Today we bring you a guest post from Rugbyfan, who would like to initiate a discussion about an experience she had. It’s one of those cases where, as the slogan goes, the personal is political– very personal and very political. The topic is smear tests, one of those topics that’s not much discussed even by feminists. (In a rather lovely juxtaposition, Mr Jender just me a link to the Onion’s recent story “Renowned Hoo-Ha Doctor Wins Nobel Prize For Medical Advancements Down There”.)
It’s worth noting that there are at least two important things to discuss about this post: the particular experience involved (and others like it) and the general questions raised. We invite readers to contribute on both points. As always, please do observe our rules on being nice, to be found at Our Policies. These are perhaps even more important when dealing with this sort of topic.
Consultation with female gynaecologist yesterday:
Me: I have asked for this referral because I find smear tests extremely painful. My last attempted smear had to be abandoned because it was so excruciatingly painful. I am a scientist; I have therefore done a lot of research into the matter and I would like to discuss my findings with you so we can try to find a way forward. Basically, my research indicates that three factors may be coming together here to result in extremely painful smear tests: (1) I am not sexually active, (2) I am obese (making the cervix hard to locate because of pressure on the pelvic floor muscles), (3) some of the medication I take causes significant vaginal dryness. Are there possible ways we can get around these factors that could make the pain sufficiently manageable to enable a smear to be taken?
Gynaecologist: Would you like me to ask a nurse to hold your hand while I take the smear?
I know the medical profession has a very poor track record when it comes to pain management, but it’s hard to think of a situation involving significant pain to any other part of the body being dealt with in this manner (“I’m just going to drill into your tooth – no need for anaesthetic, the nurse will hold your hand.” “I’m just going to pop a few stitches into your split lip without anaesthetic or a numbing spray – now don’t worry, the nurse will hold your hand.”) Is my experience related in some way to the pressure put on women not to have epidurals while giving birth? And why is it that I have completely failed, over several years, to persuade nurses/doctors (female, every single one of them) to take this pain seriously? It’s always described to me as “Yes, some women do find smear tests very embarrassing” (I don’t, actually, find them any more embarrassing than going to the dentist), and “Most women find them uncomfortable” (I don’t find them uncomfortable; I find them agonising! In my medical records the nurses have written “Smear couldn’t be taken because patient found it too uncomfortable.”). When I try to insist that they take this pain seriously, their assumption is that I have some sexual hang-up (I don’t) or that I was once a victim of rape (nope).
What’s going on here? Is this indicative of the medical profession’s general failure to listen to patients? Or to women patients specifically? Is it something specifically to do with women’s sexuality or reproductive capacity which women cannot be trusted with and which needs to be “owned” by the medical profession? And why do women nurses and doctors collude in this?