A few years back I went to a gynecologist. Penetrative sex hurt like hell, and I wanted to know what the deal was. When I explained my issue to the doctor, he did a cursory examination, then launched into a sales pitch for a vaginal plastic surgery that he’d just invented.
Said surgery would, apparently, change the size and shape of my vagina to accommodate my then-boyfriend’s penis. It also cost $600 and wasn’t covered by my insurance. Nothing I said persuaded him to stop the sales pitch. Not “I don't have $600.” Not “I don’t want to permanently alter my body to fit a specific man’s penis.” Not “do you think the ovarian cyst you found might also have something to do with my problem?” To be fair, I don’t think he even heard my questions over the sound of his own voice, but that’s the issue. My doctor totally refused to listen to me, his patient.
I’m not the only one—doctors refusing to listen to their female patients is a documented phenomenon.
What Does That Mean?
Doctors are less likely to listen to women than to men about what’s going on with their bodies. This means that women sometimes feel so disrespected and dehumanized that they give up on treatment. I never went back to that gynecologist, and it was years before I worked up the nerve to see another one. When they do get treatment, it may be inadequate. Research shows that women who report pain are significantly more likely that men to be given sedatives than painkillers. This implies that doctors assume that women aren't experiencing pain, they’re experiencing anxiety.
Shockingly, this doesn’t just happen when there’s no diagnosable reason for the pain—the same difference was seen between men and women undergoing coronary artery bypass graft surgeries.
Kids aren’t exempt either: little boys who have operations are more likely to be given codeine, while little girls are more likely to receive acetaminophen. You know, that thing you buy at CVS for headaches? It even happens to baby girls—Bianca Vilia said that her “…mom took me to the doctors as a baby because I was very fussy, and they always sent her away with ‘oh don't worry she just has gas/she's just fussy.’ Turns out I had cancer…”
Not being taken seriously results in women not being diagnosed correctly. Michele Milner, who has small fiber neuropathy, went through 6-7 diagnoses before finally landing on one that seemed correct. When doctors thought she had fibromyalgia, her doctors refused to investigate further when she reported symptoms that didn’t fit the pattern.
“I can't tell you how many times I was told it was all in my head, caused by depression or because I was too heavy. Even the head of rheumatology at Columbia University said I was fat and that was why I was in pain,” said Michele.
While she was being ignored and insulted, her nerves were literally dying. If doctors had actually listened to her, she would have been getting appropriate treatment years earlier.
So, Why Does This Happen?
The quick answer is that it’s good old-fashioned sexism. Medicine may have changed a lot since the Victorian era, when doctors thought every problem a woman had was caused by hysteria and could be cured through “pelvic massage”, but it hasn’t changed that much. Doctors are people, and people don’t take take women seriously. Even female doctors are guilty of this, since internalized sexism is also a thing.
It gets complicated, though. Because many cis women deal with period pain on a monthly basis, they may see pain as a normal occurrence, and may have not be able to separate it from more serious problems. Cis men don’t have to deal with this sorting process, and they’re not going to have their symptoms dismissed as “just” menstrual cramps. (For those who have experienced them, you know why the quotation marks are there. Just. Ha!)
Also, women tend to report their symptoms before they get serious, while men are more likely to put off getting treatment until the last minute. Somehow, this leads to doctors thinking women are exaggerating instead of, y’know, being proactive about their health.
Next time a doctor dismisses your concerns or refuses to take you seriously, know that you’re not alone. There’s a reason for this, and it’s not your fault. Don’t be afraid to get a second, third, fourth, or fifteenth opinion, and if anyone calls you “hysterical”, tell them that the 1800’s called and they want their garbage opinions back.