The Morality of Gynecology (a poll).

January 25, 2009    By: Jacob J @ 12:00 pm   Category: Ethics

If you choose the first answer, please use the comments section to tell us how you fill in the blank.


  1. This poll surprised me. It had never even occurred to me that anyone might object to gynecological exams.

    My first reaction was, what about the men!? Our “turn and cough” hernia exams could be consider invasive (although not quite as much as a gynecological exam). If you object to gynecological exams, you will probably object to doctors being present at birth, many types of surgery, as well as emergency room practices. Maybe even changing a baby’s diapers (or other incapacitated people).

    I chose the first answer but I don’t have a succinct answer to fill in the blank. Its not the bodily functions (including reproductive ones) that make our privates private and touching them generally immoral. I think its more the very personal potential for intimacy and pleasure. Since neither person has that intention in a medical exam but they do have the intention of ensuring the woman’s health, I think there is nothing to object to.

    Comment by Robert V. — January 25, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

  2. What on earth inspired this bizarre poll?

    (Let me guess — you had a conversation with some whack-job that took position #2 or position #3 and you wanted to find out if that person was as looney as you suspect…)

    Comment by Geoff J — January 25, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

  3. It is not inherently immoral to touch another person’s private parts. It is generally immoral to do so outside of the proper context; however, gynecology is medicine and is in no way contrary to the law of chastity.

    Now, ask me if I think men should be gynecologists… :D

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — January 25, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

  4. PDOE — Do you think men should be gynecologists if they want?

    Comment by Geoff J — January 25, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

  5. Re: #3,

    Now, ask me if I think men should be gynecologists… :D

    You seem to imply that there are moral reasons (presumably related to the law of chastity) why men should not be gynecologists.

    Even if there are a significant number of men who go into gynecology for morally objectionable reasons (which should not simply be assumed), I have a hard time believing that many of those men, after undergoing the extensive training required to become a gynecologist and being forced to deal with the multitude of medical problems associated with female reproductive organs, would still be able to derive any degree of sexual gratification from the experience.

    Comment by Steve M — January 25, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

  6. Geoff,

    What on earth inspired this bizarre poll?

    You make a great guess, although I should say that I’ve never met a person who took position #3. I don’t want to reveal the full context of the poll, but I’ll say that I am intersted in our moral calculus, and after guessing how people would answer, I became convinced I didn’t know. The original formulation of the poll had more answers and I had filled in the blank in various ways. I decided it would be more intersting to leave it blank and get people’s answers without leading them to the responses I had thought of. Of course, if lots of people vote without filling in the blank, that decision will have backfired, since my main interest is in how people fill in the blank (if they choose #1, that is).

    I am more proud of this poll than any I’ve ever put up.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 25, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

  7. PDOE,

    Thank you for being bold enough to fill in the blank! I am not sure I fully understand your moral calculus yet, however. You say it is a matter of proper context, which is fine, but what defines the proper context? It seems like your statement is that it is generally inappropriate when it is done at an inappropriate time (which strikes me as a bit circular). Is it just that the context is non-sexual? Are other types of non-sexual interactions between disrobed adults okay as well?

    Comment by Jacob J — January 25, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

  8. Should women be urologists?

    Comment by LRC — January 25, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

  9. Raising hand!!!! I know the answer!!!!! 3. I had a roommate at BYU whose Mother told her that getting a gynecological exam meant she was no longer a virgin. Roommate, uh, attempted suicide. Fun times checking her stuff for potentially lethal pills. True story. I never heard this in Church, and have no idea where such thoughts come from, but they’re out there. Folk beliefs of some kind.

    Comment by djinn — January 25, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

  10. Yikes.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 25, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

  11. I voted #1, but it’s not an exact match.

    I agree that there is nothing inherently immoral about touching another’s private parts. Besides gynecologists and urologists, I think of nurses and aides working at skilled nursing centers, someone helping their aged parent bathe and relieve themselves, and (of course) diaper changes.

    I’m not sure about the second part. I suspect I’m on about the same page as Robert V. in his comment #1 above. Rather than “It is generally immoral because….” I think I would say something like “Caution: these body parts can have extremely long-lasting physical, emotional and spiritual consequences. Handle with care.”

    Comment by Ben Pratt — January 25, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

  12. Um. My apologies; I didn’t meant to imply there were any moral reasons men shouldn’t be gynecologists. It’s just that, speaking as a woman (and other women’s milage may well differ), I feel far more comfortable with a woman gynecologist. She has the body and experiences the weirdness. In essence, she’s a native.

    Which is not to say that all women gynecologists are perfect. I don’t like the one at my clinic. I don’t feel like she listens to me and it bothers me that she ignored (and encouraged me to ignore) what my general practitioner said.

    Jacob, I feel a bit caught by definitions here. The proper context is, in my view, the sanctioned relations of a husband and wife. I wasn’t sure what angle you were looking for, though. So I flubbed my wording a bit.

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — January 25, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

  13. In Fight Club Marla asks Tyler to come over because she has a suspicious lump in her breast and wants a second opinion. Whould you feel fine about giving such an exam to a friend given that it is not sexual and is for medical reasons?

    Comment by Jacob J — January 25, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

  14. Ben,

    Is “handle with care” really as far as you’d go in defining the bounds of morality wrt. nudity and touching between non-married people?


    Ah, I understand what you mean by proper context now. So, I guess my question is why a breast exam (or whatever) is “in no way contrary to the law of chastity.” I’m not saying it is, obviously, but what is the fundamental distinction. See my #13 for example.

    In essence, she’s a native.

    I seem to recall a Seinfeld episode where Elaine was put at a disadvantage in having very limited access to “the equipment.”

    Comment by Jacob J — January 25, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

  15. WTF!? Of course it’s ok, people….

    Re: men being OB/GYNs: I naturally thought it was weird at first and only saw female gyn’s. However, someone once mentioned to me that by month nine of a pregnancy, it’s great to have a man who still wants to hear how you’re feeling. ; )

    Upon becoming pregnant, I asked around the ward for good OBs and most of my friends at church recommended this one fellow in particular. So we went with him, and he was a darn good OB.

    (A midwife at his practice ended up checking me out at one point after the birth, and mentioned to us that she really loved their LDS patients and that was all they’d take if she had her druthers. So evidently our ward’s love for this OB/GYN practice was mutual.)

    Comment by mellifera — January 25, 2009 @ 8:21 pm

  16. If you were all 50-year-old men rather than 20 and 30 year olds, you’d be asking this silly question about urologists and proctologists.

    Hopelessly parochial, that’s what y’all are.

    But, I recall two stories related to the topic: one, the husband of a high school classmate refused to let her get within 100 feet of an OB/GYN. I don’t know how he did at delivering their children.

    Two, a friend was doing his OB/GYN residency at a public hospital in Baltimore 20 odd years ago. A young woman in labor came in for her first “pre” natal consultation. As Dr. ____ was putting on his gloves prior to examining her, the boyfriend showed up with a gun, pointed it at the doctor and told him to keep his hands off of her. He did.

    Comment by Mark B. — January 25, 2009 @ 8:41 pm

  17. mellifera,

    Of course it’s ok, people….

    No one is really disputing that. After several comments, I am starting to wonder if anyone has a theory about why it is okay.

    Mark B,

    First, I am the only one asking such a silly question, so my age is probably the only relevant one in your analysis.

    Hopelessly parochial, that’s what y’all are.

    If it suits you better, I am just as interested in your theory about the moral distinctions relative to female urologists and proctologists.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 25, 2009 @ 8:59 pm

  18. “It is generally immoral to [touch another person’s private parts] because them parts was made for sex and thou shalt not arouse nor get aroused by thy neighbor, but since this is not…”

    Jacob J, a similar poll could be asked about Fight Club. “Generally it’s wrong to watch violent movies, but since Fight Club is so awesome….” Oh wait, that’s a different argument.

    Comment by BrianJ — January 25, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

  19. I saw the edited for TV version of Fight Club this month and that was too violent for my tastes.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 25, 2009 @ 11:22 pm

  20. Geoff, read the book then, it is awesomely awesome as well, but without the visuals. Honestly, the violence in Fight Club is pretty incidental to its greatness.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 26, 2009 @ 12:45 am

  21. The Taliban and other extremist Islamist groups have very strong ideas about this sort of thing – to the point that they violently prevent women from working in hospitals or going to hospitals to see male doctors.

    Doctors do have to be very careful about how they interact with their patients, what they say to their patients, etc. Medical visits and issues and information are all very sensitive and it’s easy for problems to arise if doctors aren’t professional and ethical. I imagine many patients can cause problems as well.

    Comment by danithew — January 26, 2009 @ 6:09 am

  22. True story:

    Setting: CPR class, Mesa, Arizona.

    Instructor is giving instructions. You open the victim’s shirt, locate the collarbone, go two fingers up from it, put the butt of your hand, other hand on top . . .

    Mesa R.M. in the class (NOT me!) raises his hand, and asks, perfectly seriously,

    “But what if it’s a lady?”

    Instructor gives him a withering look, shakes head, and continues.

    Yeah, buddy. If it’s a lady, I guess we just let her DIE.

    Comment by Kaimi — January 26, 2009 @ 8:26 am

  23. Kaimi, that’s awesome.

    Comment by sister blah 2 — January 26, 2009 @ 9:16 am

  24. Because it’s not whether you touch the junk, it’s how you touch it and why you touch it.

    Sexuality is more complicated than a plug and a light socket.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 26, 2009 @ 10:06 am

  25. locate the collarbone, go two fingers up from it, put the butt of your hand, other hand on top

    Following those instructions to their logical conclusion, I have to agree that subjecting a lady to such treatment would be highly inappropriate. For that matter, I rather value my larynx too.

    Comment by Last Lemming — January 26, 2009 @ 10:28 am

  26. Kaimi (22): I hope the instructor didn’t teach you to perform CPR two fingers up from the collarbone! Gaargh!

    Jacob (14): The word “extremely” should actually be a 200-foot-tall flashing neon sign with a 350kW sound system. When I say handle with care, I don’t mean it in the same way one should handle one’s safety razor with care. I mean it rather in the same way a bioengineer should handle a sample of Ebola with care. One better really know what one is doing.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — January 26, 2009 @ 10:31 am

  27. I guess I kinda view this as a former First-Responder. There honestly does come a point where the body isn’t sexual any more and becomes (in my mind) like an automobile. Having to perform CPR on someone, or going through the training with both men and women in the class and having lots of “hands-on” training, I guess for me, that sort of stuff became much different than the way I viewed the female body.

    It’s like the scene in the Abyss, where Lindsey Brigman, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (thank you IMDB) gets rescued from drowning when they are swimming back to the ship, and they have to perform CPR. They ripped her shirt off, but in no way did I personally consider that a sexual scene. That’s reality. That’s what happens if someone is having CPR performed on them.

    So I don’t see anything wrong with having a male OB/GYN, if he is the most qualified and best for the job. If a female is more qualified and better, I’d take her (I guess I’d take her for my wife, but you get the gist).

    Comment by brandt — January 26, 2009 @ 10:38 am

  28. Geoff J: the “edited for TV version of Fight Club” was the trailer, right?

    Comment by BrianJ — January 26, 2009 @ 11:08 am

  29. This is a joke, probably related to media depictions of horny guys wanting to go into gynecology. Trust me, after seeing diseased vaginas all day, any sexual or immoral thoughts are the furthest thing from your mind.

    Comment by SCW — January 26, 2009 @ 11:08 am

  30. SCW,

    Are you a gynecologist? I might have some follow-up questions. On a related note, don’t healthy and attractive people ever need a breast exam?

    Comment by Jacob J — January 26, 2009 @ 11:15 am

  31. #30–Dr. Rey, AKA “Dr. 90210” is LDS. That’s all he does all day is examine and touch breasts of attractive women. Or maybe they only feature the supermodel type ones on the TV show. Tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — January 26, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

  32. I think the main reason this is even a question is because most people don’t see the body parts of the opposite sex in any environment that isn’t sexual (thanks American media!). I’m all for not stigmatizing the human body.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — January 26, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

  33. Okay, so I see a theory coalescing which goes something like this:

    1. The moral danger is that this type of contact can in many situations cause sexual thoughts for a man touching a woman (obviously women don’t have sexual thoughts, so we are okay in the reverse situation).
    2. Medical exams are an exception to this general rule because:
    ….a. An OB/GYN is conditioned/trained to view the body a-sexually (brandt, #27).
    ….b. Diseases vaginas don’t excite sexual thoughts (SCW, #29).

    Follow up to 2a., since we (non-doctor types) are conditioned to view the body sexually, any contact, even if it should be innocent, has the danger of exciting sexual thoughts (Kent, #32).

    Cynthia L raises an interesting counter example of a doctor who’s job it is to handle attractive women and make sure that when he’s done they are *more* sexually attractive than before. Do we have extraordinary faith in the clean mind and self control of Dr. Rey or is the “tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it” line actually a vote for answer #2 in the poll?

    Comment by Jacob J — January 26, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

  34. #13: I wouldn’t be fine giving such an exam to a friend not for chastity reasons but for the simple fact that I’m not a doctor. I don’t have the training to give her any kind of answer. I’d offer to take her to the doctor.

    As to the men-as-gynecologists debate, I’m not saying men can’t be good at it. My personal feelings are that women’s bodies are women’s business, that’s all.

    I think the urologist comparison LRC (#8) made is a related point, but it doesn’t fit. Women and men have need of a urologist. Men have no need of a gynecologist.

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — January 26, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

  35. Jacob: (obviously women don’t have sexual thoughts, so we are okay in the reverse situation).

    Huh? Who said that?

    I gotta say, this entire conversation/thread has me scratching my head. What are you fishing for here?

    Comment by Geoff J — January 26, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

  36. #24– Well said Matt W. Do we need to say anything more?

    Comment by kristen j — January 26, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

  37. Geoff,

    Huh? Who said that?

    Just a bit of stereotype-based humor there, nothing to be alarmed about. Several people made comments about proctologists and “turn and cough” comparisons. The idea that men and women are turned on by the same things is pretty obviously absurd, which is why I choose the example I did. Perhaps that comment was too glib for you.

    …has me scratching my head

    As to what I am fishing for, I am being very candid about it. No trick, just interested in the moral reasoning being employed, as I said. Is the question actually so outlandish that you can’t even understand why it could be worth asking? It is one thing to say that it is morally fine. It is a harder thing to tease out the reasons why it is okay in the context of the puritanical attitudes that prevail in our church culture. Doing so is an exercise in separating what is fundamentally immoral from what is simply a hedge around immorality. One thing I am particularly interested in is whether people arrive at their view via ethical reasoning vs. by some other way (e.g. societal norms). One way to test this is to ask people to offer their reasons on something they don’t get asked about every day and then see what reasons they give.

    The poll has been overwhelmingly lopsided in favor of choice #1, with a relatively few participants willing to hazard a definition of the relevant distinction. One reason might be that it the reasons are so obvious they can’t bring themselves to waste time articulating them. A different reason might be that although we are all very sure it is morally fine, our belief to that effect is based on something other than moral reasoning (I have a theory that this is almost always the case on moral issues, which I may post on at some point).

    I recognize that by asking the question I may appear to be suggesting there is something wrong with gynecology. Similarly, by answering, some people may feel that answering such a “silly question” legitimizes it in some sense. I’ve tried to mitigate that by being clear that no one is doubting that it is morally acceptable.

    Now, given that answer #1 is winning by so much, permit me to make a defense of answer #2. I have tried hard to think of scenarios in which it is viewed to be morally acceptable to be undressed around members of the opposite sex (leave aside touching for a moment). The examples I can think of are already mentioned on this thread. They all involve some specific and pressing need–medical emergency or incapacitated or whatever. I can’t think of any others that are accepted. Would it be acceptable to hike to a hot spring with another couple and soak in a state of undress? Would co-ed bathrooms (ala Ally McBeal) be acceptable (if you ask me, there is hardly anything more a-sexual than a bathroom)?

    I can’t think of any time we think it is okay apart from some pressing need. That to me is a clear indication that we view it as inherently problematic to be around a member of the opposite sex in a state of undress (at least for someone raised in our culture). If that’s the case, then the real reason we accept gynecology is that it serves the greater good despite some moral hazards it could on occasion present. If it is really the ‘no big deal’ that everyone is saying, why do we treat it as such a huge deal in any other circumstance where there is not an overriding concern forcing our hand?

    Comment by Jacob J — January 26, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

  38. There are lots of places and cultures in the world where it is “morally acceptable to be undressed around members of the opposite sex”. Americans, in many instances are prudes.

    Comment by LRC — January 26, 2009 @ 8:55 pm

  39. Is the question actually so outlandish that you can’t even understand why it could be worth asking?


    One reason might be that it the reasons are so obvious they can’t bring themselves to waste time articulating them.

    Yeah, that’s how I’m interpreting it. Your poll sounds like a trick question to me.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 26, 2009 @ 9:42 pm

  40. Would it be acceptable to hike to a hot spring with another couple and soak in a state of undress?

    Depends on who you ask. If you ask a stripper he or she would probably readily say yes. The average American (or world citizen for that matter) would be less comfortable with it. It sounds to me like this is largely a variation on the old modesty discussion that gets beaten to death at the female-dominated blogs.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 26, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

  41. If that’s the case, then the real reason we accept gynecology is that it serves the greater good despite some moral hazards it could on occasion present. If it is really the ‘no big deal’ that everyone is saying, why do we treat it as such a huge deal in any other circumstance where there is not an overriding concern forcing our hand?

    I don’t think that explains my (#18), SCW’s (#29), nor Matt’s (#24) reasoning at all. “The greater good” argument requires that gynecology be arousing for one or both participants, but both agree to look past the arousal—or put up with it—for the greater good. Our arguments (sorry to lump you in with me, guys) are that the act of gynecology is not arousing for anyone involved, so there is no comparison of greater/lesser good to be made.

    There is the flip-side to this of course. That is that women typically feel uncomfortable at the doctor’s office, and doctors (as SCW points out) typically have to do things they don’t really enjoy doing. Thus, if there is any “greater good” measurement here, it’s that both parties are doing something they detest for the greater good—and not what you suggest (which is that one of them is really enjoying himself, but it’s not a sin because it’s the greater good).

    Comment by BrianJ — January 26, 2009 @ 10:23 pm

  42. Geoff, It really isn’t a trick. I have seen lots of discussions of modesty, but rarely constructed with the purpose of getting at the underlying ethical theory behind our position. But, I can see I’ve brought out surly Geoff. I’d be glad to close the thread if you are annoyed.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 26, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

  43. I can’t answer the poll. It’s a doctor’s exam. It’s not immoral. Debating the debating of other forms “touching” isn’t an issue when discussing an exam, so shouldn’t appear in one of the choices.

    Comment by Trevor — January 26, 2009 @ 11:16 pm

  44. Pay no attention to the surly Geoff in the corner.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 26, 2009 @ 11:44 pm

  45. BrianJ,

    Very good. I agree with your comment almost entirely. If we have come to a general agreement that being aroused by another person is the fundamental thing we are trying to avoid and the rest is a tall hedge, then that is something. The only thing I’d point out is that the greater good argument does not assume that it is routinely a problem, but that it could be. That is, you’re position requires that it is never the cause of sexual thoughts while the greater good argument may be trying to account for something infrequent. I will admit, that I am amazed at the level to which we trust that our doctors have developed an iron-clad compartment in their brains. We do not seem to be so believing (generally) of people from other cultures who say that nudity is non-sexual for them (like those referred to in #38). Instead you will often see people marshalling statistics in an attempt to show that these “enlightened” countries are fooling themselves. I find that discontinuity interesting.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 27, 2009 @ 2:02 am