What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
I go to the gynecologist more than most people. Despite being a math-is-hard Liberal Arts type, my general state of neurosis combined with a streak of reproductive science nerdery means that I can be a little rabid about my sexual health.
Thankfully, my amazing current doctor is enormously patient with my tendency to chirrup things like “Oh, a chancre?” or “Herpes has an asymptomatic shedding period, right?” in the middle of her asking routine sexual health questions. She also once snapped “HERPES ISN’T SUBTLE” at me after one too many incidents of vag acne-related paranoia, which I kind of want to print on a T-shirt and wear around town.
The first time I ever went to see her, she apologized for only having three options for the “sexual identity” option on her patient background sheet, and she’s never acted wiggy about my non-traditional dating life. In short, she’s all kinds of awesome, and I’m especially more grateful to have her after having a string of straight-up terrible experiences with doctors I trusted with my bathing suit parts.
Seriously. My first couple of experiences with gynos were fine, I guess, but the minute I started having P-in-V sex in college it all went dramatically downhill. Maybe this is a virtue of choosing to get checkups over winter breaks in my parents’ conservative town, but most vagina doctors I went to could not remotely fathom how I could be having intercourse with people with whom I was not in long-term lovey-dovey romantic relationships.
“So…you don’t have a primary partner?” they’d say slowly, poking at my pelvis with one gloved finger.
“Nah,” I’d say, as casual as someone can be when they’re suddenly very aware of how long it’s been since they’ve shaved. “You know. College!”
“Uh-huh,” they’d say, giving me long, slow stares over my belly. “You know that carries an increased risk of STDs, right?”
Honestly. Every single one. Because everyone knows you can never catch the clap from your supposedly monogamous boyfriend, right?
Then there was the doctor who told me, offhandedly, that my blue cervix “probably meant I was pregnant” when I was 19 and snapped, “Well, don’t eat tuna out of the can” when, choking on sobs, I asked her what I was supposed to do. Another spent 15 minutes giving me shit about why I thought I needed an STD panel -- apparently, the old “Because health class told me I should get one every three months” story doesn’t swing it when you’re an irresponsible teenager –- and then called me to tell me I was negative for a yeast infection a week later.
The cake-taker, though, was definitely the woman who almost refused to put in my IUD. Not only did she completely fuck up the process, but she also pretty clearly thought I was a crusty man-hunter who was too lazy to remember to take birth control on the regular. I still remember the look on her face when I took off my pants and she saw some of my under-the-clothing body mods -- it was as if she expected me to next peel off one more layer and reveal some sort of tentacular genital explosion. Not exactly the expression you want to see when you’re about to get a plastic zygote-shield wedged into your uterus.
And I’m definitely not the only one who’s had judgey or traumatic experiences at the gynecologist. I asked some fellow xoJaners, plus some folks on Twitter, and here’s what a few of them had to say.
Some people, like me, got lifestyle-shamed:
Julieanne: My OB once warned me that beer was "liquid bread" and that anything above 6 units a week was alcoholism. (I was at Bennington College at the time, probably taking down a bottle of Popov a night with a handful of Adderall.) She also asked me how many partners I had once and made googly eyes.
Somer: My doctor, after learning that I had divorced, asked if I planned to have any more kids. I said I wasn't sure, and then she said something like, "You shouldn't, because then you'll have kids by two different dads, and what happens if you break up with your boyfriend. You can't just keep having kids with different men." Which, you know, DUH THAT'S WHY I COME TO YOU FOR BIRTH CONTROL.
While others experienced pre-emptive diagnoses or knee-jerk responses that put their medical professionals’ prejudices over their own health:
@GiannaS: Gyno told me to stop eating sweets after I reported gaining noticable amount of weight turns out I had [Polycystic Ovary Syndrome]
@seasameness: I saw this gyno when I was like, 19 at a care clinic close to my parent's house over summer break. He was so young he was basically taking off his cap and gown as he walked into the room. He weighed me, wouldn't let me turn around (I just hate all numbers, OK? It's why I was an english major), and then sat me down and gave me a 20-minute lecture on exercise while I was in stirrups. At this point in my life I was going to the gym four days a week for about 90 minutes at a time, legitimately the best cardiovascular health I've ever been in. Dude wouldn't listen because he was all tied up in my BMI. I was mortified. I still feel ashamed thinking about it.
Mandy: This isn't really a funny or light story. When I lost my virginity to rape at 15, I was seen by a male nurse instead of a gynecologist. I was hysterical at the time and concerned I might have AIDS. It was 1990. He told me that I could very well have gotten AIDS. That it only takes one time. It was beyond traumatic. I was inconsolable. I had a female gynecologist once who made me get Gardisal even though I'm out of the age range for its primary efficacy. When she recommended it, she said it as if she was scolding me. I got the shot -- and a new gynecologist.
Stories like these make me so angry and sad, and they're similar to the many, many informal conversations I've had with friends over the years about the same subject. There’s still so much shame and confusion bound up in many people’s relationships with the health of their reproductive systems, particularly those of us with vaginas. Although going to the doctor is a fraught experience for many people, period, there’s something about the gynecologist that adds a specific layer of terror and intimacy to something that should, by all rights, be a fairly routine medical procedure.
I still remember reading "Seventeen" when they had those gut-wrenching GOING TO THE GYNO-style articles: from a young age, we’re taught that a checkup to keep those mysterious, vaguely malevolent organs in working order is something to fear and dread. And attitudes like those above only contribute to that self-loathing.
When our gynecologists shame our sex practices or medical conditions, it’s hard not to feel as if we’re not being objectively, wholeheartedly rejected by the system that should, in theory, keep us healthy. Growing up, my Catholic parents always taught me that you should never fib to your doctor or your priest, and I sure as hell haven’t gone to church in years. But sometimes going to a good doctor feels like the same thing: It’s an opportunity to release control of your future to someone else, if only for a little while. When that goes awry, it feels like betrayal.
You shouldn’t have to lie to your doctor to get unbiased medical care, and going to the gynecologist shouldn’t feel like a bartering session for your dignity and for an honest assessment of your sexual health. I take what my doctors say more or less at their word, so it’d be great if they could do the same for me.
Of course, there are lots of gynecologists who are wonderful, sex-positive, open-minded people who listen first and diagnose later. Anyone who lives in San Francisco and wants to leave their appointments feeling like their best friend just shined a flashlight into their nether regions, for example, should definitely hit up Dr. Anderson at Los Portales in the Mission. For New Yorkers, Mandy recommends Dr. Lighter or Dr. Moss at 92nd and Lexington, and Emily recommends Dr. Deborah Ottenheimer at Ottenheimer Healthcare.
What about you guys? Any gynecologist horror stories? Were you able to shake off any feelings of betrayal, or are you still working through it? And, by contrast, if you love your gyno, just what makes him or her so great?
Kate is simmering about people's rights to drama-free reproductive health at @katchatters.