Trigger Warning: This article contains themes of sexual assault and graphic imagery
Resolution 2306/2019, approved by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly on 3 October 2019, defines both obstetrical violence, which occurs during the childbirth process, and gynaecological violence as “a form of violence that has long been hidden and is still too often ignored.”
In the resolution, the European human rights organisation called on member states to discuss the protection of patients’ rights “in the context of care and gynaecological and obstetrical violence in order to contribute to public debate and the lifting of taboos.”
A quick Google search shows that, despite the lack of statistics on either type of abuse, in the last few years, studies and media reports about obstetrical violence have led to greater awareness about the subject. However, there is still very little information about gynaecological violence. We spoke to 31-year-old Victoria Hunter*, one of thousands of women who have felt assaulted by a male doctor, about her experience.
In mid-December, Victoria goes to a private hospital to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound, after being diagnosed with adenomyosis — a condition that caused her painful, heavy periods — a few months earlier.
“Take off your clothes and leave them on the chair.” the doctor instructs her, cutting to the chase.
Victoria does as told, slowly removing her boots, jeans, and tights, slightly embarrassed, when she realises he is looking at her throughout the process. She folds her clothes on the chair, waiting for him to provide her with a sheet before taking off her underwear. That, however, does not happen, so, she is forced to lie on the exam table with her legs spread out, as she removes her last piece of clothing in front of him.
He speaks to her in a soft-spoken tone, as if nothing was happening. As if he wasn’t sliding a long probe in and out of her vagina. “I felt so uncomfortable,” she says.
Nobody had done that in her previous examinations, so she immediately felt that he was doing something he was not supposed to. But she says nothing, her eyes fixed on the screen, where her most intimate parts are there on full display, for anybody to see.
The doors in the adjacent rooms are wide open. Nurses, doctors, and patients walk in and out of them, throwing a quick glance at her exposed body as they walk past. He keeps staring into her eyes when he pushes the probe inside, swinging it from side to side. Victoria presses her lips tightly against each other. Oblivious to her suffering, the doctor asks if she has kids.
“Yes, one boy,” she mumbles.
“Oh! How old is he?”
“Seven,” she replies.
“Did you deliver it by C-section?” he carries on. “Look, these are your ovaries,” he adds pointing at the black plum-shaped 3D objects clearly visible on the light grey background. “And this is your uterus. It is a little bulky but it’s normal at this stage of the cycle. And…this is your bladder. You emptied it before coming here. Didn’t you?”
“Doctor, here is the file you needed,” another doctor chimes in. They start chatting away, like nothing is happening. More people come and go, but by then, her mind is so engrossed in counting down the minutes that separate her from the end of the examination, that she barely notices them.
The doctor continues to rummage through her vagina, abruptly bending the probe to one side, as if drawing an acute angle. He carries on inflicting further pain on her humiliated body, sliding the transducer into and out of her.
“We are done,” the doctor says half an hour later. It had never taken her so long to have an ultrasound done, she thinks to herself.
“I had this test at least a dozen times before, but I didn’t remember it hurting so much. But for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to ask him to stop. I felt paralysed,” Victoria tells me.
She asks him for some paper to dry herself. She passes it a couple of times between her legs hoping that will be enough to get rid of that unpleasant feeling. The dirty feeling.
She tries to play it cool, to convince herself that it has not been too bad after all, to shut up that inner voice letting out a cry of defeat and humiliation, as she picks up her clothes, along with the last few shreds of dignity scattered around the floor.
“Are you looking for these?” the doctor asks her nonchalantly, waving her black lace knickers in the air. Victoria takes them from him without saying a word and gets dressed as fast as she can.
“Merry Christmas,” he says, “If you need anything, we are always here.” The deep creases around his eyes reveal that his surgical mask hides a broad smile. Victoria thanks him and wishes him the same. She walks out of the room and into the long corridor splitting the gynaecology ward into two. The smell of alcohol-based sanitiser fills her nostrils and makes her slightly light-headed.
She picks up the pace. She can’t wait to be in the open and take a breath of fresh air, but the fire between her legs increases with every step, forcing her to slow down again. At last, she sees the exit. She looks around and realises she is at the back of the building. She wonders whether she should go back inside. No, the sheer thought of going back in there makes her queasy.
She asks a nurse who is smoking a cigarette in the courtyard how she can reach the reception to pay for her scan. “Go straight ahead,” he says, showing her the way. She crosses the road and is about to go back inside the building, but something prevents her limbs from taking any steps.
“I sat on a bench, disoriented and ashamed, when the phone rang. And that’s when I told my friend Sarah*,” Victoria says.
Her friend laughs, but Victoria fails to see what amuses her so much.
“Sarah told me that’s just the way it is,” she explains. “She said that when she delivered her baby, there were people going in and out of the room all the time. Whoever got in, would take a peek at her privates. She also told me that if I was so sensitive, I should have requested a female doctor.”
“What made her think that because it is common practice, it should simply be accepted?” she asks, before replying: “Internalised misogyny.”
She plucks up courage, pays, and walks back towards the hospital gate, replaying the scene inside her head, as that pervading feeling of shame and humiliation walks away with her. She tries to block it out, along with the obsessive thoughts that the episode has triggered, pretending that it has never happened.
However, it did happen, even though she struggles to find a word for it.
“I told myself: Just forget about it, it’s no big deal. After all, you cannot even explain what exactly happened, let alone prove it!” Victoria tells me.
She carries on: “My bloody inner voice was trying to shut me up. Trouble is I didn’t want to be shut up.” Quite the opposite. She wants to let out all her resentment for how small and vulnerable that doctor had made her feel, she tells me. Just like she would feel when, no older than ten, her family doctor would find any excuse to undress her from top to bottom at every single visit, despite seeing him for problems totally unrelated to her reproductive organs.
“I was too young and naïve to make sense of it. After all, he was our family doctor. He was well respected in the community. And if my family trusted him, why shouldn’t I?” she argues. Still, something did not feel quite right, and she would start sweating in panic when she was told to go and see him for a check-up, Victoria says.
Until, a few years later, she heard a neighbour call him a pervert, noting how he would only ask young female patients to undress. Something clicked inside her. The fact that an adult was validating what she had suspected all along, reassured her and taught her to trust her gut feeling, despite the experience greatly contributing to her general distrust of doctors ever since, she explains.
After her scan, she tries to remember the doctor’s name. “On an impulse, I switched on my laptop and googled him,” Victoria says.
Medical director, Member of X professional bodies, a PhD, worked abroad…her anger increases with every word she reads, but even more when she finds out that he chaired a conference on professional ethics.
She shuts down her laptop and gets on with her day, determined to forget about the incident once and for all.
That is until the next day, when she comes across a story that sounded all too familiar. “The article quoted a Mexican midwife who had heard accounts of over 800 female patients who “felt raped” when undergoing gynaecological examinations,” she tells me.
Gynaecological violence: that’s how the report described the incidents. Finally, she had a name for what she had experienced.
Knowing that, just like her, many other women around the world had gone through a similar treatment exacerbated her anger, but also her determination to find out more and raise awareness about the issue, in the hope that, one day, no woman will ever be made feel ashamed of her body and forego life-saving check-ups for fear of being traumatised by them, or worse, reliving past traumas.
“In the privacy of a medical consultation or childbirth, women are victims of practices that are violent or that can be perceived as such,” the Council of Europe’s 2019 resolution states.
“These include inappropriate or non-consensual acts, such as episiotomies and vaginal palpation carried out without consent, fundal pressure or painful interventions without anaesthetic. Sexist behaviour in the course of medical consultations has also been reported.”
So, why, despite the issue being formally acknowledged, has little changed since the resolution came into force?
Perhaps because doing so would mean holding medical professionals more accountable for their treatment of female patients and subverting the unbalanced power dynamics in the patient-caretaker relationship, Victoria argues. Something that, particularly in more traditional societies where doctors enjoy a high social status and undisputed, reverential respect, and where there is still a high degree of stigma associated with women’s sexual and reproductive health, few are willing to do. Victoria, however, is among them: “Perhaps it’s time to reverse this trend and speak out against any form of violence, even when it involves those that, as part of their profession, owe a duty of care towards us.”
If you need help, you can phone the Rape Crisis national freephone helpline on 0808 802 9999 (12-2.30pm and 7-9.30pm every day of the year) or reach out to a voluntary organisation, such as Women’s Aid, or Victim Support.
*Names have been changed to protect people’s identity