Adam’s Rib Fracture

The cat has been set amongst the pigeons.

Senior male surgeons, it seems, demand sexual favours from their female juniors in return for professional advancement.

Should we be surprised?  Or is it simply a symptom of a far greater malaise?

*

It is the winter of 1974.

I, along with 20 other 5th-year medical students, am seated at the perimeter of a somewhat undersized clinical room at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne.

In the centre of the room, looking for all the world like a sacrificial altar, is an examination couch.

The consultant – a man in his late forties, silvering at the temples - stands in his white, heavily starched lab coat, his back to the couch.

The room resounds to the thwack of the gloves he has just pulled on.

The door opens, and a 17-year-old girl in a hospital gown and bare feet enters, like a very small bull into a very large ring.

The 20 pairs of eyes that follow her in are obviously a surprise to her, and she struggles in vain to hold together the rear of her gown.

‘Up.’  The consultant doesn’t bother to turn.  It is a performance.  An exercise of power.

The young girl is slow to divine his wishes.

‘Up up.  Quick.’  Still no eye contact.

With the horror of realization, her arms shaking with both adrenaline and cold, she mounts the examination couch, still struggling hopelessly with the gape that reveals her pale buttocks to 10 of the students.

The consultant turns, his gaze steely and inscrutable as his index fingers circle one another.

It is the day of the Sims vaginal speculum, and this is his way of indicating that she should assume the left lateral position.  

Once more, she is slow on the uptake.  

His index fingers rotate more quickly, his chin nudging towards the opposite wall.

Finally, somehow, she grasps his intent, and turns onto her left side.

Wordlessly, he pushes up her right knee and, without ceremony, inserts the cold, steel speculum vaginally.  She gasps with the pain.

He positions the examination lamp, casts a peremptory eye over her cervix, removes the speculum with a flourish and presents it to the first of 20 students.

Each student in turn reinserts the speculum and examines her cervix.

By this time, she is biting the pillow beneath her head and tears are streaming from the corners of her eyes.

The consultant rotates his index fingers in the opposite direction.

She turns onto her back.

Without warning, he lifts her gown, spreads her knees and thrusts two fingers into her vagina.

She lets out a cry and begins to sob.

‘Relax!’

She bursts out crying.

‘You’re being ridiculous.’

Her body convulses with uncontrollable sobs.

He withdraws his fingers, holds out a pair of gloves and, one by one, each of the students – most of whom are males – sexually assault her with the gloved hand.

It is a state-sanctioned form of gang-rape.

‘What can you feel?’

Nobody ventures an answer.

‘Come on – there’s a lump there the size of a pomegranate!  What is it?’

‘A cyst?’

‘What kind of cyst?’

‘Ovarian?’

‘Is it cancer?’

‘I don’t think so.”

‘How do you know?’

No answer.  Diagnostic ultrasound is in its infancy.

‘Only one way to find out, and that’s to cut the bloody thing out!’

We are up to student number 12, and the young girl’s face is a mire of cheap lipstick, mascara and tears.

I am student number 13.

‘Sorry,’ I say, almost inaudibly - like a rapist excusing his rape on the basis of uncontrollable lust – as I thrust my fingers into her.

Can I feel a lump?  I don’t care.  I just want to get the hell out.

Finally, the last of the students removes their fingers from her vagina.

The consultant turns his back once more, and the young girl realizes that she has served her purpose.  

She struggles to the floor, lubricant oozing down her thighs, and carries her shame out into the changing cubicle.

A nurse in a blinding white uniform changes the bed-linen as the consultant enters some clinical notes, and we are ready for the next rape.

The sequence is repeated a dozen times through the afternoon, each girl reduced to tears, each encounter an intimate assault of the most monstrous proportions.

And yet, I never spoke out.  Not once.  And nor did any of my colleagues.  

Yes, we were only 22.  Yes, we were only students.  Yes, we had no power in the hierarchy.  But we should’ve said something.  We should’ve at least voted with our feet.  But we didn’t.  We never do.

It took some 20 years before I could properly face the practice of gynaecology.  The very thought of carrying out a gynaecological examination sickened me.

Brutality brutalizes.  One cannot engage in a violent act – an act that deprives another person of their dignity – without one’s soul itself being brutalized.  

Have things changed?

On the surface, perhaps.  To a degree.

But we are still faced with that one, central conundrum:

Why do men hate women?

Is it because we desire them?  Because we feel they have some power over us?  Because they arouse in us feelings that disgust us?  

Is it because they carry all life inside of them, and we carry nothing?  Is it simply familiarity?  Is it ignorance?  Is it fear?  

Is this hatred, like aggression itself, an inescapable part of the (male) human condition?  

And yet, dotted here and there amidst the population are men who don’t hate women.  Men who treat women with respect.  Men who don’t feel hatred.  

What separates these two kinds of men?

Until we can answer that question, male surgeons will continue to oppress their female juniors, legislation be damned.


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