Exposed: The Hidden History of the Pelvic Exam

Lecture Description

Ever since the introduction of the pelvic exam as a gynecological procedure in the late nineteenth century, consumers and doctors have struggled to define the boundaries between preventive health and sexual impropriety. In the early twentieth century, for example, cancer awareness programs were stymied by the failure of the press to print particular words deemed “inappropriate,” such as “uterus, cervix, discharge, bloody, or menses.” And despite the emergence of second wave feminism in the 1970s, discomfort around discussing female sex organs remains a major problem, even leading to a congresswoman getting banned from speaking on the House floor after using the term “vagina” in 2012. This shaming of women’s reproductive anatomy takes a toll on all women, who have picked up the cue that they, too, should remain silent about their bodies. Researchers have documented the impact this silencing has had on women’s care, including a lack of basic anatomical knowledge and the importance of routine gynecological care. In a 2017 US study, for example, only about half of women surveyed about cervical cancer screening felt they knew the purpose of the routine pelvic exam. This talk suggests that the pelvic exam is more than just a medical procedure; it is a window into a deeper, more meaningful set of questions about gender, medicine, and power. From gynecological research on enslaved women’s bodies to practice on anesthetized patients, the pelvic exam as we know it today carries the burden of its history. By looking through that window, we can begin to understand why the pelvic exam remains both mysterious and contentious.


Medicine Women

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