“What was she wearing?” is the unfortunate response heard all too often, regarding rape or any form of sexual assault. Negating the actions of the abuser while simultaneously victim blaming, the statement perpetuates misogynist ideologies. However, this is nothing foreign to women. The conversation may continue with, “Was she intoxicated”, indicating alcohol is to be excused for actions of sexual harassment. Needless to say, society’s perception of sexual abuse against women is flawed, comprising of stereotypes and uneducated opinions. Many individuals possess preconceived notions that assault only occurs in places such as bars, frat parties, dark alleys, etc. Furthermore, from adolescence, women are taught to protect themselves from what societal norms have deemed unsafe environments. The dialogue concerning sexual violence perpetually omits one key factor: It can happen anywhere, at any time. Regardless of any other outside variable. This includes doctor’s offices.
Establishments that seemingly foster a “safe” space can be the most dangerous for women. In recent years the public has been exposed to cases of sexual harassment in churches, work settings, schools, and professional sports. However, mainstream media outlets fail to report cases of sexual misconduct involving plastic surgeons or doctors, due in part to the highly respected status they hold in the community. Whether in a physician’s office or hospital, a patient is expected to feel cared for and treated in both a professional and respectful manner, unfortunately, this is not always the case. The Atlantic- Journal-Constitution has investigated and reported that since 1999, more than 2,400 healthcare providers have been disciplined for sexual misconduct involving a patient, half of which are still licensed today. Healthcare professionals performing these acts are exploiting patients’ vulnerability whilst taking advantage of their pristine position of power. With this research why are doctors still shielded from receiving proper consequences for these criminal offenses?
It can seem unfathomable to accept the disturbing reality in which doctors are capable of committing sexual misconduct on innocent patients. However, no amount of higher education, experience, money, or professionalism can serve as a justifiable reason to excuse these individuals or their actions. While other sex offenders’ (for the most part) are rightfully punished for their heinous crimes, healthcare physicians continually receive special treatment with zero repercussions for their illegal behavior. They are and should be considered and labeled as sexual predators, not doctors. An ongoing extensive investigation titled “Doctors and Sex Abuse” speaks out on this problem, stating, “Medical regulators are viewing sexual misconduct by doctors as the symptom of impairment rather than cause for punishment. Doctors who abuse, regulators and therapists say, can be evaluated and managed — sometimes with as little as a three-day course on appropriate doctor-patient “boundaries,” other times with inpatient mental health treatment that may include yoga and massage.”Claiming sexual abuse as a mental disorder not only further proves the presence of injustice and ignorance alluded to in these situations but is wildly inaccurate. The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has rejected proposals suggesting mental illness is causation for rape. An article published by the Psychiatric Times states, “Rape as a mental disorder has been rejected by all the DSM’s and is almost universally opposed by the experts in forensics and in sexual disorders; that there is almost no scientific support for their pariah diagnosis of Paraphilia NOS, nonconsent; and that NOS diagnosis is inherently unreliable and can therefore never be taken seriously as expert forensic testimony.” This concluded that rape or any other sexual abuse constitutes as a crime, not a mental disorder.
If sexual assault is evident amongst various doctors, what is the biggest concern regarding plastic surgeons? The answer is not simply available without mention of several statistics to help understand the severity of this specific dilemma. Sexual assault amongst women is vastly more common in comparison to their counterparts. In a recent study, it estimates that globally 91% of victims of rape or sexual assault are female, in contrast to males which are 9%. Additionally, the research states 99% of perpetrators are male. This correlates to the plastic surgery industry which is a male-dominated field, with 85% of all surgeons being male. Moreover, the American Society of Plastic Surgery reports women to account for 92% of all cosmetic procedures performed. These statistics lend to infer an unfortunate thesis, one in which women lack the upper hand. With the odds stacked against women, they become victims of nonconsensual sexual advancements in a place least expected. In an appointment or consultation for a physical examination in pursuit of a potential cosmetic procedure, a surgeon may, with the right precautions, need to touch or draw markings on the patient’s body. This should be done with the intent to provide a comfortable and safe experience for the patient. There should always be a third party present in these appointments. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly where the issue lies. Predatory plastic surgeons disguise their inappropriate behavior as “medical practices” in order to manipulate female patients. Lines are easily blurred and confused, which subsequently leaves female patients in a compromising and vulnerable situation. In doing such, surgeons display the abuse of power, creating an imbalance in an already complex dynamic. Women that have experienced sexual harassment at the hands of a plastic surgeon are often unaware of what happened to them. Due to the nature of these scenarios, women impacted by the discomfort remain silent. They second-guess their intuition due to the complexities of the situation. Questioning their own judgment: “He’s a doctor, he wouldn’t do that”, “I’m making this all up in my head”, and “I’m being dramatic, I’m sure my experience was normal”. While many victims struggle to acknowledge the sexual violence pursued upon them, others avoid speaking out, especially against doctors, in fear of no one believing them. Thus, these predatory surgeons continue with daily life, as their victims suffer in silence alone, while the trauma continually impairs every single part of their life. (It’s worth noting survivors of doctor/ patient sexual abuse are never to blame for this result, the medical professional should be held accountable. Moreover, the fundamentally flawed system that inherently favors traditionally powerful individuals with high status, results in the censorship of victims.)
With a quick Google search of “surgeons accused of sexual assault” a plethora of articles, criminal records, and patient statements appear visible. To further acknowledge the severity of this problem, it’s crucial to outline a few of these reports of sexual misconduct involving doctors and patients. Perhaps, the most well-known case involves the U.S.A female gymnastics team, who endured several years of sexual abuse from team doctor Larry Nassar. In 2018 it was reported that Dr. Ryan Williams a colorectal surgeon in Cleveland, raped several women while in his medical office. In an article published by The Columbus Dispatch, it addresses Dr. Richard Strauss who sexually abused over 177 patients in his care. In 2021 a statement reveals, plastic surgeon, Dr Fredric Corbin was accused of sexually assaulting two female patients while in his medical practice. A recent 2023 report states, Gynecologist Dr. Robert Hadden was accused of sexually assaulting over 200 female patients. These reports cited are hardly a drop in the bucket, considering the thousands more available. Not to mention the thousands of other doctors with no accusations or charges pressed against them. This issue is alarming.
On a broad scale, sexual assault in any capacity, is one of the most horrific experiences a human can endure. Victims can’t unlive, erase or merely forget the traumatic events that occurred, subsequently leading to debilitating PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). In a book titled The Body Keeps The Score, author, Bessel Van Der Kolk states,“ Traumatized people look at the world in a fundamentally different way from other people. For most of us, a man coming down the street is just someone taking a walk. A rape victim, however, may see a person who is about to molest her and go into a panic.” Moreover, survivors’ perception of reality is altered, their viewpoints warped, resulting in the inability to return to “normal” life. Filled with intense feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and fear, victims mourn the past version of themselves that is no longer present. In an interview, produced by LadyLike T.V, rape victim Devin Lyte speaks candidly of her terrifying experience stating, “Afterwards, I just really wanted my life to be back to the way it was. And it’s taken me seven years to realize that after something like this happens to you. After someone takes your autonomy away, even if it’s for a minute, you’re not the same afterward. You’re just not”. This highlights the life-altering effects sexual abuse causes, taking a toll on one’s life in all aspects. Countless negative side effects, both mental and physical, have been recorded in victims of sexual assault. Long and short-term symptoms can include but are not limited to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, disassociation, sexual dysfunction, isolation, sleep disorders, self-harm, intimacy issues, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, and eating disorders. Additionally, recovery for victims of sexual abuse is a journey that exceeds a lifetime. There is no “revenge” that could equate to the damages placed on these individuals. The process of healing, although possible, is emotionally draining and often lonely.
With all the information above provided, this issue can appear extensive and overwhelming. Many questions arise concerning disciplinary actions and the prevalence of sexual assault. What can be done? How do we prevent sexual misconduct in medical settings? What implications can be enforced to ensure the safety of female patients? Is it even possible to reduce the probability of this illegal behavior happening? In response to the specific epidemic of sexual assault between doctors and patients, there is no conclusive answer or direct course of action. However, a scholarly article titled “Sexual Assault and Harassment in Medicine: we need actions, not Words” presents logical solutions to combat the normalization of said behavior. It states, “How to stop sexual harassment in healthcare.1 Firstly, measure the problem and keep measuring it to show it is reducing. Secondly, follow through on organizational policies and guidelines. Thirdly, calculate the costs that harassment is costing the organization, and report the outcomes. Finally, the leadership must do more and be more diversified. Only when healthcare stops protecting the reputation and career of perpetrators, rather than recognizing and acting on the assault of a colleague will there start to be real change”. While this exclusively outlines propositions in correlation to the healthcare industry, implying healthcare workers are solely responsible is partially false. Change is made possible through the efforts of all individuals in the community. Awareness about the dangers of predators who appear normal or even professional is a message that could save a life.
Sexual assault prevention as a whole (not limited to medical professionals) encompasses a broad scale of forceful action that can be taken. Victims and allies may feel a sense of hopelessness when discussing and researching this systematic issue at length. While understandable, it’s essential as a society to remain hopeful and positive in the ability for change to happen in the future. Remembering nothing changes overnight, and efforts to prevent sexual harassment at any level, are never unnoticed. Education is prevention, therefore participating in open conversations fighting for equality and change is a step in the right direction. It’s crucial to not only believe but also support survivors of sexual assault. Furthermore, foster a safe and non-judgmental environment for these individuals to process, cope and heal from the trauma. All victims deserve the space to speak freely about their stories if they choose, in doing so they should feel validated by others. The world can often be a scary place, especially for women, protection is essential. Continuing to advocate for what is right will lead to a safer, brighter, and happier future for everyone.
For more resources regarding sexual assault prevention please visit: https://www.rainn.org/resources
If you or a loved one is a survivor of sexual assault/abuse, please remember it is never the victim’s fault. For additional help and support visit: https://www.nsvrc.org/about-sexual-assault
For more information regarding doctors sexually assaulting patients visit: https://doctors.ajc.com/