The term “pelvic exam” is a bit misleading. A woman who didn’t know better might think it meant having her pelvic bones examined. Imagine her shock when she discovered that the doctor did not want to see or touch her pelvic bones at all, and instead headed straight for her vagina. But to name the exam in a more accurate and descriptive way would be leading people down a path they are not supposed to go.
Naming the exam a “pelvic” exam leads people down an appropriate but rather deceptive path, and also accomplishes a number of different goals. One goal is to allow everyone to safely ignore the fact that the vagina is being examined at all. The doctor or nurse will not have to say to a woman, “I will need you take your cloths off and spread your legs now so I can look at/in your vagina”. Instead, the doctor or nurse can simply say “let’s get you ready for your pelvic exam”.
Another goal is to medicalize what is being examined. Examining the vagina can be a bit dodgy after all. Vaginas can be viewed as secretive, suspicious and dark places. They can also hold the power to captivate, enthrall, incite, tempt and seduce. To even say the word out loud can take courage for some. The term “pelvic exam” sounds much more sterile and scientific than the term “vaginal exam”, and is much more suitable to a medical environment.
Medicalizing the exam also accomplishes the goal of desexualizing the exam. A woman’s vagina magically becomes . . . something else. I’m not exactly sure how it happens, but suddenly it becomes acceptable to put a woman’s vagina on display for public viewing. And it is okay to look at it . . . in a ‘nonsexual’ way. For example, when a pubescent boy is found watching an educational YouTube video of a birth or a pelvic exam, the boy can safely say “no, it’s not porn, it’s okay to watch”.
Ignoring the sexual nature of the exam also helps some medical students and instructors in teaching hospitals to convince themselves that it is acceptable to practice the exam on anesthetized women without the women’s knowledge or consent. It helps to allow the exam practice to be viewed as something other than medically sanctioned gang rape. Desexualizing the exam also lessens the effects of convictions when doctors are caught doing something “naughty” while conducting the exams. Imagine if the headlines read something like: “Doctor So and So convicted of sexual assault when examining a woman’s vagina”. This headline sounds a bit redundant, since examining a woman’s vagina sounds a little like sexual assault just on it’s own. Instead, the headlines usually say something like: “Doctor So and So convicted of sexual assault while conducting a pelvic exam”. This headline sounds less redundant and also less severe.
I am in favor of changing the name from “pelvic” exam to the more accurate and descriptive name of “vaginal” exam. This might help to give the exam more recognition for the effects it can have on women, for the effects it can have on men, and for the effects it can have on pubescent boys.