woman in hospital with male doctor

'I Was Slut-Shamed By My Doctor'

25-year-old Victoria* went for a sexual health check-up, but instead of receiving clear advice was made to feel guilty for choosing the pill. Many women say they have felt judged and shamed over due to their sex lives, but just how common is it? ELLE investigates.

Since coming off the pill after seven and a half years on it, 25-year-old Victoria's* periods fell into an irregular pattern. Sometimes, she would go two months without one, then one would come along either for a day or end up lasting two weeks. After following standard advice and waiting for them to settle down, they didn't, so she went to her GP.

Always mindful of her gynaecological health, and well aware of the common issues women can experience – for example, irregular bleeding – Victoria thought nothing of booking an appointment.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

'The doctor was male but I wasn't overly concerned, I thought I just needed to suck it up and get it sorted,' Victoria told ELLE. 'So I began to tell him [what was wrong] and he interrupted me when I said I had been on the pill for seven years….

'"The problem with girls like you, is that you go on the pill as soon as you become sexually active and that's where the problems begin," he said. His tone of voice was so judgmental; it was pretty clear what he meant.'

His tone of voice was so judgemental. It was pretty clear what he meant.

Shocked, Victoria carried on explaining her concerns and symptoms. Unfortunately, it wasn't the end of the shaming.

He continued: 'So I assume if you're not on the pill, you're not sexually active?'

Victoria paused, unsure why he had made an unwelcome assumption about her sex life, before she told him that yes, now and again, she has casual sex.

'He raised his eyebrows and then asked me about what contraception I was using. Before I could even say the word 'condoms', he said: "If you're having sex, you can get pregnant". I was like: 'No shit Sherlock!''

The doctor was there to advise and inform about her health and body, nothing more and nothing less, so casting aspersions about her sex life was unwarranted.

Unfortunately, while Victoria's case is rare – the majority of people get valuable advice and care from a pretty overstretched health service – it is not a one-off.

ELLE got in touch with the Everyday Sexism Project - where women upload their experiences of sexism – and they had plenty of examples of slut-shaming by medical professionals.

'I was at a hospital and one of the doctors asked me if I was sexually active and I said no,' writes one woman. 'He then proceeded to say: "Good, you do seem like a very nice and good girl, boys will love that."'

Another says, 'I went to the doctors because I had a bladder infection. My doctor asked me if I was sexually active. When I said "no", he said I was a "spoil sport" and that it was a pity. He is quite a lot older than me, and I felt really uncomfortable about it.'

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

'When I was a young woman and decided to become sexually active, I went to a doctor for birth control. The only question he asked me was how "promiscuous" I was. I was a virgin. When I told him that and that I was trying to be responsible, he gave me a prescription,' explained a third.

It's a bizarre contradiction that while some areas of sexual health appear to have modernised – you can now buy Chlamydia and gonorrhoea tests over the counter, Boots has finally dropped the hefty price of the morning after pill and cervical cancer vaccinations are largely incorporated in the UK public health system – in other ways, it's still decidedly backward. When a GP or nurse's own outdated opinions impact their professionalism, that is not okay.

I went to a doctor for birth control. The only question he asked me was how 'promiscuous' I was.

From a very young age, it is drilled into women to protect themselves sexually. Sex education in this country is roundly devoted to not getting pregnant as a teenager or catching an STI – and while both important things, the system has a long history of neglecting other areas like healthy sex lives, consent and LGBT relationships.

So, when a girl or woman takes measures to protect herself – like visiting her doctor to go on the pill – it is both paradoxical and deplorable if they are made to feel ashamed for it.

Worryingly, there is already evidence that some women haven't had certain gynaecological symptoms investigated, due to the fear of being stigmatised. A 2015 investigation by The Eve Appeal – a charity which aims to fund, educate and raise awareness about women's cancers – found that a quarter of women said they would be put off visiting their doctor about gynaecological symptoms because they didn't want to discuss their sexual history.

'I regularly hear from women who feel they are being judged, in particular around STIs and the number of partners they have had,' Lead Contraceptive Nurse at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) Tracey Forsyth told us. 'This puts women off seeking advice in the future, often resorting to using online advice which isn't always the most appropriate.'

In the Eve Appeal poll, carried out on 1,000 British women, 40 per cent said there is a greater stigma around gynaecological cancers than any other strains of the disease and one in five were under the impression that gynae cancers are associated with sexual promiscuity.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

Cervical cancer is, in virtually all cases, caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) which, yes, can be passed on through sexual contact. However, health professionals believe the virus is so common (Cancer Research UK says most people come into contact with some form of the virus in their life but, in most cases, it isn't harmful) that the number of sexual partners a person has doesn't really have anything to do with it. This is why schoolgirls around age 12 are vaccinated against the virus: To try and completely ensure they have not been sexually active at all so the vaccine is most effective.

More than a third (34%) said they would feel more confident talking about gynaecological health if the stigma of the health issues and sex were reduced.

But how do we reduce said stigma?

'It's really important for professionals to stay up to date with training and know how to deal with people sensitively and with respect,' Karin O'Sullivan, a sexual health nurse and clinical lead at the FPA tells us. 'This isn't just doctors and nurses, but pharmacists and people on the frontline such as reception staff.

'Good training and guidance won't just cover clinical knowledge, it will look at communication skills and the best way to treat patients and clients with respect and sensitivity to ensure they understand all their choices. Good healthcare isn't about a doctor or nurse telling you what to do, it is a dialogue between you and your healthcare provider.'

Forsyth says she has often advised women to attend their local sexual health and GUM clinic for contraception and sexual health advice as the staff are specialised in sexual health 'and will be supportive and non-judgemental'.

It shouldn't be any more embarrassing to ask for contraception than it is to ask for aspirin.

If something a health professional has said to you feels inconsiderate, judgemental, unprofessional or just off, you don't have to suffer in silence. And you shouldn't, not when have taken care of your health. Let the service know you weren't happy with the care you received.

'This means that they have a chance to put things right, and not treat others in the same way,' explains O'Sullivan. 'All services have a complaints procedure and you can also contact your local Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) for advice.'

Really, though, it's about removing the stigma and shame associated with female sexual health.

'It shouldn't be any more embarrassing to ask for contraception than it is to ask for aspirin. Health professionals have an important role to play in helping us all feel comfortable to have these conversations.'

*Names have been changed.

More from ELLE UK: