By Shruti Sunderraman May. 08, 2017
As sex, and talking about sex, came out into the open over the last decade, did our gynaecologists miss the memo? Why do I end up with a neighbourhood mausi when I go for a diagnosis?
“Please fix an appointment again for this week and ask your mother to accompany you.”
I was sitting in the office of a gynaecologist at a highly reputed private hospital, where two interns and a nurse were quietly bustling about. Five minutes prior to this verdict I’d politely declined to answer the intern’s question about whether I was married or unmarried.
At 22, I did not think that question had anything to do with being sexually active/inactive. It was also not germane to my condition of polycystic ovarian syndrome. But the intern had only been filling out a form – I’d hoped that the gynaecologist would be a little less hidebound. Instead, she’d just refused to discuss my diagnosis with me without the presence of my mother.
I persevered and asked the gynaecologist why, and she simply rattled off how I should involve my mother in decisions about my health. I listened to her from a distance, occasionally registering phrases like “your parents will worry about you” and “it will be easier to talk with an adult in the room”. Yes, because even at 22 – four full years after attaining majority – I could not take decisions about my sexual health.
I’m not the only one who went looking for a gynaecologist and ended up consulting a neighbourhood mausi. You know those gossipy middle-aged women, who stand in their balcony and look askance at every young woman in their colony, commenting on the length of her skirt, shooting disapproving eye darts at her should she be seen talking to a guy? The ones who nudge-nudge wink-wink when you browse the sexual health aisle at the local supermarket.
I’d witnessed aunties and uncles slut-shaming my sartorial choices in honeyed tones, but hearing the same from a medical professional, was a bit of a shock.
In a country rife with anti-Romeo squads, where it is well-nigh impossible to talk to your parents and the Internet isn’t exactly the harbinger of accurate information, turning to a medical practitioner for progressive, professional advice on sexual health is not merely important. It is a necessity.
Like most Indian mothers, mine decided to skip the birds-and-the-bees conversation, when puberty hit me like Bernie Sanders’ disappointment in the American people. Instead, she handed me an illustrated book on how to puberty. It was full of illustrations of “woh waale” organs while I was full of questions thanks to a middle-class conservative family and a regressive school environment. So, at 18, when I was presented with the opportunity to get my questions (now updated) answered at a gynaecologist’s clinic, I went prepared with my notepad and curiosity.
I suffered from irregular periods and my first gynaecologist came highly recommended for cases of infertility. I’d heard murmurs about Indian gynaecs taking the liberty to advise their patients on sexual choices, but had no idea I was about to get downright sermoned.
As we inaugurate conversations about sex in the modern woman’s life, our doctors need to update their attitudes like they do their medical equipment.
Instead of educating me on safe sex, my first gynaec instructed me against the very idea of sex, while keeping the flow of her “teenagers nowadays” monologue at a steady, shameless pace. “Don’t do wrong things before marriage, beta,” she’d said, using endearments to cover up for her retrograde ideas. I’d witnessed aunties and uncles slut-shaming my sartorial choices in honeyed tones, but hearing the same from a medical professional, was a bit of a shock.
How did we get here? As sex – and talking about sex – came out into the open over the last decade or so, did our gynaecologists miss the memo? In March this year, India Today published the results of an extensive survey on the changes in Indian attitudes toward sex over the past 15 years. According to the survey, in 2003, 34 per cent of women believed sex was unimportant to their lives. But only in 15 years, 29 per cent of women said that they were open to one-night stands.
And yet, our gynaecologists continue to channel their inner parlour waali aunty. I’ve lost count of the number of times my friends and I have been infantilised or shamed by the gynaec police that remains cocooned in a regressive larvae of false morality.
Finding the right gynaecologist feels a lot like serial dating. You meet doctor after doctor, in search of the least sexist one, piling up exhaustion, bills, and a hollow feeling of pouring your time into an abyss.
Rapper and activist Sofia Ashraf once told me that she had to change at least four gynaecologists, some of whom advised her against drinking. “They assume I have sex because I drink and can’t imagine the remote possibility that I enjoy the actual sensation of sex,” she explained. “One, with no counselling background whatsoever, tried to psychoanalyse the reason I have multiple sex partners and asked me about my relationship with my father.”
It gets even more bizarre. Unsolicited advice is bearable, but getting fed incorrect medical advice? Tanisha*, a teacher based in Mumbai, was reprimanded for shaving her pubic hair when she sought a diagnosis of PCOS. Nidhi* was body-shamed by a Delhi gynaecologist, who asked her if she had sex to validate herself because she was overweight.
I find the saddest part about this is that these attitudes set back whatever little progress we have made to reclaim our bodies and have agency over them. If this is the insensitive attitude we are greeted with on a regular basis, I shudder to think what women who’ve experienced rape and sexual violence might have to endure. In an excellent piece by Zenisha Gonsalves about gynaecologists’ sexism damaging women’s health, Dr Chitra Ramamurthy, a senior consultant in the Obstetrics and Gynaecology department at Bengaluru’s Apollo Hospital had said, “We cannot ask whether a woman is sexually active – we’re still in India, we live in a conservative society.”
Yet, there is some hope. Lawyer Amba Azad and team compiled a crowdsourced list of progressive gynaecologists in India, reported to provide sound medical treatment, devoid of moral judgement. I personally found an amazing gynaecologist from this list and haven’t looked back since.
As we inaugurate conversations about sex in the modern woman’s life, our doctors need to update their attitudes like they do their medical equipment. I hope the next generation of 14-year-olds, who turn up at a gynaecologist’s office with their notepads and bundles of curiosity, will not be slut-shamed, body-shamed, or character-certified. And I hope they will not leave those offices thinking they’ve just endured the piercing gaze of a neighbourhood mausi: They meet enough of those IRL.
* Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Shruti Sunderraman is an independent journalist, and the Executive Editor of Current Conservation. She lives in Bangalore in her garden, with her cat.