Why does gynecology have to be so rape-ish?

Did you know that it’s common practice for medical students to do pelvic exams on women who are under anesthetic? Apparently, when a woman goes to the hospital to have her tonsils out, or her knee operated on, or a cancerous tumor in her breast removed, it’s entirely possible that an ambitious medical student may stick his hand inside her vagina while she’s unconscious so that he can brush up on his pelvic examination skills.

In her post on Our Bodies Our Blog, Rachel Walden quotes Shawn Barnes, author of an article published in the October issue of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

For 3 weeks, four to five times a day, I was asked to, and did, perform pelvic examinations on anesthetized women, without specific consent, solely for the purpose of my education. To my shame, I obeyed

This kind of thing is what got me interested in women’s health issues.

Many years ago, when I was a  wild and crazy studious undergraduate, I had a pap test that came back indicating irregular cells on my cervix. The doctor at student health recommended I have a colposcopy at the hospital. The only doctor who was available to do the exam was male. I was not enthusiastic about this, but I went along with it.

A colposcopy is like a pelvic exam on steroids. It was painful, and made me dizzy and nauseous, but that I could endure. What I couldn’t endure was the commentary by that the gynecologist who performed the exam.  At the time the war in Bosnia was going on and there was daily news about the rapes there. As I lay on the examining table, naked from the waist down while he did the procedure, he made small talk.

“I’ve had patients who were way worse than this,” he said. “I’ve had patients who look like a group of Serbians went through them. But don’t worry,” he assured me, “I can fix you up like the Virgin Mary.”

What? I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. That my cervix look better than the cervix of a woman who had been gang raped?  That I shouldn’t worry because things could be much worse? I was struck speechless, but the memory persisted.

After that, I started talking to women about their experiences. I found that for women, humiliation at the hands of medical providers was endemic. It was also institutionalized: at the time, abortion was legal in Canada but women had to go before a panel of three doctors who would decide if their case was worthy.

But still, when I read about medical students doing pelvic exams on women under anesthetic,  I’m outraged and shocked all over again. It shouldn’t be a surprise. As the  historian Deborah Kuhn McGregor writes in her book From Midwives to Medicine, Dr. Marion Sims, the founding father of gynecology, perfected his surgical skills on enslaved women without using anesthetic. Seen in this context, encouraging medical interns to conduct non-consensual pelvic examinations on unconscious women could be interpreted as just the natural progression of the field.

Sometimes I forget about this kind of thing. But then I remember.



  1. forwomenseyesonly

    I appreciate this look back into parts of the history of gynecology. Disgusting but unfortunately, as you have said, a fore-bearer of what happens in the field today. In addition to non consensual pelvic exams under anesthetic there are many unethical practices taking place. For example, the unnecessary removal of healthy women’s reproductive organs as a prophylactic measure to prevent cancer. Or the unethical withholding of prescriptions/healthcare until a woman submits to a pap smear, thus leaving the woman with no choice.

    • womenswellnesswatch

      Thanks for the comment! You’re right, there are so many other examples. I remember an otherwise lovely doctor once asking me if I still had all my “disposable organs,” a category in which she included my uterus!

  2. Yazzmyne Latinelli

    Hi and thanks for writing about this taboo subject.

    To answer the title of this article, I say it is necessary for gynecology to be so rape-ish, because it was invented by sexist men who wanted control over women (and still do). It is important to know the history of gynecology as to understand the foundation it is based upon nowadays and that it has never been here to ‘care’ for us women. But of course, “helping women” (are we that fragile, we are in dire need of help btw?) is its facade, otherwise they couldn’t convince women to lie on their back with legs spread wide open, which in itself is a humiliating experience for many and at the same time a vulnerable position that opens the door for more violation and abuse, whether it be on a psychological level (as you unfortunately experienced) or a physical level which gives the “healthcare provider” all the more control and that’s why I believe the gynecological exam is so rape-ish (and not because it is medically necessary). There is no need for this extreme amount of vulnerability to check for cervical cancer, neither is there a need for such frequent check-ups in asymptomatic women with a hopelessly inaccurate test (the pap smear), it’s only necessary for gynecologists to give them as much power as they can over women and that’s why they also need a lot of fear to inject into women’s heads, just like any other patriarchal religion.

    I started a yahoogroup some years ago for women (and men) to expose gynecology for what it really is and why it exists, sharing alternatives etc. I also have an open proboards forum http://womenagainststirrups.proboards.com/index.cgi and a facebook group. You’re welcome to check it out. 🙂

    There’s also a long thread of comments under an article about unnecessary pap smears on a website called blogcritics, where women who did their research are appalled about the mass abuse and lies geared towards women about pap smear screening..

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