Her face flushed with a look of concern in her eyes, my roommate walked into my apartment a few days ago after seeing the local OB-GYN. “How did it go?” I asked her hesitantly. “It wasn’t my normal woman.” She replied with defeat. “She had a male student check me out instead. He had no idea what he was doing, it hurt, and he did not say one word to me during it.” She proceeded to tell me how she felt obligated to say yes to have him practice the procedure on her, for her normal OB-GYN told her “no one has let him practice yet, so he hasn’t been able to learn.” My roommate, being the non-confrontational woman she is, let it happen even though every part in her body (especially her vagina) said no.
My friend’s normal OB-GYN was there the whole time to observe, but having someone new look at something so personal to you is a frightening and vulnerable experience. In fact, I have even put off getting a regular check up because the thought of it sends shivers down my spine. Last year, I had to go to the gyno for a small incident, and I was so proud of myself for getting through it without passing out that I rewarded myself with a Starbucks Frappuccino afterwards.
And while nothing sketchy happened to my friend during the actual procedure, sexual assault and abuse of power does happen often during these appointments. And more often than not, there are no repercussions for the abusers and no justice for the patients. Healthcare is a man’s club, and although 60% of gynecologists are now women, the power and authority of patriarchy in our society takes precedent over the female majority in the field. Having a man OB-GYN peer through your legs into the most private parts of you can be a terrifying experience, especially for those who have a history of surviving sexual assault.
Women’s anxieties and experiences are commonly dismissed by healthcare professionals, and these subvert power dynamics act as a catalyst for even more anxiety going to the gyno. Especially for women of color, their experiences and narratives are oppressed in healthcare, leading to mistrust in health professionals. Not to mention that our healthcare system is centered around white, heterosexual bodies.
Unfortunately, a friend of mine also had a challenging experience working with ER OB-GYNs recently. She was experiencing lower abdominal pain and went to the hospital at seven in the morning. After hours and hours stating that she was having horrible pain, she was finally seen at two in the afternoon. The staff prepped her for ultrasounds without asking her if she had already had penetrative sex, and when they were about to perform the procedure, my friend urgently called the nurse over telling her she had never done so and was nervous about the pain. The on-call OB-GYN became angry at my friend for not telling him sooner. However, it is the professional’s job to ask the questions and ensure that the patient knows what is about to happen, not the other way around. I have to say that this narrative would be extremely different if my friend happens to be white, and if this were to happen to a man.
All in all, our healthcare system is full of systemic inequities that oppress and silence women, and especially women of color. And while having more women enter the health field is a start, it is not the whole answer. Our vaginas are calling out for help, and not just because some of us have yeast infections.