Newly 21, I’m the first of my friends to visit a gynecologist. I had my first appointment at 20 when the student health center at my university insisted I go in for a routine check-up before renewing my birth control prescription. At the time, I was almost three years into a relationship, had been sexually active for a little more than a year, and I dreaded the appointment. I come from a super conservative Catholic family and I was just about as prepared to tell my gynecologist about my sex life as I was to tell my mom and I braced myself for the inevitable admonishment. However, when my doctor entered the examination room and began asking me the routine questions about my social life, menstrual cycle, and exercise routines, I’d never felt more at ease.
Maybe it was the fact that my doctor looked eerily similar to my British lit professor or the fact that she quickly made it clear that I didn’t have to justify my sexual activity by relaying the entire history of my relationship, but I left that appointment feeling more empowered and more confident in my healthy lady parts than ever before. As I emerged from the student health building, Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” sounded in my head like a victory march.
So, clearly, I had high expectations for my next appointment. Slightly annoyed when the pharmacist told me I needed to consult my doctor before renewing my birth control prescription last month, I irritably dialed the student health number, prepared to explain that I hadn’t had sex in more than a year and I just wanted the pill to control my period. A kind woman’s voice greeted me on the third ring and my irritability instantly disappeared. Talking woman-to-woman, with a renewed faith in the girl code, I scheduled my next appointment with Sheri.
The day of the appointment I checked in with Sheri at the front desk and soon after a familiar nurse lead me into the examination room. I recognized her from my last appointment and felt like saying, “How’s your year been, girl??” as she checked my height, weight, and blood pressure. Another member of the Girls Only club, Denise seemed to get it. A few years older than my mom, she still seemed hip enough to drink mimosas while discussing the pains of childbirth, the trials of menstruation, and the perfect sex positions guaranteed to result in the big “O.”
Having picked up great vibes from Sheri and Denise I was pretty excited to continue talking girl code to my doctor. I was halfway through wondering if I’d have the same woman who examined me last year when Denise turned around and said on her way out the door. “I just spoke with your doctor. He should be with you shortly.”
He. He should be with you shortly.
Two things happened when Denise shut the door. First, I mentally retracted her membership to the Girls Only club. Next, I picked up my phone to frantically text my roommate the following: “A MAN IS GOING TO INSPECT MY VAGINA.”
When he entered the room, I avoided making eye contact with Anonymous Male Gynecologist as he shook my hand. He introduced himself and began commenting on the weather, the upcoming weekend, the approaching end of the semester but I heard nothing. All I could think was, You’re a man. You’re a man and you’re a gynecologist. By my math that makes you a male gynecologist. I never knew those existed! How are you going to inspect my vagina when you don’t even have one??
He was in his thirties and, as he explained, was doing his residency at the university hospital. He was well-dressed, clean-shaven, and wore a wedding band. I wondered what his wife thought of his profession.
My thoughts were interrupted when A.M.G. said, “So I’m going to be doing the examination today… Unless that makes you uncomfortable.” Fighting the urge to blurt out, “Yes that makes me uncomfortable! Where my girls at??” and painfully aware that switching doctors may involve a longer wait and inevitably cause me to be late to my interview an hour from then, I responded, “No, that’s fine.”
And so began the routine questions.
Anonymous Male Gynecologist: Alright, so when was your last appointment?
Me: About a year ago.
A.M.G.: So why are you here?
Me: Because I was told I have to have an annual exam in order to get my birth control prescription renewed.
A.M.G.: I see. Your records show that you were in a relationship at the time of your last visit. Is that still the case?
A.M.G.: But you were sexually active with that partner?
A.M.G.: When did that relationship end?
Me: About a year ago.
A.M.G.: Have you had other sexual partners?
A.M.G.: So it’s been a long time since you’ve had sex.
Me: (in my head) Thanks for the reminder, asshole. (out loud) Yep.
A.M.G.: What are you studying?
Me: (in my head) Whew! A safe topic of discussion. (out loud) English and French. I want to be a writer.
A.M.G.: Is that so?
Me: Yeah, I’m actually writing for a few different publications now. Not just academic writing, but also lifestyle pieces that I really enjoy.
A.M.G.: So when was your last menstrual cycle?
Me: (in my head) Smooth. (out loud) Last week.
A.M.G.: How was the flow?
Me: (in my head) EW GROSS GAG PLEASE NEVER SAY “FLOW” EVER EW!! SOMEONE KILL ME NOW. (out loud) It was normal.
A.M.G.: Well, let’s get started with the examination, shall we?
Me: (in my head) Dear God please grace me with a heart attack before this happens. (out loud) Sure.
He left the room while I undressed and donned the cotton smock and got situated on the examination table. A few minutes later Anonymous Male Gynecologist re-entered with Denise.
“Denise is going to observe the examination since I can’t legally perform it myself,” A.M.G. informed me. I shot a look at Denise in the corner. I was still mad she betrayed the girl code and thought it was a waste of resources to have two people do the job of one woman.
It took every ounce of my 20 and 11/12th years of maturity (admittedly, not very much to begin with) to look at A.M.G. with a straight face when the words “breast” and “examination” came out of his mouth. Already beet red with embarrassment at the fact that the first boob action I was getting in a year was from a man in a lab coat and latex gloves, I promptly decided to let Anonymous Male Gynecologist absorb all of the awkwardness in the room. I wasn’t going to apologize for the profession he chose and the fact that I was someone who actually knew what menstrual cramps felt like—something that can’t possibly be learned in even the most prestigious medical schools.
Feeling pretty comfortable with my femininity by the time A.M.G. had progressed to my second breast, my zen-like cool was shattered abruptly when he asked, “So are you still writing for the school newspaper?”
If there was ever a time not to discuss extracurricular activities it was this one. Instead of explaining my year-long editorship with the paper and my lessened involvement since finding my niche in other publications, I retorted, “It’s kinda creepy that you know that,” and shot a glance over my right shoulder. Instead of meeting my eye, he continued his exam while looking straight ahead at the wall on the opposite end of the examination table. He chuckled slightly, but his facial expression hardly changed while his fingers circled my breast and he answered, “It was in your file from last time. I promise I don’t stalk my patients.”
Oh great, so now stalking was on my mind. “Well that’s good,” I responded, feeling slightly like a jerk, but not bad enough to apologize since I was already in a pretty demeaning position as it was.
Two minutes later I was on my back, legs splayed, facing a man I never expected to be peering over clean sheets into my lady-cave. The awkward returned.
“I’m going to ask you to scoot forward on the table and place your feet in the stirrups,” A.M.G. said from between my knees.
Unable to get my footing on the stirrups and slide to the end of the table at the same time, I made several pathetic attempts to move forward while A.M.G. urged me on and Denise criticized my foot-placement. “You’ve got to get your feet in the stirrups, hon.” I cringed at the number of times the work “stirrup” had been spoken in the past 30 seconds, but praised myself for the foresight to kick Denise out of Girls Club half an hour earlier.
Once I was situated, A.M.G. gave me the run down of the vaginal examination. He used proper medical terminology in his explanation, but all I heard was, “Is it cool if I poke around down there for a bit? LMK thanks!”
A.M.G. must have learned his lesson about making small talk while touching my lady parts, so he pretty much clammed up while he examined vagina, giving me time to stare at the ceiling and figure out what to make of this situation.
My initial thought was, damn, this will make a great story; my second, why do male gynecologists exist?? I’m all about breaking gender stereotypes, but it seemed to me that it made the most logical sense for women to tell other women how to take care of their bodies. I was positive A.M.G. knew more than I ever could about the mechanics of menstruation and all the goings-on of what happens down there, but as a healthy young woman who was merely seeking a birth control prescription all I wanted was to talk to someone who gets sex from a female perspective.
I can’t talk to my mom about sex. My friends are just as ill-informed as I am and my sisters and I hold a “Don’t ask don’t tell” policy when it comes to one another’s love lives. When it comes down to it, these mandatory gynecology appointments are the only chances I have to ask about sex and I want to be able to do so with someone who understands it the way I do—someone who understands the intense emotional attachment of sexual relationships and how much it sucks when they end, someone who gets what sex feels like the first time (in the words of Maroon 5, “It’s not always rainbows and butterflies”), hell, someone who’s actually operated a tampon and cursed mother nature for the existence of uteruses. When it comes to talking about sex, girl code is everything.
As I anticipated, I was given the green light a few moments later, told I was healthy inside and out, and finally given the renewed prescription. A.M.G. shook my hand, wished me luck on my interview, and I braced myself for the inevitable “See you next year!” which, to my great relief, didn’t come.
I walked to the bus stop, still mulling over the appointment. Was I being prejudiced? He’d done a fine, professional job, so maybe it was my fault for being uncomfortable. And yet, he had to know his presence changed the dynamic of the visit, right? A room full of women would have negated the tension, but the male-female context in which my examination took place made it feel as if I had to explain myself in a way, as if I had to justify my femininity because of the biological differences between my doctor and I. Or maybe I was just immature.
Unwilling to let A.M.G. occupy my mind for much longer, I decided to bottle up the experience until I was ready to revisit it and write about it in a way that made sense. Almost a month later, however, it still doesn’t make sense. But it does make a good story.
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