Sex Ed or Sex Med? The Infiltration of Sexism into the Medical Sector

Image: “LAX Hallway” by Jeff Kramer via Flickr CC

It is well known that across professional sectors, women’s concerns are often minimized or dismissed because they are deemed irrational and over-emotional. This phenomenon has more severe consequences when a doctor dismisses a woman’s attempt to seek medical attention in possible matters of life or death.

Women are characterized as irrational and weak which causes our problems to be characterized as irrational as well. Although one may think certified doctors to be above these stereotypes, this is not quite the case.

Pinup model Elly Mayday’s case is an example demonstrating why no single concern should be disregarded by medical professionals. Elly Mayday began experiencing extreme lower-back pain and set out to seek medical attention. However, her worries were set to rest shortly after when her doctor assured her that the pain was associated with her weak core and advised her to strengthen it to rid of her back pain. He resorted to blaming her pain on her weight instead of doing his job and examining the area more closely. Elly did as she was told and lost some weight, which wasn’t easy for her since she felt that her body as it stood was essential in defining her identity and confidence. In an interview with Stylelikeu, she states that it was difficult for her to look at modeling photos of herself prior to losing weight because she felt more confident as a radiant full-figured model. However, at the same time she felt that it was best to showcase her transition in order to help those who looked up to her to feel beautiful no matter what they were going through.

After the pain continued to hinder her daily activities, she decided to go to a different doctor and ask to be examined more closely. The doctors found a cyst on her right ovary which blocked the view of her left ovary. However, the doctors continued to give her a sense of false reassurance as they advised to her that it would not damage her ovaries. Only due to her constant insisting that she be examined more closely did she find that she had already developed Stage III ovarian cancer. As a result of the doctors’ negligence, she had to get surgery to remove both her ovaries to prevent the cancerous tissue from invading healthy tissue. She stated, “If I would have listened to them, I’d be dead.” Elly shouldn’t have needed to be so proactive in maintaining her health.

Unfortunately, Elly Mayday is not the only woman who has experienced sexism from medical professionals. A case study that focused on the experiences of women seeking medical care for obstetric fistula in Eritrea showed that women experienced long delays in accessing emergency care due to “delayed recognition of the seriousness of the problem.” Moreover, studies show that the lack of awareness of treatment, transportation, time, cost, and the fear of doctors are some of the core reasons as to why women delay seeking medical attention more than men do. Leslie Jamison’s essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” states that “female pain might be perceived as constructed or exaggerated” after studying the ways that women’s sufferings are minimized, mimicked, and ultimately silenced. Jamison sites in her essay a study exploring bias in medical attention which states that women are “more likely to be treated less aggressively in their initial encounters with the health-care system until they ‘prove that they are as sick as male patients.’” A woman should not have to prove herself as sick as a man in order to receive proper medical attention.

Although some cases are not nearly as severe, I believe that every form of sexism that a woman encounters is significant and should be addressed. Why is it that Elly had to go out of her way to push medical professionals into doing their jobs the way that they should? It’s a problem that the responsibility of the patient’s health was placed on her instead of in the hands of the doctors; it’s also a problem that several doctors dismissed her efforts at easing her long term pain. When asked where she felt the most vulnerable, Elly Mayday responded with, “walking to the doctor’s office.” Why should Elly be made to feel unsafe in a place where her health deserves to be valued and taken seriously?

This is an intersectional problem that applies to women of color in differing ways as well. Intersectionality in feminism refers to the “view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity.” Women of color are generally labeled as angry, irrational, and less educated due to our society’s racial hierarchy. It’s especially a problem in the medical field where so few doctors are women of color. I feel that representation is crucial in determining whether individuals feel comfortable in seeking help and in feeling a sense of belonging and security. As a result, women of color are placed in a situation where they seldom feel fully secure and where they feel like we have to put in extra effort in seeking proper medical care. It’s evident that the power dynamics in relationships between doctors and their patients are asymmetrical, which plays a role in influencing the way that doctors communicate with patients.This asymmetricity can be more strongly reinforced by a person’s gender and race which is why sexism in medical attention is an intersectional issue.

Medicine is a practice which has been infiltrated by sexism; sexism is so prevalent in our society that it affects women in a sector that is supposed to care for all patients equally.

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