“Because women are more likely to share more of their emotions when communicating their experience of pain, doctors may view their pain reports as more psychologically based. They view them a little suspiciously,” said Diane Hoffmann, a professor of health-care law at the University of Maryland and a coauthor of the study.
Women have long been viewed as excessively emotional. Take, for example, the origins of “hysteria”—a word we now associate with emotional excess and coming unhinged. In the fifth century BC, Hippocrates, the Greek physician often called the Father of Medicine, coined the term to refer to a disease contracted exclusively by women in which, disoriented from a lack of sex, the uterus would detach and move freely around the body. This common malady would bring on anxiety, convulsions, and the illusion of being suffocated: intense physical distress that mostly manifested itself inside a woman’s head. While the definition of hysteria evolved over time—hysterical neurosis was removed from the DSM-III in 1980—the word “hysterical” is still often associated with women. As is the word “hypochondriac.” Nineteenth- and early 20th-century literature is rife with swooning women, suffering from dramatic fainting spells for no apparent reason.
Women, more so than men, have to prove there is something wrong with their bodies. Without tangible evidence, women fear proving the stereotypes right—of appearing weak, excessively dramatic. When she was abused by Nassar, Jennifer Rood-Bedford, a former MSU volleyball player, remembers thinking that she didn’t want to seem childish. She said she’d lay there on his table, wondering, “Is this okay? This doesn’t seem right.” She told herself, “Don’t be a baby.”
It’s not just that female patients aren’t trusted enough—but also that doctors play a special, godlike role in society, and are trusted too much. “From the time we are little, we are taught to trust doctors,” Aly Raisman, a gold medalist on the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, wrote in a recent statement directed to Nassar. Professional and Division I athletes, in particular, depend on doctors for their livelihoods. Raisman said she felt guilty for thinking badly of someone in his position. “I wouldn’t allow myself to believe the problem was you.”
As MSU students reported the Nassar abuse, their pain was questioned at multiple levels: first, by the administrators they confided in, and second, by the Title IX investigators deployed to ensure the situation had been handled correctly. It wasn’t until the first allegations against Nassar became public in the summer of 2016 that the university fired him. While a few administrators who knew about the abuse have been suspended or asked to resign, many, including Simon, have yet to face any official repercussions from Michigan State.
When the 98 victims gathered at the sentencing hearing last week, they created a powerful antidote to the gaslighting so many of them have experienced. Both in the courtroom and on social media, the women recognized the depth of each other’s pain. After decades of being made to feel like they were crazy, together, they made it clear they’d known exactly what they were talking about all along.