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Vaginal mesh scandal: doctor jokes women should try anal instead 

A court case has exposed a doctor joking about women unable to have sex due to vaginal mesh implant surgery. It's just one example of a culture that is consistently dismissive of women's health

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By Zoë Beaty on

Q: What did the gynaecologist say about women who have lost the ability to have sex due to botched surgery?

You’re not going to like the answer.

In a series of emails tendered to an Australian court hearing this week, one gynaecologist can be seen joking that women who can no longer have vaginal sex should perhaps try anal instead. “… Sodomy could be a good alternative!” he quips. Unsurprisingly, no one else appears to be finding it funny.

The correspondence came to light as part of an ongoing case in which more than 700 women who experienced severe complications following vaginal mesh implant surgery are attempting to sue manufacturers of the device, Johnson and Johnson. The mesh implants are given to women suffering from pelvic organ prolapse and incontinence, typically after childbirth.

Yet, as we have previously reported, the implants have become the centre of a fast-growing global scandal on women’s health, with thousands of women saying the “quick-fix” operation has left them with debilitating after effects. It’s important to point out that many of the operations go ahead without complication or adverse effects – and, in successful cases, vastly improve the lives of those patients suffering with incontinence and prolapses. But data on the true numbers of successful and unsuccessful treatment is flawed – two-thirds of surgeons don't report their mesh removals to the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency) claims one report, since it's not mandatory for them to do so. It means there are gaping holes in messy, inconclusive research; the true picture of just how risky this procedure is cannot yet be ascertained. But the women who have suffered the repercussions of the surgery first-hand are certain it should be banned. 

Complications arise when the devices – made of plastic – shrink, twist, erode or break down. They can then cause intense pain as the harsh material cuts through the vaginal, bladder, or bowel wall. Statistics obtained by The Guardian found that as many as one in 15 British women will opt to attempt to have the device removed after surgery – in the last decade a reported 120,000 were fitted. Around 800 have been compelled to take civil action against mesh implant manufacturers in the UK alone; in America more than 100,000 have sued. Sufferers say that even years after surgery they are experiencing acute pain, infection or the inability to walk. Some patients report being rendered unable to have or enjoy sex.

But their severe symptoms, campaigners say, are not being taken seriously – perhaps especially when it comes to sex – due to a culture which, all too often, is actively dismissive towards women. When I spoke to Kath Sansom, who runs the Sling The Mesh campaign, this morning, she said that the comments made by French gynaecologists in the emails revealed in court this week were “horrendous, but not uncommon”. Sansom added, “The sad thing is we’ve become used to being treated like this.”

“When [women] tell their surgeons, they are more than often dismissed,” Sansom, explained. “One of our members was on a hospital ward with the curtains drawn round her and heard a male surgeon tell a nurse that 'women over 50 shouldn't be having sex anyway'.

“It’s belittling to women and infringing on their right to a healthy sex life. There is such a lack of respect shown for women, especially when it comes to sex. If this was a discussion about men’s sex lives, it would have been stopped years ago.”

As it grows ever more powerful, the vaginal mesh implant scandal, while helping women, is also uncovering the bones of a truth that society is loathed to admit: that women's bodies are seen as unimportant

The comments made by French doctors in the newly released emails – you can view them in full here – clearly appear to back up Sansom’s claims, in a particularly crude way. Aside from the dismissive hyperbole about anal sex, the gynaecologist says he “wouldn’t want his wife” to undergo the procedure. Another gynaecologist in the chain also appears to refuse to speak to women about their sex lives – namely, he says, about “fellatio, sodomy, the clitoris with or without g-spot” – because he doesn’t want to be labelled a “pervert”. He noted that he also wouldn’t want to “see a drop” in the number of patients going ahead with surgery due to fear of losing their sex lives.

But those campaigning against the use of mesh tape implants argue that this sort of attitude means women are not being well informed enough of the possible outcomes, and their health is being put at risk. Though there is a lack of firm research on the subject – Sansom points out that there has never been a proper audit of the effects or outcomes and surgeons ra, further risking women’s health – some papers found that up to 26 per cent of women who have undergone the surgery can no longer enjoy sex. Others show the amount is much lower, at around 14.3 per cent.

For those whose sex lives have been affected, Sansom says, the repercussions are huge. “Once they realise their concerns aren’t being taken seriously by their doctor – when they are told there’s nothing to be done to help them regain their sex lives – that’s when the depression often sets in. I know one woman in her 30s, who is single but now can’t even think about starting a new relationship because the pain is so intense that sex is out of the question.”

What these emails – and the wider scandal, both in the UK and abroad – expose, says Sansom, is a culture that actively dismisses women in favour of profits. A few days before these latest emails were released, another report accused doctors of accepting benefits – like trips to Rio de Janeiro, “educational grants” and “travel scholarships” – from one manufacturer of the mesh device. The accusations led to speculations of bias, at best, and at worst, corruption. And despite consultants saying they are "absolutely shocked" by latest figures, and thousands of women calling for the government to review the use of implants, the low-cost device is still being promoted without significant question. “It’s putting profits before patients on a massive scale,” Sansom claims.

Alleged corruption aside, it certainly appears that the women supposedly being helped by this procedure are not always being treated as a priority; a pattern which is not unique to this scandal but present nonetheless. The casual disregard of a high-grade, privileged gynaecologist suggesting a woman unable to have sex should try anal is crude, and disrespectful, and unprofessional. But it’s also indicative of a wider cultural phenomenon: an attitude that ascribes little or no value to a woman’s enjoyment of sex, especially if she’s over child-bearing age and that consistently underestimates or ignores female health concerns. As it grows ever more powerful, the vaginal mesh implant scandal, while helping women, is also uncovering the bones of a truth that society is loathed to admit: that women's bodies are seen as unimportant. But, still, they're fair game for a joke. 

@zoe_beaty

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