Sexual Harassment in Medical Education (#MeToo)

Right now, I am at Esalen, in recovery in the wake of the death of my mother. Although grief can be consuming and the deathbed vigil with my mother was intense, I couldn’t ignore the #MeToo stories that were erupting in the news during this journey with my mother. So let me take a moment to add my two cents to the swell of outcries rising from women who are finding their voice. I know my mother would be proud of me for saying, “#MeToo.”

Picture This

“Suck me good, Lissa. Suck me hard, Lissa. Oh yeah. Right there. That’s the spot.”

I sucked good and hard with my suction catheter, careful to keep the tip of the sterile surgical instrument right at the site of the bleeding vessel, even though I was positioned behind two male medical students who actually got to hold the Metzenbaum scissors and the Bovie electro-cautery device and perform real surgical techniques. For eight weeks, I sucked good and hard while the men operated. For eight weeks, my attending, the general surgeon who was responsible for my education during the surgery rotation of my third year in medical school, grabbed my surgical scrub-covered butt and kept “accidentally” brushing his hand against my breasts. Every day, as we washed our hands for the prescribed length of time before donning our surgical gowns, he’d ask me, “You ready to suck me good again, Lissa? Can you suck me better than yesterday?” I dared not give him the satisfaction of letting him see the hot tears of humiliation and fury that I blinked away.

To tolerate the blatant and public sexual harassment, I had to start imagining that his mouth was a giant asshole, fart, fart, farting away. If I actually listened to what he was saying, I would grow hot with rage under the blazing surgical lights. But if I just imagined his mouth as this anus blowing poo-scented flatus, I could suck him good, suck him hard for another twelve hours straight during a Whipple procedure without letting on that he was getting under my skin and needling my heart.

Usually, the surgical resident performed the surgery and one of the male medical students on my rotation would “first assist.” Sometimes the harassing attending would even let the male medical students perform on their own a simple surgery, like an appendectomy, with the resident first assisting. But I didn’t get to operate. Always, it was my job to just hold the suction catheter to the surgical site while Dr. Flatus humiliated me. One of the other medical students looked sympathetically at me, hugging me with his eyes. But most of them just ignored me, as if standing up for me or showing any compassion would diminish their chances of getting ahead or being granted entry to the “Good Ol’ Boys” club that would earn them permission to perform real surgery. Not only was I routinely harassed by my teachers; I was thrown under the bus by most of my male peers, who looked the other way and kept on cutting and sewing.

It Wasn’t Just Me

When I started teaching female doctors in the Whole Health Medicine Institute, one of the first questions we would ask these doctors (99% of those who apply are women) was, “How did you sell out your body in order to become a doctor?” The repetitive stories of harassment, self-abuse, tolerance of sexual abuse and silence about rape shocked my team. The nods and expressions of “#MeToo” resounded like a chant. One OB/GYN was repetitively raped in a call room in her own hospital when she carried a pager to help other rape victims in the emergency room. While she did rape kits on her patients, she never asked to have one done on herself, and she never told anyone until she told us. The flood of tears shed by us all could have filled Lake Tahoe during the California drought. We cried not just for ourselves and each other. We cried for womankind, for every woman who has ever been violated in her vulnerability.

Selling Out the Feminine Soul in Medicine

As female doctors, we all thought we were alone, yet not one of us, especially those in the surgical specialties, had survived our medical training unscathed by sexual harassment. It wasn’t just our bodies we had sold out. It was our feminine souls. My 79-year-old mentor Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, who was the only female in her medical school class at Cornell, describes what she gave up to become a doctor with gut-wrenching eloquence:

The first assignment of my internship training was in one of the most difficult places in the hospital for a neophyte to be, the pediatric emergency room. As a woman, I had expected this. One of my first patients was a 16-month-old toddler who drowned in his bathtub in the few minutes that his mother went to answer a knock at the door. We worked over him for hours but could not bring him back. Shaken, I accompanied the senior resident to tell the parents their little son was dead. They put their arms around each other and began to sob. I was so new at this that I too had tears on my face. Afterward, the senior resident told me that I had behaved very unprofessionally. “These people were counting on our strength and you let them down” he told me. Three years later when I myself was a senior resident almost the identical thing happened, This time I was in charge of the failed code. Taking the interne with me I went to tell the parents their baby was dead. They too broke down sobbing. After a few minutes the father looked up at me, standing silent and strong in my white coat with the shaken interne by my side, “I am so sorry doctor,” he said “I’ll get hold of myself in a minute.” It had only taken three years to become the sort of person that a grieving father feels the need to apologize to for weeping when his infant daughter dies. I had become a “real” doctor.

The more I denied and repressed the feminine side of my nature, the more wounded and less than whole I became, the more I was rewarded by my colleagues and my profession. At one point, an attending physician told me that he had not wanted to work with me. “But I was wrong,” he said. “Working with you is just like working with a man.” I took this remark as the highest praise and was thrilled by it. I actually treasured this incident for years before I realized what it really meant. I had not even noticed what had been happening to me or how wounded I had become. I did not realize I had let go of a vital part of myself and my identity.

I never asked Rachel if she is one of those #MeToo women. Given that she became a doctor at a time when she was told by her superiors that she could only be a pediatrician or an OB/GYN, that any other kind of specialty was reserved only for men, I would be surprised if she wasn’t.

Why Didn’t I Speak Up?

Years later, after many more years of sexual harassment at the hands and voices of several more attending physicians who were responsible for my education, I finally left the hospital, quitting my job as an OB/GYN physician for good in 2007, not just because of the sexual harassment but because, like Rachel, the feminine in me—my emotions, my compassion, my nurturing, my vulnerable female body—had been so deeply diminished by twenty years in the hospital that I was suicidal. My suicidal depression had been what Charles Eisenstein calls “a mutiny of the soul.” Leaving the hospital was an act of reclaiming the feminine in my own heart. As Rachel said, “My soul had come back for me and took me by the handle that was sticking out and led me home to myself.” It has taken me many years of therapy and spiritual practice in order to heal. I am grateful every day for my healing, but I am still sometimes haunted by why I stayed silent.

Why did I not report Dr. Flatus to the medical school dean, if not for myself, then for every other female medical student who would surely have to suck him good, suck him hard after me? Why did I not say anything about the internal medicine doctor who promised me an A if I slept with him or the plastic surgery chief who thought he was doing me a favor by offering me a free boob job “because I noticed that the breast fairy wasn’t very generous with you?” (In case you’re curious, I declined the offer, much to the disappointment of my then-husband.) Why did I not voice my outrage when surgeons leered at beautiful nude patients who were under anesthesia on the operating table and threw off casual comments like “Man, what I would do to get me a piece of that prime meat?”

Why did the mostly female nurses not turn them in either? Why did we not join hands, stand together on behalf of ourselves and the patients who were being energetically raped by those they entrusted their bodies to, and scream, “STOP!?” Why did none of the women (or men) in Dr. Flatus’s operating room report him when he was harassing me? Were we all so afraid of losing our jobs/getting kicked out of medical school/facing conflict that we sold out our integrity by staying silent? Or was everyone just as frozen as I was?

I have had masked gunmen hold guns to my head, so I know what it feels like to be forced to do something you don’t want to do as a way to save your own life. But nobody in medical school ever put a gun to my head to make me suck them good, suck them hard. Why did I let this happen? Why did I keep quiet? How many other female medical students kept quiet? I could easily fall into shaming myself for staying silent, but our culture already has enough victim-blaming and shaming. We don’t need to torment ourselves when what we most need is healing, retribution, a massive shift in consciousness, and the restoration of respect for the Sacred Feminine.

Own Your Side of the Street

It’s far too easy to judge and shame women who stay silent in the face of sexual harassment, molestation, and rape, making up stories that cast these women as weak and cowardly, hardly worthy of our respect or support. Because I did nothing to stand up for myself as a young medical student and resident, you could condemn me as so grade-obsessed or conflict-avoidant that I chose to keep quiet just so I could graduate second in my class—and you might be partially accurate in your assessment of my younger self, just as it’s probably partially true that some of these actresses took hush money from Harvey Weinstein so they could keep their acting gigs, make names for themselves, and fund their plastic surgery. Yes, ambition, greed, and conflict-avoidance can interfere with truth-telling, especially in a culture that tends to destroy the reputations of women who dare to say #MeToo.

And yes, if you’ve been conditioned—as most women have—to have loose boundaries, to prioritize being “easygoing” and smoothing things over rather than fiercely defending your right to have your body respected, you might be vulnerable to what Robert Augustus Masters calls “neurotic tolerance.” If you’re caught up in scarcity mentality, you might be silenced by your fear that you will lose your job and miss the opportunity to be promoted or get the gig. (News Flash: You might.)

You also might be silenced by your fear that you will be labeled with some pejorative term usually reserved for whistle-blowing women who speak up (“bitch,” “ball-buster”) or even worse, a woman who had it coming (“slut,” “gold digger,” “whore”).

Yes, you can get therapy to clean up your side of the street, to challenge your ambition and your people-pleasing, conflict-avoidant conditioning. You can learn to set and enforce boundaries, to get your priorities straight, and to learn to say HELL NO to your abuser and to those who can prosecute your abuser. But that’s only half of the story of what actually happens to women who are sexually harassed or molested.

Fight, Flight, or Freeze

We know that when we feel threatened, emotionally or physically, the physiological stress response (the activation of the survival-based sympathetic nervous system) causes us to fight, flee, or freeze. Perhaps if you’re a big strong man, it best benefits your survival to fight or flee. But if you’re physically small and vulnerable, as many women and children are, playing dead—literally and metaphorically—may have kept us safer for millennia. I know that in my own personal experience and the experience of 50-90% of victims of sexual abuse, when I felt threatened, the freeze response wins.

When Dr. Flatus was shouting lewd comments at me in the operating room, I froze. When a friend of mine was molested by a well-regarded shaman she thought she could trust, she froze. The freeze response activates so much paralysis, shame, self-blame, and a tendency to hide that to even tell a trusted friend or therapist feels nearly impossible. It’s egregiously unfair to think that it’s even possible to speak up and say #MeToo if you’re paralyzed in a freeze response. So curb any tendency you might have to think that women who stay silent are weak. I do not consider myself weak or disempowered, but even when I was telling my very raw story in The Anatomy of a Calling—which the publisher I had been working with did not want to publish—the scene about the sexual harassment in medical school got cut by my editor “because it might disturb people too much.” (If you’re curious to see the original, I’ll attach it at the end of this blog.)

It doesn’t help to beat ourselves up when we’re silent, as many actresses who stayed silent are doing right now regarding the Harvey Weinstein accusations. It doesn’t help to blame or shame those who hadn’t come forth before, whether they’re the female or male victims or the men and women who stood by and tolerated the violations. What does help is when we dare to poke holes in our trauma bubbles, curl up together in nests of sisterhood and brotherhood, tell our stories and cry together, so we can heal enough to make changes, not just in our personal journeys, but in our sick culture. Sometimes all it takes is one woman—or one man—who has done enough healing work to move beyond the freeze response, someone who uses her scalpel to slice a hole in her trauma bubble and admits, “This happened to me.” Then the rest of us can sigh in relief as we cry, “#MeToo,” which also heals the original truth-teller, showing her she is not alone.

We Must Not Use Sexual Harassment Accusations as a Weapon

I know this is a touchy subject. It’s not only triggering to women, most of whom have been on the receiving end of sexual harassment, molestation, or rape. We also must acknowledge that it pushes a painful nerve in many innocent men, because some men of the utmost integrity have been traumatized by women who have used false accusations of sexual harassment or rape as weapons of manipulation and revenge, especially during contentious divorces, when women accuse their husbands of sexual molestation of the children in order to get more money or win custody, or during employment disputes, when women may falsely accuse an employer of sexual harassment in order to profit from a broken contract. Such false accusations can destroy a man’s reputation, rack up legal bills, lead to loss of wages, result in firing from a job or being ostracized from one’s social circle, and result in the trauma of being unjustly separated from one’s children.

One of my guy friends was recently accused in a public way of sexually abusing a woman who he engaged in consensual sex with as they explored some BDSM edges (with consent, according to his version of the story). She went public to call him out as a sexual abuser, and he felt incredibly vulnerable and helpless. It left him wondering how a man is supposed to seduce a woman these days. If he gets up the nerve to make a move on a woman—and she doesn’t reciprocate his attraction—is she going to call the media and claim he sexually harassed her?

He’s not naïve to the power dynamics that really separate most sexual harassment situations from your everyday “guy hits on girl” scenarios. But it did leave him feeling very vulnerable, as I imagine many men feel right now. He was able to reach out to his former lover, have a truthful conversation, and find resolution. She withdrew her accusation. But not all false accusations end up this way.

If we really expect to be able to stop saying #MeToo, we need our healthy, strong, conscious men to be allies. If we keep using false accusations of sexual abuse as a weapon, we damage the trust that needs to be gently and ethically cultivated between men and women. If we keep falsely accusing men, we run the risk of being the girl who cried wolf. We become too easy to dismiss, too easy to write off as yet another whining woman who isn’t getting her way. This just makes men angry at women, thus fostering the rage and desire for dominance that can result in more sexual and emotional violence against women. And so we go—on and on in the cycles of trauma we have perpetrated upon each other for millennia now.

Men are also traumatized by other men who violate women. So many beautiful men I know don’t trust men any more than they trust the women who use false accusations or exaggeration as a weapon. They perceive them as violent, aggressive, beer-guzzling, vulnerability-shaming brutes who might attack them if they don’t “join the club” of locker room talk and ritualized disrespect of women. This leads to loneliness, isolation, depression, and illness in men too. Ethical men also may find themselves walking on eggshells in their efforts to respect women. One guy I dated, who grew up in a Latin culture, was horrified when he moved to the United States and was repetitively shamed by women for doing things that would have been gestures of affection and intimacy in his culture—like touching a woman’s thigh when he talks to her or kissing her on the cheek. This is such a touchy subject—and so many of us are at the mercy of this trauma—that we are losing what we most need, awareness of our Interbeing, our interconnectivity, our interdependency, and our need for safety, nurturing, love and intimacy.

Why Do Men Harass?

We can’t examine this issue without addressing the elephant in the room and calling out the million dollar question—Why do men harass? Yes, it’s true that women also perpetrate sexual harassment, but it is FAR less common. So what are we doing to our men to make them abuse their power in this way? What is sick in our culture that has normalized sexual harassment to such a great degree that the most powerful man in America brags about being a perpetrator of this criminal behavior? I find myself thinking about the Bill Cosbys and the Donald Trumps and the Kevin Spaceys and the Harvey Weinsteins and asking, “What happened to you to make you this way?” I wonder, “What’s it like to be you?” I have a hard time tapping into that place of compassion and empathy, so I have to dig deep in order to feel what it might feel like to need to dominate through my sexuality. How powerless did these men have to feel as little boys in order to grow up dominating? What were their fathers like? Who taught them to behave this way? How did we as a culture perpetrate this behavior on these once innocent beings? How did they get corrupted in this way? How must we as a culture change so adult men do not grow up abusing their power in this way? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I am curious.

Now Is the Time

This is not a women’s rights issue or a men’s rights issue. This is a human rights issue. Men and women need to come together on this. We need to be willing to examine and be humble and curious about whatever makes us think this is acceptable behavior. How can we expect to have healthy bodies, good mental health, nourishing, intimate community, and a sustainable planet when we live in a sick culture that tolerates and perpetrates the violation of women? How can we justify electing a President who openly admitted to molesting women? Politics aside, moving beyond any polarizing beliefs you may have about Donald Trump or the other presidential candidates, we all have to face up to the reality that this country elected a man who openly bragged that he can do whatever he wants with a woman’s body.

I don’t mean to shame anyone. I really don’t. I see this not as a personal wound but a collective one, one that harms us all. But I don’t want to use some spiritual bypass to neurotically tolerate what is simply not ethical. We need a serious wake-up call right now.

Donald Trump said—and I quote—“I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything… Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” What has happened to us that 50% of the people in what is allegedly the most powerful country in the world chose to tolerate a man who brags about sexually molesting women? Obviously, we are all frozen with the trauma of how prevalent these kinds of violations are. We have become numb to the horror of this.

My favorite sign in the Oakland Women’s March was held by an elderly woman—“Do we still have to protest this shit?” Yes. Obviously, we still have to protest this shit. Because #MeToo.

I know we’ve been talking about this at least since the 1960s—and it feels like things are worse than ever, but maybe it’s just because we’re in the death throes of this trauma and that which has been hidden is now coming to the surface, like a boil, for healing. Most likely, it’s been there all along, festering in the shadows, and now it’s front page news every day. We can no longer ignore this issue. It is right in our faces now, and for this, we can be grateful for our President. If nothing else, he has so deeply triggered many who have been silent until now that all the small puddles of activism are coalescing into a tsunami of public awareness. For this, we can hold the paradox of our anger at those who perpetrate this trauma and our gratitude that they are triggering us to the point that we can change this—NOW.

I am grateful that the Anita Hills and the Bill Cosby truth-tellers and the stars who claim they were harassed by Harvey Weinstein and those who may have been molested by Kevin Spacey are finding courage in each others courage, standing tall together to speak out. Yes, we must take responsibility for our own personal part in allowing ourselves to be victimized. We must move beyond our victim stories to step into our empowerment. We must rally together to make a collective statement and set collective boundaries—men and women together. I also have to add—we must let the courts determine who is guilty and who is not. We are supposedly still innocent until proven guilty in this country. Let us not stoop to “justice by social media and CNN.” Remember, sometimes there really is fake news.

How do we handle this? The honest answer is “I don’t know.” It’s a mess, and we have a lot of truth and reconciliation ahead of us. Perhaps men need to step into their roles as Sacred Masculine protectors, to stand up to protect the vulnerable and get help STAT if they can’t control their impulses to dominate, control, succumb to their lust, and overpower. (I highly recommend both men and women read Robert Augustus Masters new book To Be A Man.) Perhaps women need to get help healing their traumas so they can find their voice and get help, while also resisting any urge to use false accusations of sexual harassment or abuse as weapons against innocent men. Men and women both need to do what we must to find the courage to heal. (I recommend that both women and men read the classic The Courage To Heal. Although this book specifically applies to women who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, it equally applies to anyone—female or male—who has frozen in response to sexual trauma. One in three women and one in six men are a victim of sexual assault. This is an epidemic, and if we don’t heal our wounds, we will continue to become perpetrators.)

Nobody rises until we all rise. We need truth and reconciliation NOW. May we come together in our hearts in order to heal, transform, and uplift the consciousness of ourselves, each other, and our culture.

Honoring the Sacred Feminine and the men who support Her,


Excerpt From the Original Draft of The Anatomy of a Calling

“Suck me, good, Lissa,” he sneered. “Suck me hard, Lissa.” I sucked good and hard, trying to think about the Bahamas, while the slurping, squeaking suction of blood and gristle and fat pumped out of the body and into the clear plastic tubing before depositing itself into the big red-topped container in the corner of the operating room.

Everyone knew Dr. Flatus was a pig. We heard stories about him long before we started our general surgery rotation, but I didn’t know he would be constantly asking me to suck him good, suck him hard. My father never told me how much I would have to sacrifice to become a doctor. I knew it would take long hours of study, hundreds of thousands of dollars of school debt, sleepless nights of caring for others when no one was caring for me. These sacrifices came as no surprise. But I didn’t know I would have to suck up my self-respect and bow to the teachers who treated me like gum on their shoe.

Dr. Flatus was the senior attending, my general surgery professor. I was the medical student. He wore the long white coat, while I wore the short white one that secured my lowly place in the hospital. He would be responsible for my grade in surgery.
The first time he said it, “Suck me good, Lissa. Suck me hard, Lissa,” I felt hot tears falling beneath my mask, so I focused on my task, holding the suction right next to the scalpel, keeping the surgical field clean and dry while he leered at me and nudged my knee with his under the table. My hands were sterilely gloved and covered with blood, so I couldn’t wipe the tears or blow the stinging mucous from my nose. Instead, I licked it with my tongue as it ran into my mouth, knowing it would be hours until I could sneak into a call room, blow my nose, wipe my eyes, and put a Band-Aid on my feminine vulnerability.

Once I licked my face as clean as I could reach under the privacy of my surgical mask, I tried to distract myself, to avoid more tears. Every time Dr. Flatus said, “Suck me good, Lissa,” I imagined that his mouth was a giant asshole and every word was a wet, smelly, asparagus-flavored fart, fart-farting fat ones instead of words. His mouth made it easy to do so, with its round, wrinkly O and dark, hairy mustache of pubic hair-like texture. I used that technique for 6 more years, through dozens more Dr. Flatuses. It served me well.

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