feminism · public humiliation

On Surviving Public Humiliation

Recently I went to a guest lecture by an Internal Medicine Doctor that promised to examine the latest treatments, remedies and aids for cancer.

I situated myself on the inside of the second or third row and expected a long evening of power points but instead I got a personal dose of public humiliation.

The doctor took the stage and proceeded to lament lifestyle choices that lead everyone to cancer and searching for an audience scapegoat, let his eyes land on the young blonde student on the inside of the third row.

He left the stage, walked to where I was seated and proceeded to critique everything about my health from my nail beds, to the fold of flesh on my abdomen, to my thighs, my tongue and the circles under my eyes until he had rendered me a walking cesspool of disease without my consent.

Now, I would not hold myself up as exemplary, but I ran 4 years of varsity cross country, eat my vegetables and try and grab a good night of sleep here and there so I have been doing a lot of thinking of why he chose me. There were plenty of gentlemen my age and health level in the audience, fitting the description I am sure he was looking for. Why did he feel that a female fulfilled his agenda more sufficiently than a male audience member?

As he left me to return to the stage, I sat there with a burning face trying to decide what was the best reaction to something like this: was leaving the lecture a weaker decision than staying in my seat? By staying, was I supporting his actions?

I chose to remain in my seat, burning with indignation. I have a sister who has struggled with a life threatening eating disorder for the past decade and have watched many friends deal with the same insecurities, so WHY is it considered admissible for a male doctor to publicly pick apart a young female in a crowded room in front of complete strangers in the name of science? In a presentation where a simple power point example would have been sufficient, I was left wondering how some of my feminist heroes would have responded (including my mother, who I am sure would have given this doctor the finger shaking of his life.)

I step off my soapbox for the moment to ask you, Reader, how would you have reacted?

10 thoughts on “On Surviving Public Humiliation

  1. I'm horrified! I would also have stayed and waited it out, but I'd certainly be doing something about it afterward–like writing a VERY strongly worded letter to the doctor in question and to the people who engaged him to do the talk. His behaviour was beyond unacceptable, and I hate to think that he's done it before and might do it again. This was not a comedy show. You had not given your tacit consent to potentially being the target of his schtick. I'm so mad! Kudos to you for being graceful about it–but is graceful just a gender-coded term for “behaving appropriately for a woman”?


  2. This is absolutely horrific! I probably would have run out crying. And I agree with Melissa that I likely would have written to the doctor and to the venue or committee that brought him in to speak. Ugh, I'm disgusted. Even if someone in his audience did somehow “exemplify” the points he was trying to make, he still would have had absolutely NO right to comment on their bodies in that public space without their consent.


  3. Not only did he essentially engage in a physical examination of you, without your consent, but he also betrayed your privacy. If your family doctor, for instance, was to read out the details of your most recent examination to a waiting room full of patients, that would be a major breach of trust. How is this any different? Indeed, it's worse, given that you didn't consent to the examination in the first instance.
    Without a doubt he chose you because you are a young women and he is most likely accustomed to viewing women as objects, rather than humans. He possibly also chose you because he does this regularly and has learned from experience that women are less likely to protest what he is doing because of the way that we are trained to be polite.
    I would have probably reacted the same as you, shock and anger can be equally paralyzing as motivating.
    Had I eaten my wheaties, I might have taken an opportunity in the question period to ask him why he thought it appropriate to do what he did. But I would have framed that in part around the fact that pointing to lifestyle roots of cancer obscures the much more obvious causes of cancer: namely the toxins and hormone-mimickers that are almost unavoidable in our society.


  4. I agree very strongly with Liza. And I probably would have maintained my cool, as you did, while formulating an embarrassingly (for him) lucid question for him during the question period. I have learned to refuse to become emotional in the face of these types of situations because in reacting impulsively you reduce yourself; however, a cutting question usually does the trick. I would also recommend writing a letter to the appropriate authorities.


  5. I am appalled, Jessica. Appalled. I imagine I would have done just what you did: inner turmoil and rage, and outer composure. I hope everyone will go read the Jezebel article that Liz references–so very, very true.

    And I hope that you will write a letter to the organizing committee.


  6. What a great Jezebel article! Thanks for sharing, Liz. (It certainly helps me feel better about my decision).

    I love Melissa's question on whether or not graceful is just a gender-coded word for behaving properly as a woman. This doctor took advantage of a situation where he was in power and I was an observer and truthfully, as outspoken as I want to be when this happens to me, I froze this time and I will freeze the next time. I am not a confrontational person, despite my opinions on feminism and misogyny.

    To your point, Aimee, I am an avid letter writer (See freezing issues above). Those comebacks that you think of in the middle of the night? I wrote them down, reworked them into a respectfully scathing letter and have sent it on it's way.

    Thank you for your opinions everyone. And if it helps, someone asked him an exposing question during Q & A that questioned his “examination” tactics. If only it had been me…


  7. I wouldn't have been able to remain silent, *I think*. I really don't know, though. And I'm not attaching any normative claim to whether one ought to respond. There are so many factors. A student will be far less willing to take on the public scorn than a professor (because standing up for oneself in this context wouldn't be “nice” or “collegial). But I imagine that even tenure track or tenured professors may react similarly. The prospect of the social cost and harm of standing up for oneself in this situation is quite high. Even a biting question in question period would probably get one labelled a bitch. Fucking double binds: you're weak for not reacting, but a bitch for reacting…can't win.

    I'm sorry you had to go through that. It's truly horrible. It's definitely been eye opening when I'm at conferences and I get ganged up on, ignored, or talked over merely for being female. The first few times, I was a little incredulous: is this really happening? Yeah, it's happening…wtf? Why isn't anyone stepping in?

    I think this is the way we should think about these: it's not the duty of the person being attacked to respond; rather, it's the duty of anyone observing with power to step in. In my most recent instance, my PhD supervisor was present while I was being talked over halfway through my question, and I looked at him with an unhappy face. He didn't pick up on what was happening at all. I found myself sitting back patiently, but my tone changed: “Uhh, I wasn't done. Actually, I was trying to say….” Asserting myself probably brought a little scorn on myself…

    Session chairs should be better attuned to these things, and be willing and able to step in. (Of course, the people doing the harassing are the most culpable.)


  8. Thanks for the article link. It was helpful. I have a few further reflections on silence:

    1) sometimes it is necessary because of the people involved–some of us are not powerful enough to speak out because to do so would have really devastating consequences for our careers or lives; other times the situation is too painful and/or confusing for words and anything said will make it worse.
    2) sometimes people do horribly embarrassing things because they want attention and to react would be to give them what they want, which then may make the situation worse.
    3) To speak out or to react emotionally may mean losing face. I, personally, am a fan of quiet dignity, but I do recognize that it can be misread as (or can far too easily become) passivity.

    It is a fine line we walk, and frankly I think I need some new shoes.


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