Editor’s Note: An upcoming article will discuss common challenges that trans and gender non-conforming people who are assigned females often face around going to the gynecologist.
To some, going to the gynecologist (aka gyno) for the first time may be scary. But the truth is, it’s one of the first steps that women and folks with vaginas take toward adulthood — maybe like getting your period or buying your first bra.
Unfortunately, in our society, we’ve been conditioned to see our vaginas as something shameful, only to be talked about when “appropriate” — such as during childbirth.
This perpetuation of silence and shame is what creates the unnecessary fear that evolves around going to the gyno.
In fact, a survey done of 79 women between the ages of 18 and 71 showed that two-thirds of them felt anxious or uncomfortable when going to a gynecological exam. In a world in which (up until recently) insurance providers covered Viagra more often than birth control, this shame is understandable.
However, in order to take responsibility for our health, we must move beyond the shame stigma and surrounding our vaginas and reproductive organs and be as open and informed as possible.
To help you do that, we wanted to share with you what to expect at a typical visit to the gyno. That way, you can be as informed and empowered as possible about your reproductive health (as you should be!).
The Waiting Room
The waiting room is actually pretty straightforward like any other time you visit the doctor’s. The receptionists will typically hand you a bunch of forms to fill out.
There may be some questions that make you feel uncomfortable. So just go slowly and answer carefully and honestly.
You will be asked to record the number of sexual partners that you have had (if any) as well as the number of times that you normally have sexual intercourse and the date of your last period.
Please be honest! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had friends tell me that they lied about the number of sexual partners they’d had (whether zero or 100) because they felt ashamed or embarrassed to admit it.
This is an example of the internalization of the virgin/whore dichotomy that’s been presented to us since birth — no partners, you’re a prude; more than two, you’re a slut. The doctor’s job is not to judge, and we need to stop judging ourselves as well.
“But it’s none of their business!” you may say. Actually, as the primary medical caregivers of your sexual health it is their business. It also helps them best determine which exams or STI tests are necessary based on your personal experience.
Remember getting tested for a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) is not a value judgement on you (i.e. don’t listen to the virgin/whore complex). Getting tested means you’re taking responsibility for your health and being concerned about the health of any past, present, and future sexual partners. And if you think there’s no way you can have a STI even though you’re having sex, get proof to show you’re right – just in case you’re wrong.
The Exam Room
Uh-oh, the dreaded exam room with all its scary instruments of death ready to jump out and bite you! (Cue the music from JAWS.)
This is the part most people fear the most about the Gyno Experience. One of the best cures for this is to just be honest with your nurses and doctors. If you tell them it is your first time, they are often very understanding and will go out of their way to make you feel comfortable.
If you are nervous about talking to a doctor that you are meeting for the first time, here’s what to expect:
- A nurse will bring you back and take your measurements, just like at a standard doctor’s office. That means height and weight and blood pressure.
- After the basics have been covered, you will be left in the room by yourself to change into the typical doctor’s office paper gown. You will be asked to remove all clothing, including your underwear.
- After you’ve changed, the doctor will knock on your door, come in and introduce themself.
- They will ask you a series of questions based on the paperwork you filled out in the waiting room. If you are sexually active, they will ask you about contraceptive use and about your periods – if they are regular, when your last one was, and how long they typically last. They will ask if you want to have any STI or HIV testing along with your exam.
Again, although it may be uncomfortable to talk about it, this is not the place to be embarrassed about your sexual history and skimp on the number of partners you’ve had or to not tell about the times that you didn’t use a condom. It’s completely confidential.
After you have answered all the questions, the doctor then will begin to examine your body.
The Breast Exam
You will be asked to lay back and they will check your breasts and under your armpits for any lumps. This may feel weird because someone is touching your breast.
But remember that breasts aren’t solely sexual parts of your body. Society has trained us to see our breasts as serving only a sexual function (that’s why so many people are uncomfortable with public breastfeeding). But just like lips have multiple functions (kissing and eating), breasts can also be non-sexual and just be—well—breasts.
And with breast cancer being the second leading cause of cancer in women, it’s super important that you learn how to check yourself for potential tumors.
If you aren’t doing breast self-exams regularly, they can show you how. They will ask if you have any discomfort when they do this or if you have experienced any discharge coming from your nipples.
Your doctor will then press gently on several areas of your lower stomach to ask if you have any discomfort before the pelvic exam.
The Pelvic Exam
Even though the instruments look scary, it typically doesn’t hurt (though it may be physically uncomfortable) to undergo a pelvic exam unless you have a vaginal infection, which makes your vagina feel tender.
There will be two ways that they examine your vagina:
- The first way is by using the “speculum.” This is basically a contraption that allows doctors to look inside your vagina. They lube it up and carefully insert it into you before opening it up slightly. You will feel some pressure but if you relax, it will be a lot more comfortable.
- If you asked to receive any tests, they will insert what look like long Q-tips into your vagina at this point to swab your cervix. It feels a little bit like a tickling sensation.
After they remove the speculum, they will conduct a manual exam. The doctor will apply lubricant to gloved fingers and insert them into your vagina. They will press upward gently while the other hand is on your abdomen to see if there are any abnormalities.
After this is done, they will ask if you have any other questions, and that’s it! You’re all done. You should get the results of any tests in the mail.
You Made It!
Making it through your first gynecologist appointment is definitely an important step in taking control of your body and your health.
If you still feel nervous, I would recommend talking to another friend or family member who has been through it who can help alleviate some of your anxiety. And remember, being able to speak openly and frankly with your gyno is key to establishing a trusting relationship between you and your doctor.
And most importantly, it helps you establish control over your reproductive health and sexual well-being!
For Survivors of Sexual Violence
Going to the gynecologist can not just be uncomfortable, but also traumatic for some survivors of sexual violence. While many survivors aren’t triggered by the pelvic exam, some are — and it’s a legitimate concern.
And if it’s your first time, you may not know how you’ll react. Here are some additional tips to consider in order to navigate this visit.
- Ask to specifically see a female or male doctor (depending on who you’re comfortable with). You do not need to explain why and the receptionist will usually not ask why either. And even if they do, you don’t need to tell them if you don’t want to. That’s your choice.
- Tell your doctor you’re not sure how you will react to the pelvic exam and that you may react badly. You don’t have to explain that you’re survivor unless you feel comfortable sharing that.
- Know the doctor may ask questions to screen for potential abuse. It’s completely your choice to disclose or not.
- Ask for a hand-held mirror so you can see what the doctor is during the exam.
- Make sure the sheet covering the lower half of your body isn’t blocking the doctor’s head.
Remember that you are not the first survivor the doctor has seen. Because of the nature of their work, their patients probably share the fact they were violated with them more often than with other doctors. Like other doctors, gynecologists are often trained to be sensitive to abuse and given their work, to be especially sensitive to sexual trauma.
But even if they’re not, remember that you have the right to a safe environment where you control what happens to you during the exam.
If the doctor or office won’t respect your wishes, you can always switch to another doctor. It’s not fair and it’s more inconvenient, but you deserve to have your wishes respected and feel comfortable during the exam.
Shannon Ridgway is from the great flyover state of South Dakota (the one with the monument of presidential heads). In her free time, Shannon enjoys reading, writing, jamming out to ’80s music and Zumba, and she will go to great lengths to find the perfect enchilada. Follow her on Twitter@sridgway1980.
Amy Shaw is a recent graduate from Washington College where she studied International Studies and History and is currently working in Missoula Montana. Amy loves spending time outside, listening to music, and trying new vegetarian recipes.