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Culture of impunity for staff accused of sexual violence, say campaigners

By David Batty - The Guardian - 21.11.2023 - [UK] There is a culture of impunity around sexual violence by healthcare staff in the NHS, with known perpetrators going unchallenged, campaigners have warned.

A report by Surviving in Scrubs, a group of female doctors campaigning against misogyny in healthcare, said staff known to be perpetrators of sexual violence, who are most often senior male doctors, are tolerated or regarded as untouchable.

The study, which analysed 174 incidents of staff-on-staff sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault anonymously self-reported to the group’s website, found those who had been abused – mainly junior female doctors – struggled to get their complaints addressed.

Some women said they faced threats of reprisals from those they were accusing. They reported feeling gaslit by colleagues who they said remained silent and, in some cases, colluded with the perpetrator.

One woman referred to a perpetrator as the “Jimmy Savile of the surgical community”, and was told by a senior female colleague that “he was known for this behaviour, that he’d got away with so much before and he was capable of ruining careers”.

Of the 209 incidents reported to Surviving in Scrubs since it launched last summer, just over 42% (89) were sexual harassment, a fifth (43) were sexual assaults, nearly 2% were rapes, and almost 37% (77) concerned sexist behaviour. Some incidents were recorded in more than one category.

More than three-quarters of the alleged perpetrators were doctors, of whom more than 77% were consultants. Of the remainder, just over 7% were nurses and more than 5% were managers.

About 62% of victims were doctors, while nearly 12% were medical, nursing and paramedical students. Of those doctors who disclosed their grade, the vast majority were junior (89%).

Of those incidents where the location was disclosed, half took place in hospital wards, operating theatres, and clinics, which the report’s authors said also raised concerns about the sexual safety of patients.

In one case, a female doctor described how, after a difficult forceps delivery of a baby that she assisted with, a consultant, covered in the patient’s blood, propositioned her to share a shower together.

Another obstetric and gynaecology consultant allegedly paused operations on women to ask medical students what the purpose of a vagina was “until he got the answer he wanted – that their only purpose was for sex”.

Dr Becky Cox, the co-founder of Surviving in Scrubs, said a culture of sexism and sexual abuse had become normalised in the NHS.

“When you’re [a woman] coming into this profession, you see senior male consultants who are derogatory, use sexist language, and assault you. Male medical students see this behaviour and think that’s normal. Then they go up the ranks and continue to perpetrate the behaviour. It’s a never ending cycle.”

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact Dignity4Patients, whose helpline is open Monday to Thursday 10am to 4pm.



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