Sexual harassment looms in the public imagination as untoward advancements from a boss or other authority figure to his helpless underling — the unwelcome remarks or groping that leaves the victim equally humiliated and helpless to react. The demands for quid pro quo with the threat of termination on the line. Yet, the power differential may be less important than we think.
For instance, studies consistently find that the majority of female physicians suffer harassment — from their patients. We unfortunately expect harassment by male doctors of female patients, because my profession is not in a very good place right now ethically or morally, but not when the relationship is reversed. Not when she’s the one ordering him to bend over and spread. If she’s not even safe then, when is she ever?
There are a lot of things we men simply never have to worry about. I’m not too worried when I walk to my car after a long shift when it’s dark out, even in the rough part of town. If an addict is getting furious because I won’t give him his narcotics, I usually don’t fear imminent loss of life or limb. (Although my life has been threatened twice so far over this.) Women who are strangers don’t pose any sort of risk. And when I have a female staff member chaperone vaginal exams, it’s more for the patient’s protection than mine. After all, she has no way of knowing if I’m one of those doctors or not.
A recent case turned the tables a bit, and made me feel, if only for a moment, and in a mild way, a taste of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of harassment by a patient. It was a busy day, full of patients with colds and stomach aches. My back was achy, and this one pain in the ass kept calling about his bloodwork results, and how it was somehow MY fault the doctor on duty that day forgot to order a cholesterol screening. Basically, all I was looking forward to was the end of my shift. And in comes this piece of work. Mid-30s, skinny, very direct.
Not to go into HIPAA-violating details, but the patient was pushing for a vaginal exam that I did not feel was warranted. I explained my thinking to the patient, but she insisted anyway. So I instructed her to change into a robe and got the front desk girl to chaperone. (The MA that day was male.)
I haven’t even gotten set up yet with the speculum and the light, when the remarks began. Asking how many vaginas I see a day. If I can get it up for my wife or girlfriend after doing that all day. What I think about during sex after seeing her vagina. I’m just trying to do my job, lady. The patient was the one on the stirrups, as physically exposed and vulnerable as can be, and yet I was the one feeling… I don’t even have the proper vocabulary for that feeling. Invaded? Encroached upon? Delegitimized? I don’t know. I certainly felt powerless, again even though I had all the (apparent) power in that room, even though I was the male. The experience was wholly unexpected and alien; I was completely unprepared; and I still don’t know what to make of it or what her possible motivations were.
Then I try to imagine this sort of thing happening on a routine basis with my patients, with far worse and more threatening language, and with the patients generally bigger and stronger than me, on top of any harassment from my colleagues or bosses, on top of fearing the mere walk to my car, and, welp… this sort of thing is why I believe in feminist ideals. Because even female doctors are routinely harassed by their male patients, and usually in far more severe or more threatening ways in my own, relatively mild experience.