Sexism & Chronic Illness

In the 19th century, doctors were likely to write off most symptoms women suffered as hysteria, “exaggerated emotion or excitement.” Less has changed from those days than you might think. Sexism of our society still profoundly influences how women with chronic illness are treated by their doctors and their friends, family, and colleagues.  

My Experience

Christmas Eve of 2012 I went to the emergency in excruciating pain. I was no stranger to kidney stones and knew without a doubt that my pain was due to the worst kidney stone I had ever had to date. Because I have severe daily chronic pain, I am very good at hiding the amount of pain I am in from others. It comes naturally now to hide how much pain I am in, which causes problems with doctors taking me seriously.

At the hospital, I told the doctor that I was sure I had a kidney stone, but she didn’t believe me. “I have had giant male linebackers in here with kidney stones. They were curled up in the fetal position bawling. There is no way you are in enough pain to have a kidney stone.” She went on to imply that I shouldn’t have come to the emergency room and that I was overreacting. Unsurprisingly, my test results proved her very wrong; I had a large kidney stone that warranted surgery. I received no apology.

Even this female doctor had the sexist idea that large men must have had a higher tolerance than I did. I had to insist on further testing because my pain wasn’t taken seriously. If my doctor had her way I would have gone home without any treatment or tests.

It wasn’t the first time and it wasn’t the last that my symptoms weren’t taken seriously due solely to my gender. Unfortunately, this sexism doesn’t just come from male medical professionals. This sexism is so ingrained in our medical system that it comes from most doctors no matter their gender.

Support Systems

Everyone, from doctors to co workers are less likely to take women’s symptoms seriously. Therefore, women are less likely to get support in any and all forms through their illness. This sexism affects women’s ability to build a support system through their chronic illness. This is a dire problem, as having a support system through chronic illness is vital and sometimes is the only thing that keeps people with chronic illnesses alive.

The sexism behind this lack of support is quite simple.  When men get sick, everyone assumes that all their symptoms are real. Men are seen as stoic, strong, and tough so if they are showing signs of pain, the pain must be legitimate. Women are seen as sensitive, weak, and dramatic so if they are showing signs of pain, they must be overreacting and not be in that much pain.

These attitudes are common throughout our entire society and usually affect the people who would make up the support system for women with chronic illness. However, when these people think that women’s symptoms aren’t real and that they are just overreacting their ability to be supportive is diminished. Disabled women without a support system are also more vulnerable to abuse.

Employers often have these attitudes ingrained in them as well. This can make it more difficult for women to get reasonable accommodations for their illnesses, keep them from being hired, or even get them fired.

As a result of these attitudes, women end up having their very real pain and symptoms invalidated everywhere they turn- their doctors, boss, coworkers, family, and friends. These experiences can be dehumanizing, alienating, and can result in even worsened health due to stress.

Sexism and Research

There are many conditions that are more likely to affect people who are born female. These illnesses generally receive less research, funding, and attention than those that affect primarily men or both men and women.

For example, autoimmune disorders, which affect far more women than men are studied far less than conditions that affect men. Many autoimmune disorders, which can be life altering and even deadly, have few to no treatments. Alternatively, erectile dysfunction has multiple treatments. Erectile dysfunction does not negatively affect quality of life as severely as autoimmune disorders do and erectile dysfunction is certainly not life threatening.

This is a great example of the research gap as it shows that men’s ability to have sex was prioritized over women’s lives. Women deserve the same opportunities for health that men do.

Additionally, studies of illness are skewed to study how male- bodied people are affected, but how the illness affects female- bodied people is often understudied. Many times this research gap means that treatments aren’t as effective in female-bodied people as they were in the male-bodied people that were studied. This means that the research gap is sometimes literally deadly to women.

There are many problems with the medical health system, but how sexism affects women’s health is one problem that has sinister consequences. Women can die from neglect due to a doctor not taking their symptoms seriously. Women can also suffer preventable deaths caused by depending on a treatment that wasn’t studied properly in female- bodied people. It is also more difficult for women to get support through their chronic illness due to this sexism. When this support fails them, they are more vulnerable to abuse. Navigating the medical system and living with a chronic illness is hard enough without the added difficulty of sexism.

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