The Medical Field Must Stop Being Silent On Physician Sex Abuse
After a year-long investigation, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta’s daily paper, has published an extensive series of articles and data reporting on the widespread issue of unchecked physician-patient sex abuse occurring in all 50 states. They found that doctors were often able to “get away with exploiting patients for years,” because medical boards and medical officials dealt with the allegations instead of reporting doctors to the police. They also found that doctors benefited from a culture of silence: “Some victims say nothing. Intimidated, confused or embarrassed, they fear that no one will take their word over a doctor’s.”
I know this is true, because I experienced it, and I kept silent out of fear.
When I was a 21-year-old in Kentucky, I sent my gynecologist a birthday card. It was a small gesture I would come to regret in a major way.
In his office, after my annual pap smear, he’d gone on a long rant about how families didn’t appreciate their doctors the way they had in the old days. “I used to get gifts for delivering babies. Cigars, maybe a fancy bottle of champagne. I’d even get a thank you card on the baby’s birthday. It’s not like that anymore.”
I hadn’t had a baby I could thank Doc for delivering, but I was a college kid with a soft heart and a fair bit of time on her hands, so I dropped a card in the mail for his birthday. After that, Doc got weird.
First, he didn’t offer me a sheet to drape over my lap during a procedure. When I asked him about a sheet, he acted surprised, as if sheets were not standard, “I mean if you want one, you can have one.” Then, at my annual appointment six months later, Doc complimented me on my belly button ring. I felt odd about my doctor standing over me praising my body jewelry, when I’d basically trained myself to believe that doctors looked at patient’s bodies in a neutral manner. I clung to this belief as Doc proceeded with the exam.
On the way out of the room, I realized Doc had not done a breast exam. “Just remind me next time,” he said. He wanted me back in another six months.
By the time I returned, Doc’s wife had decided he needed her help running his practice. She had her own office, and sat at her desk in a floral blazer with her little dog scurrying around her desk.
Inside an exam room, I sat on the table in one of those cotton shirts with the opening tied in the front. When Doc entered I reminded him about the breast exam.
“How could I forget breasts that beautiful?” he said with a smile.
I wanted to leave. I wanted to leave immediately. But. I didn’t want to be rude. I didn’t want him to be offended that I was offended. I didn’t want to insult him, a doctor, by insinuating he’d meant anything untoward with that very untoward comment.
I stayed, and he examined my breasts, and then I laid back so he could do the pelvic exam. The whole I time could hear the sound of his wife’s little dog pawing at the door, frantically trying to get into a room I desperately wanted to get out of.
When the exam was finally over, Doc was waiting for me on the other side of the door for me to get dressed. As I walked back toward the lobby he reached out and began to give me a shoulder massage. Again, politeness kept me from breaking into a full on run. No one talks about what to do when a doctor behaves inappropriately. So I did what society expects women to do when men trespass their boundaries: I smiled and retreated as calmly as possible.
I never went back, but I didn’t report him either. I was afraid that he’d bring up the birthday card and everyone would think I was “asking for it.” I went to a new gynecologist; she raised a brow at some of the medical choices in my record, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the rest. Doc kept practicing.
I know now that even if I hadn’t been young and scared, reporting him might not have saved other women from experiencing the same treatment. According to the AJC investigation, not only are most allegations of sexual misconduct hidden from the public, but “of the 2,400 doctors publicly disciplined for sexual misconduct [nationwide], half still have active medical licenses today.” Perhaps if doctors experienced any consequences for their abuse, patients would stop staying silent out of fear.
After reading and recognizing myself in the AJC article, I realized that many other women across the country must have experienced the same fear. I wanted to connect with other survivors of doctor abuse, and hear about their experiences. And I wanted to know whether they, like me, were too intimidated — and too certain their efforts would be in vain — to report what happened to them.
Julia was 19 the first time a doctor exploited her need for medical care. (All first names have been changed to protect the privacy of the women I spoke to.) A well-respected doctor in her small community in Wisconsin asked her to remove her bra during what was supposed to be a check-up after a car accident. She was in a great deal of pain, and when the doctor quickly moved past poking at her ribs to cupping her breasts, she was both too shocked and afraid to respond. “In my naiveté, I did nothing,” she says. “I still wanted to believe that he was the good guy, and the good doctor. But, before he left the room, he said, ‘If you want more, and I think you know what I mean, just wait here.’ I didn’t, of course. I threw on my clothes, and ran out. My mom said, ‘What happened in there?’ When I told her, she said, ‘He does that to everyone.’”
After that, Julia says, she had a difficult time letting doctors touch her. Decades later, after a male doctor in New York commented on her “beautiful body,” she began seeing women doctors only. “For the most part,” she says, “I trust my own instincts when it comes to my health. I don’t accord doctors magical healing powers, nor do I put them on pedestals.”
Besides her mother, Julia told no one about her experiences. At 55, this is the first time she’s felt comfortable enough to speak on what happened to her.
I wasn’t surprised when Donna, a 29-year-old nurse in the South, said she’s experienced doctor sexual misconduct both on and off the clock. If sexual misconduct in the medical field is as widespread as the AJC has found, then many of these same doctors exploiting patients are also being presented with the opportunity to exploit the women who work with and for them. The AJC found a pattern of inaction by hospitals when nurses complained of doctor misconduct. In one example a hospital sent a series of memos that a certain doctor should not be left alone with any nurses after a nurse complained of misconduct. He was not fired and went on to assault several patients.
As a nurse, Donna, says, “doctors making comments about my hips or breasts to male patients is pretty usual stuff in my field,” particularly “by white men to Black women.” Donna also reports having a doctor — not her doctor — enter the room while she was getting dressed following an operation and comment on her “cute” tattoo. During a different incident, a gynecologist complimented her on “how well I took the large speculum and how deep my cervix was.” Due to the culture of silence around physician sexual misconduct, nurses, who we rely on to offer patients care and support, often do not feel safe to file reports professionally or personally against doctors.
After my own personal experience, speaking to other women, and reading the report by the AJC, I’m left wondering: if some doctors prey on people who are in pain or sick, where are we allowed to be truly vulnerable? The medical boards need to upend the culture of silence around physician sexual misconduct and be totally transparent with the public. Only when abusive doctors aren’t protected by silence and inaction will their victims be comfortable coming forward and feel confident that actual change will be enacted.