Lady Parts

12.09.135:45 AM ET

Are Male Gynecologists Creepy?

It’s just work (that involves looking at vaginas all day). But gender bias is altering the specialty’s landscape—as patients flock to female doctors who are taking over women’s health.

BuzzFeed set some hearts aflutter, and made a few shudder, when it published photos of the man it deemed “the hottest gynecologist ever.” While some commenters swooned, others seemed disturbed by it all—“it” being the hot doc’s hotness, and, frankly, his gender. The fact that a doctor specializing in women’s health care was essentially turned into an international sex object raised an increasingly debated question: Are male gynecologists weird? More specifically, in this day and age, are they downright creepy?

Asked just that question, 28-year-old Pamela answered with a resounding “yes.” She said she’s never been treated by one and never would. The mere thought makes her uncomfortable, she added. That sentiment was echoed by Tiffany, who is in her 30s and said in an email, “My OB-GYN is a woman—all of mine have been, and that’s by design. I do think male OB-GYNs are a bit creepy.”

Malia, 32, was a bit more mixed. “I worked as a receptionist for three male OB-GYNs,” she laughed. “There was no creepy factor with them.” Even so, she would not want a male gynecologist treating her: “I just feel more comfortable with a female.” It was a common refrain in conversations and emails exchanged with women of various ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

That discomfort is helping to alter the landscape of women’s health.

“Younger women do not want to go to a man in his 50s and 60s,” said Rebecca C. Brightman, clinical instructor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine. When women get into their 40s and 50s, she said, many begin to rethink what they want in a women’s health provider. Those who may have felt comfortable seeing a male doctor during their childbearing years may not feel comfortable talking to a man about their struggles with menopause. Women may wish to find a doctor who relates to them better, and today there are more female doctors to choose from than ever.

Male doctors were once the norm. But over the last two decades, women have flooded the medical profession; in 2003, female applicants outnumbered male applicants at U.S. medical schools for the first time. The trend is even more pronounced among women’s health specialties. “There has been a significant gender shift in OB-GYN over the past two decades. In 1990, 22.4 percent of all OB-GYNs were women. In 2010, nearly 49 percent were women,” Jeanne Conry, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said in an email. She pointed to figures showing bigger changes to come: “In 1990, 49 percent of all first-year OB-GYN residents were women. In 2012, 83 percent were women.”

But that still leaves plenty of men pursuing gynecology as a profession. When few doctors were female, the idea of a male OB-GYN may not have seemed odd. Today, a man specializing in an area of medicine that involves staring at vaginas for a good part of the workday does strike some as a bit strange. But is it?

Not at all, said Peter Schnatz, associate chairman and residency program director of OB-GYN at Pennsylvania’s Reading Hospital and one of the leading researchers on the subject of gender in the specialty. Male gynecologists don’t see their work through the lens that some critics might, Schnatz said: “We see it as providing care to a person, not the awkwardness of the exam,” which is the part that some women simply can’t get past.

Brightman also attempted to debunk the notion that men who practice gynecology are suspect. “I don’t feel it’s creepy,” she said. “OB-GYN is a very attractive field because it’s a great combination of internal medicine, a little psychiatry, and also surgery. I can totally understand why a man might be drawn to the field. But the problem is you have to look at patients, and a lot of patients want women, and more and more will continue to want women.”

She added: “I understand why women may feel it’s creepy, and I’ve heard stories from patients that they were made to feel uncomfortable. I’m sure it wasn’t the doctor’s intention, and unfortunately there are stories out there of men doing strange things with patients. It’s unfortunate because it casts a real shadow on the profession.”

To her point: In 2002, a Chicago gynecologist was convicted of raping a patient during a pelvic exam, while in 2005 another in Seattle was found guilty of sexually abusing patients.

And there are women who feel more comfortable seeing male gynecologists. Susan, 50, said in an email that her experiences with female gynecologists were overwhelmingly negative. She found them particularly judgmental and cold, she said. That sentiment was shared by Lisa, a 34-year-old who wrote that her female gyno “was great until she told me that I’d made bad sexual choices. Not sure if it was because my single sex life doesn’t fit in her married suburbia you-must-have-been-a-cheerleader, ‘What do you mean, you don’t want kids?’ mentality. But I don’t need judgment when you’re looking up my skirt. That’s not worth shaving my legs for.” She added that her OB-GYN “actually said, ‘It’s OK, you just made some poor choices.’ I nearly shoved that speculum down her throat.”

Asked if female OB-GYNs have a harsher bedside manner than their male counterparts, Brightman replied: “Because of the rules that govern sexism, some men can be perceived as kinder and gentler. A woman who is direct in her manner can be perceived as cool and detached and lacking empathy.”

It is worth noting that having ample choice in choosing a women’s health provider is still a luxury. With few female doctors in the country, male gynecologists became crucial to women’s health care in Iraq. But over the last decade, these male doctors found themselves facing threats from Islamic extremists who disapprove of the idea of any man seeing a woman who is not his wife unclothed. According to reports, some male OB-GYNs in the country have been killed. And just days ago it was announced that Saudi Arabia’s top Islamic scholar had issued an edict prohibiting male doctors from seeing the bodies of deceased women, thereby preventing the involvement of male doctors in examinations of female corpses for medical or criminal cases.

Ultimately it appears that female patients here in the United States want what all patients want: the best health provider possible. “Interestingly, what we found is the vast majority of women, if you ask them, just want a good doctor,” Schnatz said of his studies on the topic. “They don’t really care if it’s male or female.” He cited a 2005 study he worked on that found that a little more than 70 percent of women said they had no preference when asked if they preferred a male or female gynecologist. Of the nearly 30 percent who did, the majority preferred a female gynecologist. A 2007 study he also worked, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, found that when female patients were shown photos of male or female gynecologists and asked which they preferred to see, more women selected the female, even though gender was not mentioned in the questions. However, when descriptions of the qualifications of the two gynecologists pictured were added to the experiment, women overwhelmingly chose the more qualified candidate, regardless of gender.

A study published in October found that female doctors outperformed their male counterparts on patient care assessments. So maybe the real question isn’t “are male gynecologists creepy?” but “are they as good as female ones?”