Following the recent #metoo campaign, Editor & Founder Vrinda Pendred shares her personal story of sexual assault, autism, and a system that does not care.
The recent #metoo campaign has women all over the world coming forward with their stories of sexual harassment and abuse. The running theme in these stories has been abuse at the hands of men; but this campaign started just days after I hit a dead end in my long search for justice against a female doctor who coerced me to allow a man to violate me. My story is not unique; I know there are many women out there who have gone through something similar, but have been silenced in some way, so the problem perpetuates. This is especially so for women (like me) with diagnoses such as autism, who are easy prey for such silencing, not to mention the depression that can follow. I don’t want that to happen anymore, and that’s why I’ve decided to share my story.
A ‘Pointless Examination’
In October 2015, I visited the local doctor to request a full investigation into severe, crippling cervical pain I had suffered for nearly twenty years. I had visited countless doctors about this problem before, but no one took me seriously – doctors rarely take female patients seriously. Even a female nurse told me, ‘Women just have pain – deal with it.’ Well, I tried, but things got so bad that I regularly found myself unable to move for a half hour or more; medicine didn’t help. I needed a diagnosis, so I could start looking for solutions.
An appointment was made for an ‘internal examination’, before sending me for an ultrasound. Without being informed beforehand, there were two doctors and a nurse present for the examination. One doctor (the one I’d met) was a man and a trainee – something that hadn’t been made clear to me. The senior doctor was a woman, while the nurse was there as a ‘chaperone’.
I told them I had just found out I was pregnant, but I had concerns that my problem would cause complications with delivery – as it had done with my first child. The female doctor invalidated my condition and said she thought the examination was ‘pointless’. However, if I wanted to proceed, it was perfectly safe and there was ‘absolutely no way’ it could harm the baby.
The examination was conducted by the female doctor. It hurt – a LOT – which I later learned was a sign that something was wrong. She shoved a hand inside my body and tugged and pushed around my cervix. I was so relieved when it was over. But when she’d finished and declared that everything seemed normal, she turned to the trainee doctor and said, ‘Okay, your turn.’
Alarmed, I said, ‘What do you mean? We already finished, didn’t we? You have the answer.’ The doctor proceeded to tell me that while that was true (it was even put in writing later that the examination was ‘not medically necessary’), she really needed me to let the other doctor shove his hand up me and yank around my most private, sensitive parts a second time, ‘for his training.’
I said, ‘But I’m in so much pain.’ The female doctor continued to pressure me.
What must be understood is that this was not a normal discussion. This was me lying on my back on an examination table, naked from the waist down, my legs splayed open, everything on display, bright lights in my eyes, with two doctors and a nurse staring down at me. If you had been in my position, what would you have said?
Even just that morning, if you had suggested to me that later that day I would actually give in and say, ‘Okay,’ to that second examination, I would have called you crazy. I might even have been offended. Yet that is exactly what I did.
Why? Because I was terrified.
Something I never told any of the official organisations I complained to afterwards – or the lawyers, or the police, or the one journalist (only local) who bothered to respond to the dozens of enquiry emails I sent to all the newspapers I could think of – is that I was sexually abused on and off for four years, between the ages of three and seven, by the son of a former family ‘friend’. And when I lay on that table in the doctor’s surgery, undressed and hurting, with all those people staring down at me and that woman trying to make me feel like I owed them something, like they had any right to stick their hands up my body, I couldn’t help thinking of one of the only clear memories I have of being molested – of being held down on a bed and forced to ‘perform’ in front of that boy’s step-brother. (Looking back, it’s obvious both boys were subjects of sexual abuse themselves, the only reason I don’t harbour anger at them.)
The point is: I felt like a helpless little girl again, unable to say no or even scream. I gave in and let the trainee doctor violate me. It was even more painful. He looked embarrassed when it was done. When I was dressing, the doctors left but the nurse remained. What makes me angriest is that I also felt that stupid childish guilt and actually mumbled some sort of apology for being difficult. The nurse glanced in the direction the doctors had exited and told me, ‘It’s your body.’ I felt I had an ally. I was wrong.
When I came out, I was shaking. I told my husband, and he wanted to go back to the surgery and punch the doctors. I just wanted to forget it had ever happened. The next day, I felt all my pregnancy symptoms fade. A few days later, I wound up in hospital with a miscarriage. My hospital experience was also shocking. A nurse (another woman) accused me of faking the miscarriage. Later, I learned that if you fumble around with the cervix like those doctors did, you can break the mucus plug that forms in pregnancy and cause an abortion.
As a child, I told no one about the abuse I had suffered. But I was an adult now, and I sought justice – through the surgery, the local hospital, the NHS, the General Medical Council, and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. The doctors’ statements were carefully worded by paid lawyers, while I just had me. Every official body rejected my complaint. Almost exactly on the two-year anniversary of the event, I received the last response I will ever get on this issue. It has been officially decided that:
- It was my choice to proceed with the examination while pregnant and, therefore, if it led to miscarriage, it’s my own fault (regardless of me making that choice based on false information given by the doctor).
- The laws pertaining to informed consent in this country don’t apply to me or my circumstances. (I don’t even believe this is true.)
- Everyone involved conveniently can’t remember me saying I was in pain, or objecting to anything – including the nurse I thought was on my side.
- I apparently had every opportunity to say ‘no’ (while lying half-naked and vulnerable on a table with two doctors and a nurse staring down at me, pressuring me to consent).
- The fact that I did object, and even complained that I was in intense pain, has been overlooked on the grounds that it’s just my word against that of the doctors – and what doctor is going to admit to pressuring the patient? When is there ever ‘proof’ that a rape victim said ‘no’? Does that mean the victim should be ignored?
- There was no ‘physical proof’ that I had been assaulted (when has there ever been proof of such an event?).
Interestingly, the doctor’s surgery have decided to ‘make some changes’ to their consent policies, in light of my complaint (a small victory, I suppose) – yet I’m told this is no indication that they may have made a mistake, and there is no need for anyone to apologise to me for the trauma I continue to suffer.
That two-year fight for justice left me angry, exhausted and disillusioned. I understand why so many women choose not to speak out: even now, in 2017, the system turns it around on you, makes you the enemy, accuses you of trying to damage people’s reputations, says it was your fault, and magnifies the trauma tenfold.
An Inability to Speak
Another point worth making is that I am autistic. And as much as I have learned to ‘fit in’, with age, I still often struggle with communication. My doctors should have seen this on my medical records – records that were requested by every official body I contacted later – and yet no one seemed to think it was relevant.
But it is, because when I feel scared, as I did on that examination table, I shut down. I refer to it as ‘imploding’. I sort of go inside myself and hide deep within, disconnecting myself from all the external stimuli that I just can’t handle in that moment. It’s one more reason why I felt unable to defend myself, that day. Moreover, I should have been classed as a ‘vulnerable patient’. Yet, these protective designations don’t seem to apply to those of us who are lucky enough, or have worked as hard as I have, to ‘appear normal’.
Where’s the Sisterhood?
Sexual assault from men? Of course it happens, far more frequently than anyone likes to admit. But in my case, the only people who showed any sympathy (apart from family and friends) were:
- The male trainee doctor (in his written statement, he expressed his condolences, and said he had decided he needed to go back to medical school for further training)
- The male police officer who told me he sadly had no jurisdiction in the matter, and suggested I start an action group to try to raise awareness of these things, just as his own wife did after she suffered something similar
- The male lawyer who told me he had seen too many cases like mine and every single time, the victim lost and had to fork out thousands in wasted legal fees
- The senior doctor who pressured me into letting them violate my body was a woman.
- The journalist who initially took an interest and then no longer cared was a woman.
- The nurse who seemed to be on my side at the time, but who later claimed she couldn’t remember me objecting or expressing pain, was a woman.
- Every single person who dealt with my complaints was a woman. And I told them all, ‘This is how things like rape have been permitted for so many thousands of years.’ And every one of them answered that with, ‘I understand you’re upset, Mrs Pendred, but there’s nothing we can do.’ When I asked what they, as women, would have done in my situation, they didn’t think that was relevant.
It’s not just men we have to deal with; it’s often other women – women who have been programmed to think women like me are just hysterical or melodramatic – women who somehow think it won’t happen to them. But it could happen to them. It could happen to all of us. And when it does, the law (at least in the UK) does not protect us.
I told a (male) friend that this experience taught me that even though I never think about that childhood abuse anymore, it seems I never got over it. These things never leave you. He said that is a ‘stark realisation’ to have. Yes, it is.
Equally stark is that the reason I never shared that part of my story with all those official organisations was that I believed it would undermine my complaint. I expect they would have suggested my trauma clouded my perception of the situation. But if anything, it made me see more clearly. It made me see that after nearly thirty years, these things still happen; and still, nothing is done about it.
The baby would have been born 20 June 2016. I will be thinking of that unborn child every June for the rest of my life – just as I have thought about that incident of assault each October since it happened. I wonder if it will haunt the medical professionals involved, the way it will always haunt me.
I originally submitted this article to a major international Internet newspaper. They rejected it on the following grounds, which I feel are important to highlight:
- They said they already had enough articles on this subject. The whole point of the #metoo campaign was to raise awareness of just how prevalent these things are, and yet major newspapers have decided they have heard enough, and the public don’t need to know any more. If they’re making such decisions regarding sexual abuse, just think of all the other important stories facing media restrictions.
- They said it was unclear what my problem was – that I seem to be unhappy about an examination I knew I was going to have. Apparently, I didn’t make myself clear enough in my detailed descriptions of lying naked on the examination table, being pressured to have a second examination no one had warned me about, or the resulting trauma. It even seems that my agreement to the first examination means I lost the right to object to the second. I can’t help but think this kind of ‘logic’ is what leads some people to claim it is not possible for a woman to be raped by her husband.
It’s fine to reject the article. However, the reasoning is insulting and, I feel, reinforces my point. Again, women were involved in this decision – women who clearly think it won’t happen to them.
Vrinda Pendred is a graduate of English with Creative Writing at Brunel University. She completed work experience with Random House and proofread for Mandala Publishing. She is married with two children and lives in Hertfordshire, England, where she does freelance editing and proofreading. She is also a writer, and you can learn more about her personal work here.
Vrinda has five neurological conditions: Tourette’s Syndrome, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, ADHD, High-Functioning Autism and bipolar disorder. In 2010, she founded Conditional Publications with the intention of providing a creative outlet for people, and (hopefully) changing a few minds out there about what neurological disorders really are – including not just the limitations, pain or frustration, but also the more positive, beneficial ‘symptoms’ of these strange conditions.
She made three contributions to Conditional Publications’ debut release Check Mates: A Collection of Fiction, Poetry and Artwork about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, by People with OCD. Since then, she has released a novel entitled The Ladder, inspired by her personal struggle with bipolar disorder, as well as a number of short stories, and a YA sci-fi /fantasy series called The Wisdom, all available for purchase from Amazon.