Spread ‘Em: I Am A Gynecological Teaching Associate

By Kendra Holliday | February 19, 2014

Hello! Do I know you?

Welcome to my vagina!

I first heard about the concept of being a live, legs spread wide, model for medical students to practice on years ago, but could never figure out how to locate a program in my area.

Google searches for “Gynecological Teaching Associate” only yielded results for a documentary called At Your Cervix and opportunities on the East and West coast.

Through networking, I finally met a woman who is a Standardized Patient Coordinator here in St. Louis, and she hooked me up with a couple local GTA programs.

So, for those of you also interested in being a GTA, try “standardized patient coordinator school medicine (your city)” instead. Training is provided.

To be clear, a Gynecological Teaching Associate is a woman who receives pelvic and breast exams from medical students.

In the words of Genie Reece, a GTA in New York City:

“I have rarely left a teaching session in which I did not feel something really important had occurred. For the second year medical students, the experience can be quite intense, and we help them get through a first breast and pelvic exam with confidence and the assurance that both we and they will be okay.

As we guide the students, we are able to keep the exams comfortable for ourselves. The students need careful, thoughtful and kind guidance, as most are scared to death. Still, all are grateful at the end of the session and almost always want to know how we got into doing this work. They candidly let us know that it was ‘not as bad as they thought it was going to be!’ Students often say the workshop is one of the best experiences they have had in medical school thus far.”

I have to say, it’s a great learning experience for ALL involved. Every time I do it, I learn something new. Before the actual exams, there are often informative health talks given by the doctors who oversee the program. For instance, did you know that 88% of women don’t get breast cancer? Women are twice as likely to die of lung cancer than breast cancer. You don’t see ribbons for lung cancer festooning every product in the grocery store like you do the ubiquitous pink ribbons.We often hear stories about young women with children who get breast cancer, but most breast cancer hits women when they’re in their 70’s.

For the small percentage who do suffer from early onset, the SCAR Project offers awareness through a portrait series featuring young breast cancer survivors shot by fashion photographer David Jay.

The training program also employs men, which allows students to practice prostate exams. A couple people fainted from just watching the prostate exam demonstrated on a dummy mannequin butt! So yeah, the guys who offer up their real buttholes for probing are total champs in my book.

The students practice first on mannequins that have interchangeable cervixes before they get paired with a live GTA like me.

All the GTAs I’ve worked with are great – a very laid back, down-to-earth group of women. We enjoy sitting around in the breakroom shooting the shit before donning our gowns.

“You know what I want to do?” one of the ladies joked. “I want to get a tattoo of Waldo on my cervix, so that when the students peer in there, they get a fun surprise!”

“How about a bullseye? It could be the NEW tramp stamp!” another woman cracked.

That led me to suggest ultimate body modification in the form of designer ovaries. “Wouldn’t it be cool to get ovaries of steel, bronze, or diamond encrusted ovaries, glow-in-the-dark ovaries, vibrating ovaries, or extra large ovaries? That would make them really easy to find! They make testicles for dogs called Nueticles, they could call designer ovaries….Oracles!”

A typical GTA session

It runs for a couple hours. I get paired with another GTA who acts as the teacher. She remains clothed. I’m the demo bottom in a hospital gown on the table. We practice in an exam room.

Three students are assigned to us – they’re usually second year medical students. Often they’re sweating profusely and look like they’re about to pass out. Some of them have never seen a naked woman before in real life, and now they’re about to stick their fingers inside of one. They’re mostly men and women in their 20’s of diverse backgrounds.

We start off with the breast exam, which is the worst part for me, since my B size breasts are so sensitive.They learn the right way to examine a breast for any abnormalities, which includes sticking fingers in armpits and pretending like you’re mowing the lawn – don’t miss a spot!

They also learn the correct terminology to use with a patient (“don’t say ‘strip the breast,’ which is the proper medical term for checking for discharge;” “call them foot rests, not stirrups;” “don’t say ‘pain,’ use the word ‘discomfort’ instead – you don’t want to plant seeds!”) and bedside manner (“be courteous;” “explain what you are doing as you go along;” “drape the patient properly, only expose the body part you are examining.”)

Next, they perform a brief abdominal exam, which serves as a warm up to going south.

Look ma, no cervix! It's just a pink dead end now!

Look ma, no cervix! It’s just a pink dead end now!

Finally, they get to the vagina. No one wants to go first, and usually an awkward struggle ensues – getting the vinyl gloves on sweaty hands, wheeling the exam light over and knocking into things, and figuring out how to hold and operate the steel speculum, which comes in two main styles – Graves and Pederson. A lot of GTA’s who have been doing it for a while have a strong preference when it comes to lube, speculum, etc., but I’m not picky.

I figured it would hurt having three inexperienced people in a row pry my vagina open to view my cervix (“oh your os – the opening of the cervix – is a triangle shape, how cute!” my teaching partner exclaimed), but it’s not bad at all. Thank god I’ve given birth and been fisted! I wish I could tell them that as they hesitantly stick their gloved finger in. “You’d be surprised at what I’ve had in my vagina, guys!” >WINK<

After they get a peek at my cervix and pretend to give me pap smear, they move on to the pelvic exam, which consists of them trying to locate my cervix, uterus, and ovaries with both hands, one inside and one outside. The ovaries can be tricky to wrangle – they are elusive organs the size of grapes. UPDATE: These days, I only instruct the students instead of modeling on the table due to my lack of cervix (I had a hysterectomy in 2012. You can see what my cervix looked like here.)

Finally, all three get a turn and it’s mission accomplished! The mysterious female sex organs have been explored!

My favorite part of being a GTA is the same thing I love about being a sex and relationship consultant – putting people at ease about something that is natural, yet often maligned. Just like the clients I see, the students come in anxious as hell, but by the end of the session they’re relaxed, relieved and smiling.

It’s so great conquering your fears and taking the mystery out of societal taboos. It’s SO much healthier being open and honest.

Face your fears.

Face the vagina.


Christine 2012-01-07 18:45:46

I know this article is more than 6 months old, but as a doctor who learned to do pelvic exams on a volunteer like yourself, I wanted to say thank you!


    Kendra 2012-01-08 07:20:11

    Thank you! I’m excited to do it again next month!


Shayna 2013-01-09 17:49:47

Thanks for the little tidbit about lung cancer. My mother died from lung cancer a few months ago and it always feels like a slap in the face to see breast cancer get so much attention whilst lung cancer is pretty much ignored. Also, being a GTA sounds like a lot of fun! I’ll have to check if they have a program like that in my area! 🙂


jinny 2014-02-19 11:47:05

I certainly understand the attention to breast cancer awareness and research, and parallels beginning with prostate cancer in men.

I just wish that there were equivalent attention and research into all the forms of cancer and chronic disease. Katie Couric’s publicity may save some people from the colon cancer that took my father at a young age. But pancreatic cancer? Mother and grandmother were taken by these but .. what is being done?

To be honest, I wish there were just the same amount of money being spent as is being spent in the daily barrage of ads for mesothelioma or bladder sling ambulance-chasers.


polynewb 2014-02-19 15:24:10

As a woman with no insurance currently, I’d love to volunteer. Let me know the particulars if it’s an ongoing thing.


Sandy 2014-02-20 16:57:03

And I thought GTA was only an exciting video game!


Dan 2014-02-21 08:29:31

Dated an OB GYN nurse once who asked as we lounged naked: “Would you like to take a tour of my vagina?” Wow. What guy who owns none of these parts wouldn’t. Books were great but this was better. I felt like I was going to school as she talked me through. Like what you described. She talked as I slowly moved my two fingers around, stopped me at each point of interest along the way; as in a museum. Especially at a small notch/tear on her cervix. “Feel that? Got that pushing my daughter out into the world.” What a dear memory that dispassionate tour was for me as a man.


Rowena Kush 2019-05-03 21:02:48

I have never done to have pelvic exams since it scares me and it’s embarrassing to let a stranger see and touch your private part.


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