Physicians, Heal Thy Attitudes

It always seems to come as a shock to new staff at the student health clinic on my campus when I stroll up and say, “I need a smear test”. It may have something to do with the fact that they’ve managed to lose the results of my last two and are wondering why I don’t just find the cash to go to a clinic with competent record-keepers, but it’s probably rather more to do with my attitude.

Maybe it’s because I read Sandra Coney’s The Unfortunate Experiment at age 11 (my parents were not good at finding secure hiding places for the books they deemed unsuitable for me), maybe it’s just a result of a long teenagehood getting progressively more and more exasperated at bullshit ads implying that it’s not only normal but desirable that women find their own menstrual blood icky, but in any case I’ve turned into the kind of woman who refuses to be squeamish about a total stranger examining my cervix up close and personal.

This comes as a shock to the clinic staff; apparently university students aren’t meant to be blase about sex-related things. The only problem, then, is that they simultaneously manage to think that and to also assume that almost every female patient they see is potentially pregnant. A friend of mine refuses to go there these days, because she’s so sick of them assessing her hair colour, dress sense and personality and judging her medical status on that (“I think we need to do a pregnancy test”) instead of her actual symptoms (hello, nearly-undiagnosed severe ear infection).

This is not an isolated problem. And it’s not really a surprise to me that these kind of attitudes exist: the medical community is no likelier than any other set of professions to be above the constant daily sexism of society. We do live in a world where bloggers like bluemilk think a list of FREE advice to medical specialists on improving their bedside manner is a necessary resource – and given my intro, the first point clearly does need to be made:

Cut out the silly baby talk – don’t refer to any part of my body as “the plumbing” or “the water works”. If you’re uncomfortable with anatomy then you’re in the wrong occupation. You would actually be empowering women and girls to use the correct terms for their anatomy.

But even given all this, Hoyden About Town’s post on Birthplans and Expectations had me smacking my head into hard objects. I really have no words (well, no polite words) to describe quite how statements like this, from a practising obstetrician, make me feel:

“My ideal birthplan:

The patient chooses the color of the baby’s room and the baby’s name.”

Though “DIE IN A FIRE” might come close.

What really, really gets me, though, is that this kind of rubbish is bad enough. It’s aggravating and exhausting knowing that I am not trusted to understand my own biology, that I am looked down on and condescended to by people I may well be forced to place trust in, if something were to go wrong with me or a member of my family … and I am a god-damned white, heterosexual woman.

It wasn’t until I took an interest paper last year on feminist science studies that my eyes were opened to how good I have it – and that’s such a horrible thing to say, how good I have it. Because I don’t have to incorporate a long and sordid history of unethical (to say the least) medical experimentation on my racial group into my mindset. My single disability only requires really strong reading lenses, not legal intervention to stop someone forcibly sterilizing me. When I get pregnant, I live in a country where I have access to the kind of medical care that means I won’t be one of 27 women dying in childbirth every day, because that’s CLEARLY a much better outcome than letting the silly things have abortions!

And all of these come down, in part at least, to attitudes. Attitudes about whose life (or what definition of “life”) is important, attitudes about how much people are worth (or how we’re defining “people”), attitudes about what people in general, and women in particular, are supposed to be/do – especially with our uteri. Which we’re not meant to know much about. Because they’re sacred icky.


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  3. la pobre habladora

    Hey, I found your blog on Feministe’s Shameless self promotion, and love it. This post rings true for me, and I have never understood why it is so hard to find a gynecologist who seems comfortable talking to young women about their experiences and bodies. The first time I went, when I was 17, the doctor flat refused to believe I was a virgin. I wanted to scream at her – ‘is your incredulity supposed to make me feel like a prude or a closeted whore?’ I have now found a gynecologist I adore, but then again, I got older so its acceptable for me to frankly talk about sex, I guess.

  4. QoT

    Thanks, lph! The only decent reason I’ve ever been given for a clinic nurse being a bit taken aback at my frankness was that her previous job had been at a high school – hardly “know your own body” central. But then young teens not having that knowledge or openness is just another can of worms.

  5. Anita

    Two unrelated things

    1) I take a perverse sense of pride in the fact my way of remembering smears is that I have one in the same month as every general election.

    2) Student health, years ago when I used it, was very good at ordering iron tests for every female student no matter what they were there for and how recently they’d had a normal one.

  6. Deborah

    A very late comment on this…. when I was 21, I went to see my doctor, to get a prescription for contraceptives. And he insisted on doing a smear test, even though I told him, LOUD and CLEAR, that I had never had intercourse. (I’m one of the few people I know who managed to get onto the pill before having sex for the first time.)

    I was too shocked to refused, and then when he worked out I was a virgin, like I had just told him, be looked surprised.


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