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Jian Ghomeshi goes to trial this month. And so, in a way, do Canadian women. This trial is not only about a man who violated the four women pressing charges, but about whether we, as a society, trust women who tell.
It's personal for me. Today and every day of February, I am sharing my own stories of sexual harassment and violence. Today is day eight, in which I share my experience of being inappropriately examined without my consent by a medical doctor. If you're joining us now, may I suggest that you start at the beginning, by reading my introduction here. And remember, practice self-care. The Ghomeshi scandal has one hell of an undertow.
Yesterday, I wrote about being rubbed up on by a man who was trying to rub one out (a frotteur) on a bus in Montreal when I was 25. The experience I describe today happened around the same time.
This is incident number thirty-eight.
It was a late spring afternoon. I walked into a clinic to renew my birth control prescription. I had never been there before; I didn't have a family doctor (in Montreal, even newborn babies get their check-ups at local walk-in clinics). It doesn't matter what I was wearing, but for the sake of a good story and because I want to brag about my footwear, I'll tell you. I was wearing a long-sleeved red cotton shirt, gray slacks, and a pair of amazing gold fantastic incredible (did I mention, amazing?) killer brocade heels.
Pretty good, right? I make my kids do push-ups every time they knock them off that pedestal.
The doctor brought me into his office and started to complain about his nurses. He commented on my boots. He asked me where I was from and how long I had been in Montreal. He told me that the guitar standing in its case behind him had been given to him by the guitarist from April Wine, which I remembered as maybe a musical act played on Much More Music 15 years prior. I pretended to be impressed and hoped he wasn't about to bring it out and start sorrowfully strumming. He wasn't talking to me about my health.
I answered his questions noncommittally until it led to a pause long enough for me to tell him why I was there. He asked if I'd had a pregnancy test recently. I said no, that I had never accidentally become pregnant, was on my period and had been taking the pill religiously for a year, so I was pretty sure I was not carrying a fetus somewhere inside me. He told me to lie down on the examining table on the other side of the room. I said, "Why, what are you…?" but he didn't answer.
I did as I was told. He followed me and stood over me. He unbuttoned and then unzipped my pants. I had the feeling that I should say something, I should tell him to not to touch me, I should get my golden heels on the floor and clip-clop my way out. But he knew that I wouldn't. I don't know how he knew, but he knew. He began to palpate the lowest part of my abdomen, down to the hip bone, pushing my underwear down to do it.
Then it was over. He told me I could get up. I felt so much relief. I thought he had been going to put his fingers inside me. He walked back to his desk and I buttoned my own pants up. He said that he would write the prescription for me. I felt strange and puffy, like I had cotton in my ears, a hood over my head. I walked over and sat down in the chair I had sat in before.
He asked how the birth control was going for me, and if it was affecting my sex life. I said that it was going just fine—that I had been on and off the pill since my teens but taking this one for the last year with no problems. He asked if I liked getting my period. Too shell-shocked to realize that this is a strange question I said, truthfully, that it didn't bother me. He said that he had something else for me, a new pill called 'Seasonale' that would ensure I got my period only once every three months (once a season, which sounds oddly natural, and I commend the pharmaceutical marketing department). He said, "So there won't be any more of those 'Sorry, not tonight, dear' scenarios".
My mind was processing things so slowly that it was only after we had sat back down that I realized that he had been handling my tummy because he had been, ostensibly, trying to see if I was pregnant. In the 10 years that I had been taking birth control pills, a doctor had never once given me a manual pregnancy test.
Even though I was on my period.
And even though I had been on the pill continuously for a year.
And even though taking the pill while pregnant poses no risk to the fetus or pregnant person.
He linked his arm in mine as I left the office, saying that he would walk to the pharmacy attached to his clinic with me because he had to ask them a question. He said, "So now I'll walk you down the aisle", referring to the people in chairs lining the long waiting room. When we got to the pharmacy, he stood close beside me. I offered my prescription to the pharmacist who said that she wasn't sure they had any left. He said, "Oh, you should order more, I'm going to be prescribing a lot of that."
As she went back to get it, I glanced nervously at my flip phone, pretending to check my messages. He touched my hand, moving it aside. He said, "What do you have?" and then told me he had an iPhone. The pharmacist asked if she could help him and he said no, that he was just making sure I got what I needed. He told me to make sure I came back.
Walking out of the clinic, I felt like I was a completely different person. A Not-Svea. I don't know how to describe this feeling. Like a deer in headlights, like a car on autopilot, like a coffee-maker without a carafe making a hissing sound as it haplessly drips coffee onto a circular heating pad.
This story is a good example of how, in my younger years, I would become mildly dissociated when a man in a position of power behaved inappropriately toward me. I wrote yesterday (and the day before!) about the ways that women try to keep themselves safe by keeping peace in a tense situation. Repairing relationships with abusers. Apologizing for being raped. The behavior I'm writing about today was similar to what I have described in those posts, but different. It wasn't strategic, or even that effective.
We are, by definition, not ourselves in dissociative moments. In those incidents I became simply a mirror for the man's own ego, reflecting back to him exactly what he wanted to see: himself. When a woman goes into this state, many men will happily speak for hours. It wasn't a helpful tactic in ensuring that I removed myself from the situation, or in preventing a man's advances. In fact, it seems to have invited the opposite.
It's a terrifying state to be in. I would usually sit still and stare out the window for a long time after it happened.
I come from a family that appreciated and encouraged the performing arts (my sister was a gymnast; our cousin's gonna win an Oscar, for real tho) but this is the kind of performing that takes no effort and deserves no accolades. It occurs beyond our conscious control. I did it effortlessly, unbidden. I couldn't stop myself from being Miss Nice.
The practice of pulling a patient's underwear down seems to have been relatively common for children in the 1950s-1960s (according to the sites I've found online, half of which are fetishy). Many women report feeling violated by a doctor who undid their pants and performed this exam without explanation or consent. Many men say those women just don't understand medicine.
It shouldn't be this way. Most medical professionals are sensitive to patients' needs and don't go out of their way to examine women for little reason and without consent during reproductive health visits. For example, every time a midwife needed to touch me to during either of my two pregnancies, she asked first. Nobody examined me without my consent, even during labor when I was like, "I need to push!" and they were like, "Well, no, let's see...whoops there's a baby." Nobody stripped my membranes, nobody undid my pants.
These are three of the six examples of inappropriate physician behavior the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia gives in the patient-physician relationship:
1. Altering or removing a patient's clothing while an examination is taking place without express patient consent.
2. Not allowing the patient the privacy to undress or dress and not providing appropriate gowns or drapes.
3. Sexually demeaning or suggestive comments.
The doctor I saw had the first three covered. Maybe by now he's knocked the other three off.
I suspect that many commenters, following that grave and hallowed tradition of doubting women who tell of being sexually harassed, will say that the doctor was probably in a rush. That he just didn't think to explain the examination to me, or to ask me for consent, or to unbutton my own pants. But really, where was the time crunch? Why all the chit-chat at the beginning? Why walk "down the aisle" with me to the pharmacy for, apparently, no real reason?
And if there were no sexual motive to the interaction, why brag about D-list celebrity connections and his expensive phone? Why link arms with me, or touch my hand on my own crappy phone? Why examine me when I gave no indication or likelihood of being pregnant? Why unbutton my pants for me instead of allowing me to do it myself, or to disrobe in his absence? Why not tell me why he was examining me? And, finally, the biggest 'tell': why did I feel like a stranger to myself when I left the office?
Tomorrow: Waitressing at 18. Being offered a ride and gold earrings, but actually just being groped.
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