How Stigma Affects Sexual Assault Cases?

Pamela*, 38, picks up the video call and immediately launches into her thoughts about the case that changed her life forever. She is another of four women involved in the case against an endocrinologist (hormone specialist) based in Gqeberha who was found guilty of five counts of misconduct, including sexual assault, by the Health Professionals Council of South Africa (HPCSA) in 2021.

Pamela sits in a beautiful home and in the background, I spot one of her kids coming up the stairs. This is the life that she had to fight tooth and nail for, in more ways than one. Her story clearly proves that she is one hell of a warrior, a lioness that has done all she can to climb the mountain from the depths of her rock bottom.

Just like Amy*, who spoke to Women For Change earlier this month, Pamela was a victim of the doctor’s misconduct while under his care. The difference is that she was subjected to it on five separate occasions, which led to her being asked why she only came forward after the fifth incident by the lawyer representing the medical profession – another clear example of how survivors are attacked in an attempt to prove that their claims are implausible.

Pamela’s first appointment with the endocrinologist took place in February 2019, after concerns were raised by her GP regarding abnormal blood results and her blood pressure.

In February 2019, I went to the specialist. It was my first time visiting an endocrinologist. At first, I thought he was very friendly and he gave me a hug as he greeted me. He asked me a lot of personal questions about my marriage and whether or not I had kids. He also complimented me on my body and how it looks.”

He then proceeded to tell her to put on a robe that was hanging on a door in the consultation room. Pamela questioned the doctor and asked him what she should take off, and he responded, “Everything”. She did as she was told but left her underwear on and lay on the bed.

He started the examination by tapping on my feet with reflectors and then he told me to lay on my back, bend my knees and relax. He used his hands to rub my breasts and I asked him if he was doing a breast examination and his reply was, ‘No, but I can’.”

Pamela says that the specialist also rubbed her legs up and down, claiming that he was checking for dampness. At the time, Pamela had no prior knowledge of what an appointment with an endocrinologist looked like so she couldn’t tell if this was proper procedure – he was the expert, after all. Later on, she found out from another specialist that this was, in fact, not the traditional way of checking for dampness.

He kept saying I have very firm breasts and body. His hands moved down my body, he pulled my panty to the side and made circular movements on my labia, then slid his fingers into my vaginal opening and kept moving them inside me. As he was doing all this, he was standing on the side of the bed and I felt his hard penis rubbing against my thigh. I felt so uncomfortable and humiliated by his actions and I asked him if he is almost done and he ignored me, kept on talking in a very soft voice about how my body looks.

Pamela then proceeded to ask him if he was done and left the consultation feeling confused about what had just happened. She was informed by the medical professional that he would wait for her blood results and send them to her via email – which he did and confirmed that her blood results are fine but she must make a follow-up booking. Pamela says that she was still feeling ill but went to her GP for medical advice and was admitted to the hospital. While in the hospital, the endocrinologist continued to see her.

At the HPCSA hearing, the doctor’s lawyer questioned Pamela on the reasons why she didn’t report what happened straight after the first appointment.

“I tolerated his actions even though they made me feel dirty and violated because I believed that he was the only hope for me to be alive. He kept reminding me that he was the only endocrinologist in the Eastern Cape and that I needed him. What’s strange is that my illness was blood pressure related but I had to ask him to take my blood pressure. I didn’t give permission to any person to violate me.”

Following the incidents, Pamela lost control of her life. As a person who had Bipolar Disorder and was recovering from alcoholism, she relapsed shortly after her encounters with the medical specialist. Her partner had broken up with her and she was close to losing custody of her children. The worse things got, the worse her drinking got.

The endocrinologist knew these intimate details about Pamela’s life and this worried her. Who would believe an alcoholic over an esteemed doctor? As a recovering addict myself, I know how easy it is to discredit people with the same condition, as there is a real stigma that comes with the label of alcoholic or addict. Distrustful, dishonest, manipulative, unreliable and so on. The women who came forward already had the odds against them due to our flawed justice system and this added to the heavy weight.

Popular physician and author of Myth of Normal and In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts Gabor Maté is quoted as saying, Don’t ask why the addiction, ask why the pain. To understand people’s pain, you have to understand their lives. In other words, addiction is a normal response to trauma.”

Escaping one’s unbearable reality is the root cause of addiction, yet women in Pamela’s position would be seen as naturally self-destructive and therefore, delusional and not worthy of sympathy or empathy – in these situations, women are often seen to be in the wrong due to their own personal battles, which, once again, are only battles due to inflicted trauma.

Pamela was naturally disappointed in the outcome of the hearing – that the endocrinologist was suspended for a short few months and allowed to practice again. She felt that the outcome represented a societal view of women, who are so very often unheard when going up against powerful men.

Despite all of this, Pamela is now four years sober. She is healthy, happy and loved by her family. She’s one of the lucky ones to have had the resources, such as rehab and therapy, to find the ability to carry on. Others aren’t so lucky. Amy and Pamela both referred to a young woman who committed suicide after coming forward with the same allegations against the medical professional in question. Tragic endings like this are more common than we might imagine.

Pamela feels that there’s a reason she’s made it this far. She says she feels like she’s been granted a gift, her voice, that will encourage women to speak about what they’ve been through.

I encourage women to speak about what has happened to them – even if it means writing in a journal if they don’t have the strength to open up to another person just yet. Don’t keep everything in and let it fester. You have a voice and the right to use it.”

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the survivor.