The Violent Origins of Gynecology

OK. Gynecology is a
branch of medicine that deals with the
reproductive system made up of the uterus,
vagina, and ovaries. It’s important to critically
examine gynecological practices because they have
historically affected women and other marginalized genders. Gynecology is not simply
an objective field of medicine based on
cold facts and data, it has an extremely racist,
misogynistic, and transphobic history that must be exposed. [TYPING] As we trace the
history of gynecology, we begin in ancient Greece– the birthplace of democracy,
the Olympics, and hysteria. In the 5th century
BC, Hippocrates, who has been deemed the
founder of modern medicine, coined the term “hysteria.” This word comes
from the Greek word “hystera,” which literally
means womb or uterus. In ancient Greece,
people believe hysteria was caused by
violent movements in the womb, so hysteria was deemed
a woman’s problem. This belief evolved
into the roaming uterus or wandering womb theory in
which people, including Plato, genuinely believed that
the uterus wandered around the body,
causing problems. In order to combat
this ailment, doctors prescribed marriage, which
implied sex, and scent therapy, believing that the
uterus would move toward good smelling scents. Fast forwarding to France in
1880, a renowned neurologist named Jean-Martin Charcot
taught his students about the female only
problem of hysteria. Charcot’s primary
subject was a girl named Louise Augustine Gleizes. When she was 13, she
was attacked and raped by multiple men and incarcerated
at the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris, where she was
diagnosed with hysteria. Charcot’s lectures involve
hypnotizing Louise and placing her in one of her fits, so she
can be photographed and watched by Charcot’s medical students. This went on for five years
until Louise disguised herself as a man and escaped. One of Charcot’s students was
none other than Sigmund Freud. Freud expanded upon
Charcot’s ideas about hysteria, classifying
it as a woman’s illness. He claimed hysteria was caused
by repression and penis envy and that it could be
cured through marriage and intercourse. Obviously, marrying
someone with a penis or giving birth to
someone with one could cure this
uterus only disease. If marriage wasn’t an
option for a patient, they were prescribed uterine
massages in which doctors would place one hand in the
vagina or the anus until a proximal convulsion,
also known as an orgasm, was reached. These massages quickly
became tiresome for doctors to perform, so
vibrators were invented. It’s important to note
that doctors did not have the patient’s
sexual pleasure in mind when performing these massages. In fact, many
doctors recommended hurting the patients to
cause more discomfort during these procedures. And it wasn’t until
1980 that hysteria was removed from the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. [TYPING] The clitoris is an incredible
human organ that exists solely to bring the body pleasure. Since the clitoris
is often associated with women’s sexual
pleasure, it has been repeatedly misunderstood,
mythologized, and erased by ignorant male gynecologists. You’ve lost to Clitoris? During the second century,
Roman doctor Claudius Galen made the bold claim that
women’s bodies were inverted, failed versions of men’s
bodies, and that the clitoris was simply the female bodies
failed attempt at a penis. In 1486, the
Malleus Maleficarum, a book about witchcraft,
used to prosecute people during witch hunts,
referred to the clitoris as the devil’s treat. This book cites clitoral
arousal as evidence of dealings with the
devil because the devil was said to suck women’s souls
out through their clitorises. In the 16th century,
four different men claimed to have
discovered the clitoris, each of them coming up with
insulting descriptions for it, including the woman’s shameful
member and a useless part. During the 1820’s
English surgeon Isaac Baker Brown
believed that the clitoris was the source of hysteria. He thought that since
the clitoris was the source of female madness,
it should be physically removed. In 1904, Sigmund Freud
mythologized the clitoris by claiming that upon
reaching puberty, having clitoral orgasms
was a sign of immaturity. Freud also believed that this
immaturity was the chief cause of female hysteria. In 1947, Dr. Charles
Mayo Goss chose to remove the clitoris from
the 25th edition of the Gray’s Anatomy textbook of the human
body for no apparent reason other than erasing
the primary sex organ for people with vaginas. It is only in recent years
that scientists, most of whom are women, unsurprisingly,
have been given the space to accurately
investigate the structure and function of the clitoris. In a groundbreaking
study in 1998, urologist Helen O’Connell
created a throw diagram detailing the 18 distinct
interacting functional parts of the clitoris’ complex
and remarkable structure. [TYPING] The history of
modern gynecology is rooted in the suffering
of black women. It begins with
James Marion Sims– deemed the father
of gynecology who is most well-known for the
nonconsensual experiments he conducted on
enslaved black women. The first patient
he experimented on was an 18-year-old
girl named Lucy. For one hour, Lucy was forced
to stay on her elbows and knees in front of 12 doctors as Sims
performed an excruciatingly painful surgery that resulted in
Lucy developing a serious blood infection. Sims’s primary area of study
was vesicovaginal fistula, a very difficult
complication of childbirth in which a hole develops between
the bladder and the vagina and leads to constant
uncontrollable urinary incontinence after childbirth. Wanting to perfect
his understanding of this condition, Sims
operated on Anarcha, a 17-year-old enslaved
black woman, over 30 times. In the days before
modern anesthesia, Sims repeatedly used enslaved
black women for his experiments in order to perfect his
techniques knowing the amount of pain he inflicted upon them. Once his practice was
moved to a Women’s Hospital in New York where most of his
patients were white women, he regularly used
anesthesia on them. The racist history still affects
gynecological practices today and that black women are
more likely to not have their pain taken seriously. According to the
National Partnership for Women and Families, black
women are three or four times more likely to
experience a pregnancy related death than white women. In 2018, a statue of
Sims in Central Park was taken down
after much protest but was relocated to
Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn where Sims is buried. Within the 20th
century, the emergence of advanced medical
solutions rests on the racism and
misogyny inflicted upon Henrietta Lacks, a
black tobacco farmer born in Virginia in the 1920s. She was diagnosed with cervical
cancer at the age of 30, with she ultimately
died from in 1951. While being treated at
John Hopkins in Baltimore, a doctor took a
piece of her tumor without her
knowledge or consent. He stored her cells in a
lab for further testing, labeling them HeLa cells,
short for Henrietta Lacks. No one knows why, but
Henrietta cells never died. Her cells are still alive today. Her immortal cells were
crucial to the development of a myriad of medical
solutions and are famous within the
scientific community. Some examples of
their accomplishments are the polio vaccine,
cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization,
and they have even been sent into space to see how
cells react to zero gravity. All these experiments were
conducted without the knowledge or consent of the Lacks family. Henrietta’s true name was never
made public until the 1970s. And although there have been
books and movies created about her and even lawsuits
from the Lacks family, her family has never received
financial compensation and still do not own the
rights to her immortal cells. [TYPING] To this day, misconceptions
surrounding gynecology continue to harm people. In November 2019,
rapper TI revealed that he goes to yearly
gynecology appointments with his 18-year-old
daughter Deyjah Harris to check if her hymen
is still intact. Even when told the hymen
could be affected by sports, horseback riding, or any
other rigorous activity, he made it clear that he
knew his daughter does none of these things. His daughter took to Twitter to
like a few tweets calling him out on how he was being
possessive and controlling. On the other hand, TI is aware
of his son’s sexual activity and seems to be fine
with it despite his son being younger than Deyjah. Although many people have
reacted to TI’s story with disgust and disbelief,
virginity testing is actually a procedure
that is taken seriously in many countries. The virginity tests involves
a doctor inserting two fingers into someone’s vagina to check
if their hymen is still intact. In Afghanistan,
many women and girls are sentenced to prison
for failing the tests. And everyday jobs require
passing the virginity test. This patriarchal
understanding of virginity is actually far from
biologically accurate. According to Planned Parenthood,
the breaking of a hymen is anatomically impossible
because hymens never completely cover the virginal opening. While we break down
misconceptions about gynecology and the hymen, it’s important
to recognize that gynecology is very rarely inclusive of
transgender and non-binary people. In the National Transgender
Discrimination survey, 50% of transgender
patients pulled that they had to inform their
doctors about transgender health care. Trans men are often told
they’re in the wrong place when they visit
the gynecologist. This hostility and
lack of inclusivity leads to trans people not
receiving basic health care needs. For example, trans
men are far less likely to receive
lifesaving medical tests, like pap smears and mammograms. Another example of
a contemporary issue with gynecology is
the husband stitch. It’s also known by other
names, like the daddy stitch, the husband’s knot,
and the vaginal tuck. The husband stitch is an
unnecessary extra stitch added during the repair
process after vaginal birth. First, I make a slip,
not too long, careful as to not rip the edges, making
what I call the husband stitch. Doctors perform this
procedure in order to tighten the vagina to
increase sexual pleasure for male partners. Most of the time,
these procedures are conducted without
the knowledge or consent of the person it’s
being performed on. While this atrocious process
supposedly gives more sexual pleasure
to male partners, it causes an array of
painful side effects for people with vaginas. Reported side
effects of the stitch include pain during
sex, pain while peeing, being unable to walk for
a longer period of time than normal after giving birth,
chronic pain and swelling, emotional trauma, infections,
and re-opening of scar tissue. The husband stitch is an
example of birth rape. People often think that
rape can only be committed with a body part like a penis. However, according to
reproductive activist Amity Reed, it can also be
committed with fingers, hands, suction cups, forceps,
needles, and scissors. Birth rape is when doctors or
other medical professionals forcibly use these
tools on their own or through medical procedures
on people giving birth without their
knowledge or consent. The practice of
gynecology emerged from a long and
complicated history with intertwining
themes of racism, misogyny, and inaccuracy. We expose gynecology’s
violent history, not only to inform
people, but also to reveal how
science is influenced by systems of power
and oppression that hurt marginalized genders. Our next project will highlight
the reproductive justice movement as a response
to the injustices we uncovered within gynecology.

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