Content Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual abuse which may be upsetting to some readers. If you or a loved one is concerned that behavior by a gynecologist may not have been appropriate, contact our experienced and compassionate California victims’ rights attorneys for a free and confidential consultation today.
Recent headlines about University of Southern California student health center gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall draw attention to allegations that he inappropriately touched and sexually assaulted hundreds of young female college students.
These students saw Dr. Tyndall for treatment at the medical center on the Los Angeles, California private university campus. Since the allegations came to light earlier this year, nearly 400 women have made similar claims of sexual abuse against him.
More than 20 of these women have filed civil lawsuits against Dr. George Tyndall and USC in California courts.
This infuriating case of systemic sexual abuse underscores the importance of knowing what to expect during a routine gynecological visit. Survivors of sexual misconduct are never to blame for the wrongs committed against them. Understanding what should and should not happen during an appointment with an OB/GYN can help women identify when behavior by a gynecologist, nurse, or other medical professional crosses the line.
What is a Gynecologist?
A gynecologist is a doctor who specializes in the health of the female reproductive system (the vagina, uterus, and ovaries) and the breasts. A gynecologist who also treats pregnant women (the practice of “Obstetrics”) may be referred to as an “OB/GYN.” This type of doctor may also be referred to informally as a “gyno.”
What Happens at a Routine Gynecologist Appointment?
During a routine gynecologist appointment, the doctor will gather information about the patient’s health and perform tests which are either recommended by medical associations based on the patient’s age and symptoms or are requested by the patient. The doctor may prescribe medication and make recommendations about birth control, safe sex, and other health matters.
Gathering Information During an OB/GYN Exam
At the beginning of the appointment, the gynecologist will ask the patient about her menstrual cycle and date of her most recent period, sexual activity and any new sexual partners, and birth control methods (if applicable). The gynecologist may ask a nurse or physician’s assistant to help in gathering this basic information. In addition, the gynecologist will ask about any health concerns, including pain or other symptoms. This information should be gathered in a professional, clinical manner so as to provide the patient with effective and targeted treatment.
Types of Routine Gynecological Tests
The tests performed during a visit to a gynecologist will vary based on the patient’s age, sexual activity and history, and any specific health concerns. During tests which require the gynecologist to make physical contact with the patient, the doctor should wear a sterile pair of latex or nitrile gloves.
A gynecologist may also perform a manual breast exam to check for lumps, masses, or any abnormal tissue. This test is typically very quick and involves gently pressing on and examining the breast tissue using the fingers and hands. During this time, the doctor may ask whether the patient performs monthly self-breast exams, which are recommended for early breast cancer detection.
The gynecologist may also perform a test known as a Pap smear (which is shorthand for “Papanicolaou” smear or test). This test screens for abnormal cell growth on the cervix, which may be a sign of cervical cancer.
A test for Human Papillomavirus (or “HPV”) may be performed simultaneously if the woman requests it, shows symptoms of HPV, or is sexually active and over a certain age.
During this test, the woman will lie on her back on the examination table and place her feet in stirrups. The gynecologist will use a tool called a “speculum” to open the vagina wide enough for insertion of a swab to gently scrape cells from the patient’s cervix.
Depending on the age and any specific health concerns of the patient, the gynecologist may perform a pelvic exam. During the exam, the doctor may use a speculum to aid in the performance of a manual examination of the vagina and cervix.
The doctor will insert one or two gloved fingers from one hand inside the patient’s vagina and firmly press on her abdomen using the other hand.
The purpose of this exam is to determine whether there are any potential issues with the patient’s vagina, uterus, and other reproductive organs. This test helps the doctor detect any abnormalities or potential signs of cancer.
What Should NOT Happen During a Gynecologist Exam?
Gynecologists receive training on how to perform an appropriate exam. Such an exam should never include any sexually provocative remarks, flirtation, or sexual contact with the patient.
Here are some behaviors that may indicate the gynecologist has violated medical and ethical standards, and potentially committed sexual assault:
- Being alone with the patient while she is undressed. Although it is ultimately up to the gynecologist’s judgment and availability of other office staff members, most gynecologists choose not be alone in the room with an undressed patient to avoid making her feel uncomfortable. Depending on availability, a nurse or physician’s assistant may be present during the types of exams discussed above, unless the patient specifically requests to speak to the doctor privately.
- Make prolonged contact with sensitive areas or engage in sexual activity. Unless a specific cause for concern is identified during a breast exam, Pap smear, or vaginal exam, the doctor should not make prolonged contact with the patient’s breasts or vagina. Sexual activity between a gynecologist is never appropriate and likely violates civil and criminal law.
- Make inappropriate sexual innuendo or flirtatious comments. During a routine exam, a gynecologist may make remarks such as “your breast tissue seems healthy” or “no cause for concern” after your pelvic exam. Any further remarks (such as “your breasts are really perky” or “you have an amazing body”) are not appropriate.
- Taking pictures of your breasts, genitals, or naked body. Photos of patients during routine gynecological exams are almost never necessary. If any unusual symptoms are noticed, the doctor should note this in the patient’s medical file and follow up with appropriate tests. Absent any serious health conditions with visible physical symptoms, a gynecologist should never photograph a patient’s breasts, genitals, or naked body.
The relationship between a woman and her gynecologist is vital to her overall health. If a gynecologist’s conduct crosses the line into sexual harassment or abuse, victims may be able to pursue justice against that doctor in California state or federal court.
GJELL’s California Lawyers Represent Sexual Assault Survivors
If you believe that Dr. George Tyndall or another gynecologist has engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct, sexual assault, or rape during an exam, you may have legal recourse against the abuser and his or her employer.
Sexual Abuse on College Campuses