Sexual Harassment in Medicine: reflections from the other side

The first week of March on Twitter was rather shocking for the entire medical community with news of a 45-million-dollar sexual harassment lawsuit against Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) and a former anesthesia resident. Dr. Jason Campbell is accused in the suit of sending overtly sexual text messages and photos and sexually assaulting a social worker at the hospital. Women in Medicine (WIM) on different social media outlets (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and clubhouse) were outraged and shared their sexual harassment stories. For me, it was truly disheartening and took me back to my own experiences of sexual harassment since the early days in medical school. It bought back difficult memories as I was reminded of how over the years as this “stuff” happened, I had decided to hide it somewhere in my memory closet from where it couldn’t escape. This news and the other stories by WIM jolted my memory about all those painful experiences from back in the day to right in front of my eyes, whether I was ready to relive them or not. Like many other WIM expressed on social media I was numb to these happenings. I was sad for days. I feel vulnerable now writing about it since I never have shared any of these stories even with my family or parents. I just “dealt” with these incidences. It was part of my “normal” life as a woman, I had stopped recognizing how in my micro-conscious brain, this “small stuff” whether it was a remark about my body or an intentional touch by male colleagues or “unusual” and uncomfortable attention by men at work or by patients, bothered me over the years traumatizing me except I never wanted to give it any attention.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter!

–Martin Luther King Jr.

Years ago, in medical school during my final year in India, a tutor who would decide the patient subjects for the viva exam threatened to fail me in the exam if I didn’t “go” with him to his place on campus. I was frightened. I always ranked top in university and he blatantly had asked me if I didn’t follow what he said, I would lose my ranking. Thankfully, I was strong then as I am strong now and refused. I still remember those terrifying days leading up to the exams, I feared that he would follow me wherever I went, like an ominous dark shadow that was ever-present. I would sit in the library where I always remained visible to others rather than choosing my favorite quiet corners. I was given a completely normal patient during the exam but delivered a robust discussion about the normal anatomy and physiology of a women’s body. It was difficult to impress the examiner with a discussion focused on what is normal rather than around pathology, so my score was not as high as it may have been if I was given a more appropriate patient to discuss. Another time I had a patient who had an erection and asked me to touch him as I was examining his inguinal hernia. I was deeply affected by such incidences in medical school. This shaped my vision of coming to the United States for further training since I had heard that women in medicine in the US worked in better environments without such overt sexual harassment, but alas, I didn’t know how global the problem truly was. I would never forget getting stalked by the campus police officer as I was getting my passport to come to the US. I had to visit the police station to get the proof of identity and then found that police officer every day for a month outside my hostel, waiting to talk to me. Despite polite ways of telling him, I was not interested; he would show up the following day. How was I safe if the campus police officer was trying to stalk me? I still remember feeling terrified and thinking of being hurt every time I stepped outside the medical school hostel.

“When it’s “he said/she said,” the woman can’t win. But when it’s “he said/she said/she said/she said/she said/she said,” transparency has a chance, and light can flood the places where abusive behavior thrives.”

— Melinda Gates

More recently in the United States, I was asked by a leader in a medical organization (not my current institute) to meet over coffee. I genuinely thought it was for discussion of my career path as I received some “mentoring” from this individual. Midway during the meeting, he took something from my plate and said if it was allowed to eat from the plate of a date. My face went completely pale. How was this “meeting” and discussing my career a “date” that I never agreed to? I felt intensely uncomfortable and decided to leave after making an excuse. There are numerous other examples where I felt uncomfortable by colleagues, patients, or men at work that I just avoided- forget about confronting or reporting them. This “stuff” that made me uncomfortable back then and causes sympathetic overdrive even right now, while I am writing it, are examples of sexual harassment that makes me feel emotionally numb and forces me to hide it! Sexual harassment, stalking and discrimination is rampant during training for WIM even in 2021 in the United States. The power differential through the medical training makes it hard for our trainees to report it and as a result, the culture of chauvinism, and sexual harassment continues to grow.

“Sexual Harassment is not about attraction or desirability. It’s about exerting control over people whenever you can.”

— Anonymous

For anyone reading this post, I want to make one thing clear, any conversation or contact that makes the opposite person uncomfortable can be considered sexual harassment. Even in the cases where one may think they may have consented; the power differential NEVER gives the opposite person the freedom to consent. Sexual harassment is really not about sex. It’s about power and aggression and manipulation. It’s an abuse of power problem. We need to make sure that our trainees are empowered to report these incidences. We also need to make sure men start discussing these topics amongst themselves and identify the troubling language and behavior in fellow men and start calling them out. Men have to be interested in our safety for the culture to change. For either gender, we should acknowledge the bravery victims exhibit when they are sharing their story and thank them for confiding in us but more importantly give them the courage to report or do it for them. Medical organizations seriously need to understand that completing sexual harassment modules online does very little to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace. A stepwise approach that empowers the victim to report such incidences without fearing retaliation is a must.

I seriously cannot wait for a world of equity, equality, and accountability, where no one has the audacity to “accidentally” touch a woman without their permission, where women can thrive and are valued for their talent and brilliance and aren’t asked for sexual favors for a deserving opportunity, I cannot wait for a world where no one can utter the words “grab ‘em by their p****” and where the locker room talk isn’t about insulting womanhood.

This fight is difficult. I know there will be lots of disappointment and sadness like there was this month, which will be with us for a long time, but I am hopeful since these conversations are increasingly happening on social media openly and with candor!

“Self-respect by definition is a confidence and pride in knowing that your behavior is both honorable and dignified. When you harass or vilify someone, you not only disrespect them, but yourself also. Street harassment, sexual violence, sexual harassment, gender-based violence and racism, are all acts committed by a person who in fact has no self-respect.

Respect yourself by respecting others.”

— Miya Yamanouchi  


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