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Did my doctor abuse me?

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Anni asks:

I had to go to the doctor for a sports physical for school. While I was there my doctor made me take off my clothes and he looked at my breasts and vagina: was he allowed to do this?

Heather Corinna replies:

Here is some basic information on what a sports physical usually requires.

While breast exams are not an abnormal part of many general physicals, unless your school specified that you were to get a pelvic exam, it is not likely that a pelvic or GYN exam -- or a visual examination of your genitals -- would be part of that physical. To boot, during any medical exam in which you aren't clothed, a nurse -- not just your doctor once he is in the examining room with you, but the nurse who directs you to the room -- should be giving you a gown to wear. If a pelvic exam is not something requested in your exam (you should have, perhaps, some sort of form from your school about what is needed from the exam) you would not be directed to take all your clothing off under that gown, but just your top. But again, I have just looked through several basic forms for school sports physicals and have yet to find one asking for a pelvic or genital exam.

As well, breast exams will involve a doctor palpating the breast and talking to you about feeling for lumps yourself: that exam is a breast cancer screening. A pelvic exam would involve a stirrups chair (usually), a bimanual exam where a doctor gloves up and feels your vagina and uterus with his hands, and possibly a speculum exam. Neither of those exams should be simply visual examinations.

So:
• If a nurse did not give you a gown and ask if you wanted her present, and/or
• If a breast and/or pelvic exam was not stated to be a needed part of your physical, or something the doctor and nurse spoke to you about in advance, and
• If all your doctor was doing was looking your body over,

...then it is likely that you have been abused by this doctor.

If that is the case, I would strongly encourage you to report what was done. You might start by simply telling one or both of your parents or guardians, and letting them take it from there. If you are not comfortable doing that for any reason, you can also just contact either the police yourself, or the medical board for your area. You also could start by calling a sexual abuse hotline, like the one via RAINN, which is free to call and confidential, at: 1-800-856-HOPE. A hotline like that one can also help you with any of these steps, as well as giving you more detailed information on your options.

If you were indeed abused, please know from the start that it is not your fault. Even if you feel like you should have known what was appropriate for your physical and what wasn't, and you didn't know, that still does not make any abuse from a doctor your fault.

Also, please know that in any exam, you always have the option of asking for a nurse to be present during your exam. That's always a good idea, especially if you ever get a hinky feeling about any doctor: always trust your instincts. You can also always ask for a doctor or nurse of a gender you feel more safe around: if you ever want or prefer a female doctor, know you can always ask for that, and it should always be honored.

If an abuse is what happened to you, Anni, I'm incredibly sorry that it did. It is a very hard blow when the very people we entrust most to care for our bodies and selves abuse that power. But do know that there are steps you can take to hold your doctor responsible for his actions and assure that he will not do this to anyone else: if he's done this to you, chances are he already has done it to someone else who either didn't know they could take action and hold him responsible, or who didn't stop to think, as you have, that what was done probably was not appropriate.

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