[Content Note: Transvaginal Ultrasound, Graphic Description of Rape, Medical Abuse, IVF, Swearing]
When I was sixteen, I had cysts on my ovaries.
We didn't know what they were when it happened, of course. Mom, bless her heart, was always one of those women who never seemed to have any trouble with her lady bits -- she didn't even get cramps during her periods. And for awhile, it seemed like maybe I would take after her, since I didn't really get cramps much either. But when I was sixteen, a sharp stabbing pain in my abdomen left me gasping for breath in the middle of a hot summer church revival meeting, and the next thing I remember was my father speeding to the hospital, with me writhing in pain on the back seat.
I remember that detail, because that was when the police car pulled us over and gave us a ticket. Dad didn't think it'd do any good to argue, so he took the ticket, said goodbye, and drove the speed limit the rest of the way to the emergency room. And then, because emergency rooms are expensive and because we weren't nearly as rich as you are, Rick Perry, we waited in the parking lot to see if it -- whatever it was -- would pass.
After awhile, I thought that it had. I was able to sit up weakly and take a little water. I remember the pain, not so much because I'm good remembering pain but because I still get cysts on my ovaries. I know what it feels like, and now I know I'm not dying. When I was younger, feeling them for the first time, I wasn't so sure.
Our doctor -- the one we scheduled to see later that week when he could work us in, rather than going in the emergency room -- decided I needed to go to the nearby affiliated hospital and get an ultrasound.
I knew what an ultrasound was. Mom had one when I was inside her, just like on the television. They put the cold blue gel on your stomach and spread it around to see babies. I didn't really understand why they wanted to give me an ultrasound since I wasn't pregnant, but we didn't argue with doctors. The doctor told us to show up at 9 in the morning, insurance card in hand, and having drunk 64 ounces of water at least an hour beforehand.
Now, my mother has a bladder the size of a lentil bean. Mine is only marginally bigger -- I can hold my soda, but I can't hold water for more than a few minutes. We were concerned about this requirement to drink so much water, and asked if I couldn't drink the water maybe when I showed up for the appointment? The doctor was insistent; one hour beforehand.
When we showed up at 8:30 in the morning, I was busting at the seams. We waited in the hospital waiting room; I fidgeted uncomfortably. The clock ticked and tocked and 9 am came and went with no relief. I squirmed. By 9:15, I was in a bad way; by 9:30, I ran to the restroom and very nearly avoided wetting myself before I was safely on the toilet. I simply hadn't been able to hold it.
I wasn't even out of the restroom before they called my name.
The ultrasound technician was a woman. That's all I can remember -- white, black, young, old, fat, skinny, I don't remember. It was dimly lit in the room, and she was angry at me for going to the bathroom. She insisted she wouldn't be able to get a good image without my having a full bladder; my mother pleaded with her to let me drink some water right there and then. She finally agreed.
I remember lying on the table. I was surprised that she hadn't exposed my tummy -- weren't we going to do an ultrasound? -- and then, with no warning whatsoever, she grabbed a hard plastic wand that looked as thick as my arm and shoved it up into my vagina.
In my mind, I can hear me howling with pain, but I can't remember if I really howled out loud or if I just whimpered. I must have said or done something, because I remember the technician giving me a surprised look and asking if I was a virgin. I nodded. I think I hissed yes. I think I sounded angry, but I just felt trapped and frightened. She gave me another funny look, but went back to rooting around inside me. I froze up and I don't think I said or did anything after that.
The next thing I remember was standing in the brightly-lit patient bathroom, scrubbing blood off my legs. I remember the lights. I remember my clothes on the floor, the clothes I was supposed to change into so I could leave, but instead I was scrubbing blood away.
No one ever asked me my sexual history. I was 16 years old. My doctor had been our family doctor since I was 8. The technician hadn't spoken a word to me about what she was going to do, or how it would feel. No one ever spoke to me about it afterward, either. The doctor told me I had cysts on my ovaries, and that they would fall off and go away forever. No medication was offered. No counseling. No advice that the cysts might be a recurring problem.
I've had transvaginal ultrasounds since then. I had probably half a dozen or more when I went through my two IVF treatments last year -- IVF treatments I went through willingly while my husband and I were trying to conceive a child. Because I am an adult, and because I speak articulately, and because I am white, and because I have the money and the privilege to "go elsewhere" for what was deemed a non-medically-necessary service, and because the IVF doctors and nurses involved were genuinely wonderful people, I was treated with the utmost kindness and respect. The technicians gently inserted the probe each time: "Are you ready? Here we go." "This might hurt a bit." "A little hardness here." "You're doing great, just a little more imaging to go."
Transvaginal ultrasounds can be medically necessary. They can be relatively painless. They can be administered by a trained and compassionate technician who can ease the unpleasantness of the experience.
They can also be rape.
Forcing a medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasound on a woman who wants an abortion and who is "consenting" to the procedure under duress -- If you don't want a baby, you have to let us stick this probe in your vagina! -- is rape. Saying that consented to transvaginal ultrasounds are not rape does not change the fact that unconsented to transvaginal ultrasounds are rape.
Consent is precisely and essentially what makes rape rape. If I willingly and freely consent to my own penetration, it is not rape. If the law compels me to submit to penetration in order to receive a medical service I deem medically necessary, then I am being penetrated without my consent. I am being raped by my lawmakers.
Men who don't see themselves endangered by these "informed consent" laws like to pretend to the public that nothing traumatizing can happen in a neat, sterile hospital room. Technicians are always gentle, doctors are always compassionate, and the entirety of the medical industry is focused around the health care of the patient and her emotional well-being.
Women like me, who have to live in the real world, know that this isn't always the case. Humans are fallible and cultural assumptions and social prejudices aren't left at the hospital entrance. A woman ultrasound technician brutalized me at sixteen with a hard plastic probe; I was a virgin. A woman nurse told me at eighteen that it was "my fault for sleeping around" when she brought me the test results that said I had HPV lesions; my first serious boyfriend had held me down and raped me. I was lucky: he merely gave me the most common sexually transmitted disease in America, a disease that could give me cervical cancer. If I'd been unlucky and he'd gotten me pregnant... well, we already know that you'd have me raped a second time before you let me get my life back.
Not surprisingly, I'm a little bitter about that.
I know there are good doctors and nurses out there; this post isn't about them. This post is directed at every lawmaker, newsperson, blogger, or commenter out there who insists that the world we live in is one where every patient will be treated kindly and gently by the medical profession. This post is here to say that a young, pretty, white, wealthy, educated, virginal, Christian, ridiculously privileged woman has experienced multiple layers of prejudice from medical professionals, people who had absorbed cultural slut-shaming attitudes. I had every possible thing in my favor, and I was still treated badly, to the point where the memories -- years after the fact -- cause me tremendous pain.
This post is directed specifically at you, my governor Rick Perry, to whom I would like to say:
Keep your laws out of my goddamned vagina. Thank you very fucking much.
I live in Texas. I've been raped once in my life by an ultrasound technician. I don't want to repeat the experience.
Note: Comments advocating rape laws directed at men (i.e., "prostate exams for viagra prescriptions") will be deleted. This blog does not condone the state-sponsored rape of any person, regardless of their gender.