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pelvic-examHow would you feel if a male gynecologist, without your knowledge or permission, took photos of your genitals during a routine pelvic exam?

Outrage, of course. It’s unprofessional, unethical, probably illegal…the list goes on.

But what if said doctor never did anything with the photos? Never posted them to the web, never cataloged them with identifying information (your face or name), never did anything with them except, presumably, look at them and masturbate?

It’s not a hypothetical. Dr. Nikita Levy, a Johns Hopkins gynecologist in Baltimore, Md., did exactly that. When his breach of trust was discovered in 2013, he committed suicide. Recently, Hopkins awarded a $190 million to more than 8,000 women who had been Levy’s patients.

A Washington Post article, A gynecologist secretly photographed patients. What’s their pain worth? (Jan. 14), interviewed several of the plaintiffs, who were awarded damages ranging from $1,750 to $26,000.

None of the women knew for a fact whether they were photographed by Levy. Yet they spoke of humiliation, fear, a distrust of doctors and lawyers, panic attacks—a whole range of trauma. “They will never be able to fathom what we’ve all been through,” one victim said through tears. “Sleepless nights, missing work, your body at work but your brain elsewhere . . . we lived through hell, and some of us are still going through hell.”

The pain is real, no doubt. But it’s the result of what?

The suspicion that their genitals were photographed in a non-sexual setting by a pervert (a word I usually use loosely, but not here) who kept the photographs to himself. (I say “genitals” because the news articles about Levy said he used a penlight camera to take the photos. I guess it’s possible that he also may have videoed women in the nude. But the news reports give the impression that he was taking close-up shots of genitalia.)

(Side note: The Post used of term “sexually explicit” to describe the photos. Is a close-up photograph of a vulva that isn’t sexually aroused or positioned to suggest sexual arousal or titillation really “sexually explicit”? Isn’t it just a photograph of a vulva or whatever?)

My question is this: Is there something going on here (speaking of the women’s genuine reactions) that speaks to U.S. society’s attitudes toward sex? Why so much pain and shame and humiliation over the possibility that a doctor (a popular guy with most of his patients and known for his “warm demeanor”) took and kept photos of their genitals? And with no information that would distinguish your genitals from the genitals of the 8,000 other women?

I don’t get it. I’m a nudist. I’ve been photographed nude (both Polaroid and digital). I’ve been photographed while sexually aroused (including closeups of my genitals). All were taken with my permission. Hardly unique, right? In the nineteenth century, you had to hire Toulouse-Lautrec for homemade porn. Now, you just pick up your phone and your debauchery is preserved for posterity. (Since I know what you’re thinking, none of my sexually explicit photos have made it to the web and won’t, so don’t ask.)

I’d like to think that my reaction, had I learned that my doctor had taken photos of my genitals for his own private use, would be, “That’s weird.” I’d want them back (or destroyed or locked up, as Levy’s photos are) and I’d want the guy punished (this is, obviously, a good argument for women gynecologists).

But panic attacks? Deep shame and humiliation? I don’t think so.

Again, I have no problem being nude in mixed company (and when appropriate, as when everyone else is nude). I don’t automatically associate nudity with sex (which most Americans do). Yes, I’m more like a Northern European in that respect. A close-up shot of my crotch (it’s fairly normal looking, by the way, just like 99 percent of other crotches) does not upset me. Theoretically, that is.

So why the deep shame and humiliation from the women interviewed by the Post?

What do you think?