HAVEN'T THESE GUYS BEEN PAYING attention? Surely anyone who hasn't been on an ice floe since the Clarence Thomas hearings knows that sexual harassment is a power play, perpetrated by bosses on underlings, by professors on students, by more secure colleagues on weaker peers. Men do it to women, women do it (less often) to men, but the powerless don't do it to the person in charge--the one who has told them, say, to strip and bend over. So when a recent study in The New England journal of Medicine found that 77 percent of the women doctors surveyed had been sexually harassed by (almost always male) patients, it didn't make sense. Except to Dr. Susan Phillips of Queen's University in Ontario and psychologist Margaret Schneider of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. "Female doctors are treated primarily as women, not as physicians, by many of their male patients," they write in their NEJM paper. "The vulnerability inherent in their sex...override[s] their power as doctors."
Women in medicine have long been harassed by peers and supervisors. The issue exploded in 1991, when neurosurgeon Frances Conley resigned from Stanford Medical School because, she charged, male colleagues constantly subjected her to everything from "hey hon" to having her disagreements with them put down to premenstrual syndrome. In a 1993 study, 73 percent of female residents reported being sexually harassed, mostly by male physicians. But when it came to patients, harassment was supposed to mean authoritative doctor abusing vulnerable patient.
Phillips and Schneider discovered otherwise. Last May they mailed a survey to 599 of the 1,064 licensed female family physicians in Ontario. More than three quarters of those responding said they had been sexually harassed by a patient. Patients requested genital exams when they had no physical evidence of a problem. Some groped the doctor's breasts. One mailed a sexually explicit letter; others sent G-strings; another requested that his doctor masturbate him for a sperm count. One man, complaining of a rash on his buttocks, jumped off the examining table and leered and thrust his erect penis at the doctor. The most extreme scenes occurred a few times a year, the milder ones monthly. They took place most often in emergency rooms and clinics. But they also happened in doctors' offices and by their own patients.
Physicians contacted by NEWSWEEK agree that "it happens all the time," as urologist Eila Skinner of the University of Southern California puts it. But most downplay its significance, fearing that complaining casts them as victims, as women first and doctors second. The Canadian survey uncovered similar attitudes: 35 percent of the doctors said the incidents made them angry, 26 percent said they were afraid, 10 percent were indifferent and 9 percent were amused. And since harassers were often drunk or senile, doctors assumed attempts to fondle them were unintentional. "We deal with patients who have mental illness, who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs," says chief resident Dr. Gerrie Gardner of Highland General Hospital in Oakland, Calif. "They lose their inhibitions."
But Dr. Hal Strelnick, deputy chairman of family medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, points out that men who are losing their physical or mental faculties often expose themselves to female nurses and doctors: "It's their way of saying, 'I'm a man, I can still have impact'." Or, I'm a man and you're something less: a psychiatry resident at USC who has been propositioned while doing physicals says, "They have to put you down to make you lower than them." To some men, what's underneath a woman's white coat still counts for more than all the medical diplomas hanging on her wall.