isn’t the main reason I can’t read any of the coverage of the accusations of sexual molestation many of them charge against their team doctor. The real reason is that I’ve experienced multiple sexual traumas at the hands of male doctors, beginning when I was 9 years old, and hearing any of the news of what awful things these young women endured triggers some very painful memories and feelings for me.

I’ve had a serious chronic illness (severe juvenile arthritis) since age 8, which has meant that I’ve spent much of the past 41 years in medical situations, undergoing a myriad of medical procedures and seeing many different (mostly male) doctors. Being a female and a child made me extremely vulnerable, and some of my clinicians took advantage of that either to dismiss my experience of my body and my illness, or worse – to directly harm me. I remember as a child reading a book on safe touching, which said that no one was allowed to look at or touch certain parts of your body, except you – oh, and a doctor. Given that understanding of what we entrust of ourselves to medical professionals, and particularly given what I experienced, I remember that by the time I was 15 and was assaulted by a doctor in my hospital room, it never occurred to me to tell my parents or anyone else. I believed that doctors could do whatever they wanted with my body, and I had no say about it.

Of course, doctors don’t have that carte blanche right, and I and others do have a say, as gymnasts such as McKayla Maroney have shown in bravely speaking out about what they experienced. Patients, especially children, can be at their most vulnerable, both physically and emotionally, when they see a doctor: they’re often sick or injured and frightened. They need to trust the doctors and other clinicians who are “there to help.” Usually, those clinicians are caring, competent professionals. But occasionally they’re not. And for those of us whose chronic illnesses mean lots of time in and out of hospitals, treatment rooms and other medical facilities, we’re perhaps more likely to see the ones who have something other than the Hippocratic Oath in mind when examining a patient.

In many cases of sexual trauma and abuse, the victim may doubt herself as her in-shock brain tries to process what happened, and it can be especially difficult in the case of a patient, who may question whether the clinician who did something to her that felt wrong actually did something wrongor whether what happened was medically necessary. This was certainly true for me as a child, since I rarely received explanations for why some exams and procedures were done to me. In other words, the self-doubt may be especially strong, and coming forward about sexual violation may seem (and rightly so) like a David vs. Goliath situation.

I’m not an expert on the legal ins and outs of bringing charges against a clinician, neither am I trained in counseling of trauma victims. But I can offer a few pieces of advice based upon my experience:

1. If you are not comfortable with how some exam or procedure is being done, say so. If a male doctor is doing any sort of gynecological or urological exam on a female patient, it is good practice to have a female clinician present. If that’s not the case, refuse to have the exam done until a female staff person is in the room. And even if a female clinician is there, but you still feel that the doctor is touching you or doing something else that feels violative, say you’re not comfortable with how the exam is going and that you want it to stop. It’s your body, not theirs.

2. Particularly if you have a history of sexual trauma, ask in advance of an invasive procedure to have only female clinicians present. Because I go into PTSD mode whenever I have a male clinician in the room for a gynecological or urological procedure, I call the office scheduler of the procedure ahead of time and say that because of my history, I must have only female clinicians in the procedure room. In nearly every case, the staff will work to accommodate you.

3. If you are a parent of a child having to undergo an invasive and/or potentially embarrassing exam or procedure, make sure the child’s sense of privacy and modesty are honored. Even very young children can feel humiliated when their underpants are pulled down, for example, and making sure they are covered as much as possible can help. Even more important is making sure that the child understands why the procedure is necessary (i.e. she’s not being punished for something) and telling her that you and the medical staff are very sorry she has to undergo this, but that you’ll all do your best to make her feel comfortable.

And if something that feels wrong does happen, try to tell someone. You are not alone, and you don’t need to struggle in silence.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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Thinkstock photo via XiXinXing.

Originally published: October 24, 2017
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