After I posted about how medical students practice pelvic exams on anesthetized women without their consent, I received this e-mail. I thought it was important to share further first-hand testimony about this abusive practice, so I asked permission to share it. I have removed all the identifying details from it at the sender’s request.
I wanted you to know that I work in a medical school and this happens there. I have heard the most appalling, scary and disgusting things about our ob/gyn department directly from the student’s mouths. I can’t tell you where I work because I need my job. Right now all I can do is quietly tell women I know what goes on and have them pass the info on to others so they can avoid the hospital where this takes place.
There is a certain male attending in the ob/gyn department who is anti-choice, anti-birth conrtrol and he also refuses to provide Plan B even to rape victims. He is the one who seems to have no problem forcing students to give pelvic exams to anesthetized women. One of my best friends went through the program and told me this doctor waited until the patient was knocked out, then told him to do it. He said it felt creepy and he didn’t want to do it. He and this doctor stared at each other for a few seconds, then the doctor said a few things to him that made him feel he had no choice so he did it. He also said it was a completely useless learning experience and that he feels the practice is sexual assault as well.
The school I work for even hires women for the students to practice giving pelvic exams on so we’re unsure why this doctor thinks it’s okay or necessary to do to the unsuspecting patients. I’ve heard other similar stories as well from mostly male med students. I’m sure some students assume the patient consented ahead of time and is okay with it or they don’t think about it at all, so it doesn’t occur to them that they’re participating in this problem. Others, who realize this is a problem, don’t have the power to refuse or change anything and once they graduate they don’t think about it anymore. I think the best way to stop this is for the students to recognize what’s going on and form groups to confront and put pressure on ob/gyn departments to change.
I do want people to know that it’s not something that’s advertised or widely known so you could work at a hospital/med school that practices this and not know it. I didn’t. That’s why the only people who can change the practice, besides the attendings themselves, are the medical students. They are the only ones who know whether or not this goes on at an institution and if they band together, so there’s no individual fear of getting a bad review or grade on that rotation, they can pressure the school to stop the practice. Of course, that relies on them to be aware enough to know it’s going on. One of my friends has told me stories about someone we love to hate and this was a detail of one of the stories. I didn’t pick up on it at the time. I know by the way he told me that he didn’t even consider whether or not the patient consented beforehand. I’m sure he assumes they always do and it’s not a thought in his mind at all. If you asked him, I bet he’d be someone who denies it happens at any school especially his. They also need to care. I bet most people, like my friend, feel creepy about doing it but they do it and move on and try not to think about it anymore. They don’t care enough to change it.
I agree that the key here is for people within the medical schools to speak up and refuse to perform exams on anesthetized women. Unfortunately, it appears that this is a long-standing practice, and violating women this way has become something of a cultural norm. Whenever there’s a cultural norm within a school or a workplace, people tend to go along unquestioningly—particularly people low in the pecking order, like new medical students—because speaking up or whistleblowing can lead to public humiliation, retribution and damage their careers. I also suspect that students are probably misinformed or misled about whether the woman has consented, so they don’t ever hear the consent or see a consent form, but conclude that because their teacher or supervisor told them it was okay, she must have given her consent.
I think it’s absolutely vital that students simply refuse to do this without gaining explicit consent from the patient—either in person or in writing. As for women themselves, it’s up to us to address this issue with our doctors—forcefully and repeatedly, if necessary—before going under anesthesia.