In 2014 I was an invited speaker at the International Pelvic Pain Society (IPPS). My first day there I attended the session on research. I was excited to hear what Dr. Khalid Khan, the editor of The British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology,had to say about writing a good paper. An editor’s take on what gets published, what doesn’t, and why would be invaluable for a future paper! It was clear lots of other people had the same thought and so I didn’t have the opportunity to speak with him after he spoke.
One night after dinner I was in the bar of the conference hotel networking with other doctors and physical therapists. I saw a friend, we’ll call him Dr. Smith so he isn’t bombarded at work with phone calls (although he is willing to go on the record should that be required), trailing behind Dr. Khan. We started chatting and I was really pleased to have time with Dr. Khan. Given the close confines of the bar Dr. Khan and I were separated from Dr. Smith by the push of the crowd.
We started chatting, ordered a drink, and then Dr. Khan’s arm went over my shoulder in that all too familiar manner and before I could process what was happening his hand was on my breast. I had one of those what-the-fuck-just-happened moments and instead of punching him in the face I did what most women do, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Surely the editor of the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology did not just grope my breast. Surely I imagined it.
I moved his hand.
We chatted a little and I pretended he hadn’t groped me and then he started that octopus body crawl that so many women know only too well. He was nuzzling my neck and his disgusting hot breath was in my ear. He was groping my breasts, running his hands up and down my back, and putting his arm around my waist pulling me against his body. Each time I moved one hand or arm another seemed to take his place.
I told him to stop.
I removed his hands more forcefully each time. You know how it is, doing that half laugh that is part nerves and part hoping it might give the person helping themselves to your body the opportunity to back off gracefully (as if they deserve that) by pretending their groping you was just some kind of joke.
We women are trained from birth to make these exceptions for men.
I asked a man who I had seen at the conference for help and he just looked away.
I had to resort to yelling and physically pushing Dr. Khan away more than once before he got the idea that my body was not his to fondle.
And then something happened that still shames me. After receiving enough rebukes from me Dr. Khan stumbled over to a group of women who were also at the conference and instead of warning them I went to look for Dr. Smith. I was just so glad to get rid of Dr. Khan and I didn’t want to risk being next to him again.
I told Dr. Smith what happened. He has since told me that he remembers hearing me yell and seeing me upset. And then Dr. Smith told me that he had been called to a restaurant by a colleague to remove Dr. Khan because of Dr. Khan’s behavior towards a female doctor at the dinner. Dr. Smith had brought Dr. Khan back to the hotel hoping he would be embarrassed and head up to his room, but as they walked into the hotel Dr. Khan headed to the bar and so Dr. Smith followed. Dr. Smith assumed that Dr. Khan would be so mortified that he wouldn’t do it again.
I e-mailed Dr. Smith before I wrote this and he sent me his recollection. The “him” is Dr. Khan:
I was not being “hit on.” I’ve been hit on many times and I know the difference. Being hit on usually involves a glance that lingers, a touch that is reciprocated, or as Dr. Khan himself wrote in his article on how to convert online content into a first date, “A genuine smile, one that crinkles up your eyes.”
I found the acknowledgements of that paper very interesting:
I have never been groped like that at a medical conference, although I have heard that other women have suffered that way. I have also heard worse. Until 2014 my “no” was always accepted, although now I wonder if my career was affected by turning down these men who always held more power than I did?
How many women turned away from academics and conferences because the groping was just too much to bear? How many cures and therapies are we missing because women decided that “publish or perish” had a hidden price tag that was just too steep? And what of the women who paid that price?
Why come forward now?
If a man is going to grope my body without my permission he gets no say in how I speak about it. I choose now, so now it is.
I’ve been encouraged to come forward by watching the brave women in Hollywood tell their stories of unwanted sexual advances and assaults as well as the courageous women who have recounted what happened to them at the hands of politicians. I know these stories circulated for years and after hearing of recent issues at the AAGL meeting I realize there is also a whisper network for women in medicine.
The glass ceiling not only keeps women from advancing it also keeps the men at the top from hearing our stories and acting appropriately to stop abuse when it happens. I know it takes someone to start a public conversation so here I am saying what happened to me.
Everything is designed to protect men. Period. Quietly discussing this doesn’t alert other women and, quite frankly, having any conversation with the men’s club on the sunny side of the glass ceiling usually results in a woman being told she was over reacting and gets her labelled as a bitch or as a trouble maker.
Men have been taking sexual advantage of women since the beginning of time. If politely telling them in private that they should stop worked we wouldn’t be here. Anyway, we can’t tell them in private because we are afraid to be with them in private. We’re sometimes afraid to be with them in public too.
I have nothing to gain from disclosing this except peace of mind. It was uncomfortable to think about what happened, I am still ashamed for not warning the other women at the bar, and I was embarrassed e-mailing Dr. Smith. This disclosure will likely cause a lot of aggravation for me, however, the number of women who have been whispering their stories to me has aggrieved me.
I’m angry at the men who do this and I’m angry with society for conspiring to make women like me feel this is somehow our fault. I’m angry that society tells me I should worry more about what happens to the man who groped me than how his behavior has affected me.
I have written many posts that have attracted a lot of very difficult attention. I brought Ben Carson’s hypocrisy about abortion research to light and was attacked online by his supporters. I was the first to point out that Donald Trump’s medical letter was a sorry excuse that told us nothing and was similarly attacked by his supporters. For writing about abortion I’ve been smeared by right wing news sites and had to contact the FBI over threats. I’ve been smeared by the Toronto Star for calling them out on their tabloid worthy “article” on the HPV vaccine. However, I never once wavered or worried before I hit the “publish” button on any article I’ve ever written until now and yet all I am doing is telling the truth about how a man groped me. I think that speaks volumes on how women have been enculturated to accept the blame for the way men prey on us and how the partriarchy keeps us afraid of the consequences of speaking out.
(By the way, if you ask why I didn’t go to the police you can put yourself firmly in the “how poorly society treats women who speak out” camp).
This is not “my truth” this is the truth.
I am done with the network of whispers and I am so done with giving these men the benefit of the doubt.