Let’s Say it Plainly: Pelvic Exams Without Consent Are Rape
Two months ago I had surgery to fix a broken nose, and I was downright panicked about going under anesthesia. I hated the idea of being put out and of not being in control. It was terrifying. A few hours after I woke up, I noticed that my upper arms had some small bruises on them — probably from being readjusted during surgery. I was fine, but it was strange to think about being moved around while I was completely unconscious. When you’re under anesthesia, you’re at your most vulnerable; you have to trust that the doctors surrounding you are treating you with respect and care.
That’s part of the reason stories of medical students performing pelvic exams on unconscious patients without their permission are so horrific.
Over the last few years, women and lawmakers have been raising the alarm on the practice, noting that it’s legal in most states to give a woman under anesthesia a pap smear or penetrate her without consent. The issue was the subject of a big investigation by New York Times reporter Emma Goldberg last week, who talked with women who were shocked and traumatized to wake from surgery to find that they had been penetrated without their knowledge or okay.
“I started having panic attacks trying to figure out what had happened,” one woman told Goldberg. “I have a history of sexual abuse, and it brought up bad memories.”
Here’s the thing: Penetrating someone without their consent, while conscious or not, is rape. And I’m not being hyperbolic: the FBI definition of sexual assault is “penetration, no matter how slight… without the consent of the victim.” The fact that these “exams” are being conducted by doctors or medical students is irrelevant; they are putting their hands inside women’s bodies without explicit permission. That’s assault.
I was reminded of the uproar when Virginia tried to pass an anti-abortion bill in 2012 that would force women to have transvaginal (penetrative) ultrasounds — even when not medically necessary — before they were allowed to end their pregnancies. Critics called it #staterape and mobilized until the legislation was revised. The message was clear there: You cannot force or compel women to be penetrated without consent. To do so was a violation of our humanity and bodily integrity.
As of last year, only 11 states have banned the practice of pelvic exams on unconscious patients. Now that women are starting to speak up about their experiences, I imagine other states will follow. But really, the fact that we need a law at all is troubling. It means that women’s bodies are up for grabs unless we say otherwise — that we have to proactively ask not to be penetrated, that the default assumption is that consent is irrelevant unless a law says otherwise.
This is why the “no means no” model of sexual consent has never been enough; it presupposes that women are open to sex or penetration unless otherwise stated. That’s the reason most sexual assault experts now consider “yes means yes” the gold standard of consent — it’s the idea that the absence of a “no” is not enough; to fully consent there must be the presence of a “yes.”
That won’t happen when the woman in question is unconscious. That we should have to spell that out for the medical profession is unconscionable.