Warning: What is shared here is this writer’s experience. It’s raw and difficult, but I believe it’s important for her voice to be heard. It’s an important #metoo piece.
C. Wheeler’s piece was published in the November 28, 2017 issue of The Rumpus.
C. Wheeler, MD
When I was in medical school, male faculty often told us how much the medical education environment had improved for women. Even so, it hadn’t gotten better enough to keep us safe. Our class was split down the middle, with equal numbers of male and female students. Still, female faculty were in the minority by far, and the institutional culture was very male. As undergraduate students in the sciences, most of us women had already experienced sexual harassment. We weren’t surprised to find higher-level medical education permeated by a similar “man’s world” ethos. Hollywood makes a lot of money on medical dramedies where sexual talk and touch between nurses, students, residents, and faculty is always entirely pleasant, mutually desired and consensual. My experiences tell a different story.
We learned from nurses and upperclass(wo)men that any complaints we made would likely have no effect. They whispered to us about which upperclassmen, male residents, and faculty to avoid. They also warned us which parts of the school and hospital to never enter alone, especially at night. They urged us to take a self-defense for women class where attack prevention and escape skills were taught then practiced with police trainers. These measures saved me more than once. Even so, here are some of the incidents I witnessed.
I was expected to listen as a male faculty regaled the male medical students on the benefits of a career in gynecology because, “you get to look at and finger pussy all day every day.” On a different team, the women were expected to watch while each male teammate and our male faculty posed for photos with a lifelike but oversized wax penis stuck out of his fly. These photos were spliced together into a lineup and displayed in our conference room. For years, this photo was marveled over and pointed out to men touring as prospective students, residents, or faculty. The same group played pornographic videos during team lunches because “you gals need an education.”
Males in medicine were not allowed to perform a female exam without a female family member, student or nurse present to chaperone. Many times, I was required to delay my own work to chaperone an exam for a male faculty or colleague. However, I was ignored when I complained that a male patient started masturbating while I was conducting his medical history and physical exam. Instead of being provided an appropriate chaperone, I was instructed to, “grow up and go do your job.”
We were often expected to share the on-call bedrooms of our supervisors regardless of whether they were male or female. Many of us avoided this by staying too busy on the wards all night to ever see the inside of those threatening spaces. Occasionally, we slept in a lockable office or took turns keeping watch while the other caught a nap in an empty patient room.
These instances do not include the many times we were subjected to male faculty, residents, and students doing the following: accusing us of wasting time, money and space in medical school when there were better ways to catch a rich husband; using perverse gestures and sexualized monikers; telling innumerable lewd jokes and sexually explicit stories; continually grilling us about our sexual experiences, preferences, and desires; explicitly propositioning us; mocking and threatening us with retaliation if we objected to their inappropriate behavior.
Not all the men in medical education displayed these behaviors. Many were kind, even sympathetic, but they were also unable or unwilling to challenge those who behaved improperly. I’m not sure if these ineffectual men were overtly bullied or if they succumbed to the insidious cultural forces that have many men—and women—convinced these are “harmless locker room antics.”
Nonetheless, I learned quickly to limit my life in an attempt to stay safe, to keep my head down, and to join the chorus of women whispering cautions about who, what, and where to avoid. After I left medical training, it took over a decade before I was able to identify these behaviors as sexual harassment. By then, illness had ended my medical career. I was living in another city when a friend confided in me. She had entered medical education after working in a field where inappropriate behavior was not tolerated. She told me about an incident involving a male medical faculty member. Others witnessed the incident but told her to keep quiet for fear of reprisal. Despite her fear, she lodged a complaint with administration. I hope her courage helped other women speak up and begin to change the culture.
Her sense of betrayal and outrage woke me up. I finally acknowledged my own experiences. I am grateful for her, and for all the women who warned us with whispers. Still, I have rarely ever found the courage to speak about any of this. I wonder how many predators my silence protected and how many women those predators, and the ethos they fostered, have harmed.