Twenty years ago, when I went through fertility treatment to get pregnant and finally did, I didn't care if a male or female doctor went between my legs. But the second my daughter was born, my sense of who should insert a speculum or do my breast exam shifted.
It didn't matter if my friends told me how much they loved their male gyno or if the doctor had a five-star rating on Health Grades or if he was the sweet grandfatherly type you couldn't help but love. My basic trust of male gynecologists died when their reason for going in-between my legs had nothing to do with babies.
I just don't trust that a man who probes women's vaginas for a living isn't secretly snickering or judging or enjoying. Maybe I'm a neurotic, but I'm not convinced all straight male gynecologists see their patients as clinical sexless flesh. I think it's biologically impossible for the visually-aroused male gene to automatically shut down around a naked body. I'm sure plenty of bisexual or lesbian doctors get turned on around some female patients, but for some reason I give a pass to the sisterhood (maybe it's because the entire porn industry was designed around men and their most bent fantasies).
My friend Trish has an uncle who's a sixty-something general practitioner. Dr. F. is happily married, but during boozy social events sometimes he says inappropriate things and gets a little pervy. After a few martinis one night at a dinner party I asked him "Do you ever see a patient in sexual way when you do paps or breast exams? Seriously, I really want to know."
"Never," he said. "When I have a female on my table she just turns into a patient. It's hard to explain but it's what happens."
But did I really expect even buzzed Dr. F to break the seal on the centuries-old doctor-patient vault and admit "Well, sometimes I get turned on by my naked female patients but they'd never know it because I can wilt my erection on command?"
I did, however, find a male doctor who anonymously admitted what I've suspected for a long time. In a post on Forwomenseyes.only, "The Other Side of the Speculum: A Male Doctor's Point of View," one doctor wrote:
"The inescapable fact is that a guy likes to look at a naked woman. Period. Doctors are no different. They like to look at naked women too. So, if they get paid to look, I mean really look at a woman's sexual organs, even better. If they get to touch them, well... So much the better! I'm not saying that doctors do exams just to get a sexual thrill, because the circumstances really don't allow a full-out sexual experience, but given a choice between doing a lung exam on an 80-year-old guy or a pelvic exam on an attractive 30-year-old woman, I'd say most docs would much rather do the latter. They're only human. They would flat deny having any such thoughts (in most cases), but deep down they are men, after all."
I mean why would a male medical student pick gynecology unless he wants a society-approved paid grope? I'd like to believe his intentions are practical, honorable or by chance of his residency, and in the article "10 Men Explain Why They Became Gynecologists," most of the anonymous doctors give solid reasons for winding up in women's health. One doctor said women make better patients, another that OB-GYN is "generally 'happy medicine' where I can make a huge impact on the patient and her family." And I believe that. Women generally engage their doctors more than men and obstetrics is by and large, a positive, powerful relationship between both the physician and his patient. Doctor Number Six however, offered what sounded to me like some over the top bullshit.
"I was raised and surrounded by very strong women. I married a really strong woman and I have so much respect for the issues that make women special. I loved the idea of being involved in meaningful parts of women's lives — their sexual health, reproductive health, abortion care, walking them through their childbearing years, dealing with cancer."
It all sounded reasonable enough until his last line, "The female body is a metaphor for her womanhood, and I am granted access to her whole identity. That's a great honor."
I'm sorry, my husband is a caring evolved guy who genuinely tries to connect with my foreign femaleness but he's never once wanted deeper access to my identity and womanhood by clinically examining my vagina. I'm more likely to believe Doctor Number Five who said, "Years into it now, I'm never more professional than I am with a patient. The vagina is so desensitized to me. I hardly notice anything about it. But if a woman is attractive, I do have to fight that part of my brain. I'd be lying if I said otherwise."
I have a hard time believing when a straight male gynecologist does a breast exam on a woman with goose-bumped perky 36C's while her neatly waxed vagina is hoisted up in stirrups his brain only registers sexless flesh.
A few years back I happened to mention to my friend Taylor that I won't go to male gynecologists and she surprised me when she told me she hates going to women. Women doctors she insisted, size up her body or criticize or compete or some other string of free-floating female cattiness I couldn't quite follow because she stammered around what sounded like surprising misogyny.
I'd like to believe I'm a fully-formed feminist who goes to bat equally for men, but what lies beneath is someone who thinks male gynecologists come pre-loaded with at least some involuntary sexual arousal for naked female patients. I also think male doctors can never be female-centric enough to compassionately relate to the complexities of PMS, fibroids, menopause, hysterectomies and mastectomies.
Ironically, one of the worst bedside manners I ever had while I was in stirrups was from a female gynecologist I lazily kept too long because Dr. W was a woman, and good at the mechanics of her job (She delivered my dangerously stuck daughter with forceps and vacuum). And one of the nicest doctors I ever had was Dr. L., an attentive caring male reproductive endocrinologist I saw for ten years to treat a lifelong pituitary disorder. Unlike Dr. W, Dr. L never talked to me like I was a naughty insolent child who dared to question his white coat authority.
A few times a year I cringed through vaginal ultrasounds and breast exams while he checked the progress of my daily hormone replacement therapy. But the fact that Dr. L was trained in the heady endocrine field which happened to include examining my sex parts, by my twisted self-protected logic, he was harmless. When my husband and I were ready to start a family we went to Dr. L for my fertility treatment.
Overnight, he seemed to morph from a plain-looking lanky guy (or by my friend's description "incredibly nerdy") to the hot doctor who was going to help me make a baby. Plenty of women transfer their feelings and innocently lust over their doctors, and plenty of male doctors are privately turned on by their patients, but in the protected silence no one ever gets hurt.
I don't want to dirty up the respected OB-GYN profession but I'll never believe straight male gynecologists have a med-school trained on-off button that turns female bodies into asexual clinical flesh. I'm convinced that for many, their sworn oath comes with a boy's club wink and an airtight high-five confessional.
That Dr. Anonymous I mentioned earlier pretty much confirmed my suspicions.
"I'm in a specialty where we do not do pelvic exams, but of course I was trained in how to do them while in medical school. It has always bothered me, for a couple of reasons, but the male/female thing has been the main thing originally. I always got a small, secret thrill out of doing a pelvic exam (or a breast exam, for that matter) on an attractive woman. Because we were told that 'it's not sexual,' 'it's just a medical procedure, nothing sexual about it, no reason to have sexual thoughts.'
"I thought I was weird. I didn't worry that much because I knew I wasn't going into an area where I would do exams. But, during residency I worked with a lot of doctors in the community and discovered that for most of them, it was at least partly sexual. They would sit around in the lounges and such and sometimes discuss the anatomy of beautiful women who'd been in..."
There's something unsettling about putting my hands over my head while a male doctor presses circles around my breasts to check for lumps, my nipples involuntarily erect while the mandated female in the room watches as insurance against inappropriate touching. It's all so vaguely unnatural and submissive to the male eye, yet to mentally survive the necessary medical intrusion, women pretend it's not.
My friend Taylor will only get into stirrups for male gynecologists, while I can't bear the thought. All that matters though is that we both believe we're with a doctor who sees us as a vulnerable human being housed in neutral flesh. All that matters is that our doctor's bedside manner and latex gloves don't make us silently beg for an out-of-body experience as we spread our legs wider and obediently slide further towards the face.