“Are you sexually active?”

Genevieve Ott

    He asked it so nonchalantly, focusing on my breathing patterns with his stethoscope rather than making eye contact. “Are you sexually active?”

     He asked it so nonchalantly, as if trained in his delivery, the same way he casually asks a patient, “Have you been constipated?”

     Certainly he doesn’t ask every patient this… I’m at a pediatrician’s office and the wallpaper features Pooh Bear tumbling over a pot of honey. My paper gown has tiny flowers on it. I’m certain that the twelve-year-old with the Bieber shirt before my appointment (who was probably taller than me) didn’t face this question. It’s just so uncomfortable. He has his hand on my chest feeling my heartbeat and meanwhile, I’m rolodexing through every potential encounter I’ve had. A homeless guy on the crowded DC metro once brushed up against me. Is that a yes, then? Our society has blurred lines about sexuality, so is the yes/no-twenty-questions-game of this term blurred?

     What does “sexually active” even mean? The pregnant teen in Juno said, “I hate when adults use [that term]… Am I gonna deactivate someday or is it a permanent state of being?”

     The Jehovah’s Witness who knocked on my door one time told me she sinned for being kissed on the cheek (what a harlot). But then, we live in a society that embraces burning bras and becoming porn stars and eating bananas and other expressions of sexuality. Is it black and white—active or not—or is there some television static? Why isn’t there some informational pamphlet, complete with an achingly posed photo of a nervous teen and hilariously curious doctor, in the waiting room that defines “sexually active?”

     I bet it’s just some pediatrician office game. At the beginning of the work day, they shuffle through their appointment schedule and take bets on what patients’ answers will be. It’s basically a humiliating, high-stakes game of Blackjack. And parents can gain access to the betting pool if they swear to not prepare their children for this horrible, horrible question. Then the nurse technicians, the parents, and the doctor all cackle at their child’s stammering and the awkward situation.

     This inquiry should be banned on grounds of “cruel and unusual punishment.” So should most uncomfortable medical conversations. I’m just awful at answering doctor’s questions. Once I was in the hospital for a concussion and the doctor, after running her concussion crash course, asked me if I was afraid of anything. Woozy and nervous, I feebly answered yes, since emergency rooms have always terrified me. She skeptically glanced at my mom, who rolled her eyes, and asked me if I wanted my mom to leave the room. I didn’t realize that this was an opportunity for an unfortunate abused child to cry for help, to say oh my god yes I am scared take this crazy lady away from me. I thought the doctor actually cared about my emotional reaction to the sterile white room. She didn’t. And now maybe my mom is on a Potential Child Abusers list somewhere. It’s ironic because she’s a social worker who calls the Child Protective Services daily and I could have gotten her blacklisted.

     This whole “sexually active” interrogation needs to be expelled. Instead, the patient should be given a cup of coffee and patient and doctor shall chat like old girlfriends about their entire sexual histories. It’s informative and fun! Kind of like when my grandma’s Irish friend, after having a few too many sips of scotch, asks me if there are “any boys I fancy.” Or like an antiseptic, creepy version of Sex and the City.

     The bottom line is, I know doctors are somehow trying to ensure health through this dreaded question. It’s embarrassing, but then I remember that once my doctor treated me for the stomach flu even after I puked all over his Allen Edmonds. Maybe he’s curious, or maybe he’s trying to help; just answer truthfully. Then ask a humiliating question of your own.
“Did you go to Hopkins med school?”