“Take Off Your Clothes” — When A Doctor’s Exam Becomes Sexual Assault
Photographs by Freepik
Has this ever happened to you?
While talking about this year’s 16 Days Of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, a colleague reminded us of the hard-hitting #ThatsHarassment video series from a while back. We watched it again. And it was damn uncomfortable. Partly, we suspect, because many of us women have been frozen in that limbo that is this question: This doesn’t feel right. But is it wrong? Am I crazy?
In this video, based on a real-life event, watch how a simple doctor’s visit for a classic case of sinusitis spirals into proper sexual harassment – and then imagine yourself in that exact same situation. What would you do?
The doctor-patient relationship, investigated…
Writer Sarah Bullen stared into the murky waters of doctor-patient relationships and, although no studies have been done in SA, research in the US shows that one in 10 family doctors has had a sexual relationship with a patient. But not all doctors act on their feelings – a study published in the BJM Medical Journal found that 85 percent of male gynaecologists and 81 percent of male ENT specialists admitted to having felt sexually attracted to a patient at some stage.
One Joburg GP readily confessed to having occasional sexual feelings for patients. “It’s human nature and if it’s a gorgeous woman, of course I can see she’s sexy. In another life I would hit on her,” he says. “But there is simply too much to lose professionally. A doctor’s practice is a community and if anything happened with a patient, word would get out.” If your doctor just can’t resist you and if the feelings are reciprocated, he needs to end the professional relationship first.
That doesn’t go for all health professionals though: psychologists and psychiatrists aren’t allowed to have a sexual relationship – or any kind of personal relationship – with a former patient for two years after they’ve ended your sessions.
Even so, many psychiatrists feel that a sexual relationship with a former patient, even after several years, is almost always unethical.
The more intimate the professional relationship, the more chance the doctor could develop feelings. According to traditional healer Niall Campbell, sangomas or shamans are often at high risk: “We treat clients for a range of deeply personal issues and the treatments are often long-term and emotionally intimate. It’s very common for a client to fall in love with a traditional doctor.”
As for falling for his patients, it happens often. “We recognise that it’s countertransference in the Freudian sense. On that level, the love takes the form of healing, not of a sexual or romantic love.”
“Take off your clothes”
Just like women in the workplace take sexual harassment in their stride, often failing to report it, it’s uncommon for women to report their doctors for falling for them – unless they want revenge, or an aggrieved husband takes it up.
Most cases that are reported to the HPCSA are for sexual assault or an unwanted grope. These range from a casual boob-graze as a blood pressure cuff is being removed to claims that a surgeon pressed himself against the patient during an eye exam in a dark room. But there are straight-up allegations (and convictions) of sexual assault too. Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) spokesperson Bertha Peters-Scheepers recalls one case where the practitioner climbed on top of a patient during an examination and lay on her.
Sexual Assault: What happens to the guilty party?
The Hippocratic Oath highlights the susceptibility of patients by including the promise to avoid “intentional ill-doing and all seduction” and, in particular, to avoid the “pleasure of love” with patients.
In 2010, a Cape Town orthopaedic surgeon was found guilty of raping and indecently assaulting a patient – he was also found guilty on 14 counts of indecent assault of nine female patients.
Even if the doc isn’t taken to court, the HPCSA’s penalties are discretionary and vary according to how serious the charges are; he can be suspended and banned from practicing for a few months – or years.
Ultimately, if your doctor acts on romantic or sexual feelings, there will be consequences. And they can range from humiliating to devastating.
Shades of attraction
Sexual contact between a doctor and a patient falls into three categories:
A romantic relationship: A sexual relationship develops after patient and doctor have had a long and intimate professional relationship. Most often this will happen between a psychiatrist or psychologist and a patient.
An impulsive grope: The doctor makes inappropriate contact with a patient during an examination. This could be an arm brushing a breast, or a lingering hand on your thigh.
Indecent assault: Any unwelcome advance, from kissing to groping or rape.
So, what can you do if it happens?
Contact People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA): call 011 591 6803 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For legal advice, email email@example.com, or for counselling: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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