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Having a gynecological exam has never been a pleasant experience, but for some women it can go beyond the usual uncomfortable feeling.
Some sexual abuse victims may have such anxiety and fear over getting a Pap smear that they avoid them altogether, according to a study published in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care.
Only about half of British sexual abuse victims in the small study received a Pap smear in the last five years, whereas the rate for the general population is around 79 percent.
Pap smears might trigger trauma responses and cause survivors to feel victimized. Some survivors report that the feeling of loss of control and the uncomfortable and even painful probing of the exam reminds them of their past.
Other past victims state that their examiner lacked sensitivity and had poor communication. Victims are also embarrassed about having to explain their experiences and the remaining visible signs of their abuse.
It’s especially important for survivors to get Pap smears because they might be more at risk for cervical cancer. The study provided some suggestions for making Pap smears more bearable.
The study suggested that from abuse victims’ responses they might have more positive experiences with Pap smears:
- if they have time to discuss their fears over the screening
- if they have a supportive person with them during the test,
- if they deal with a professional who is understanding
- if they are in a comfortable and private area for the test
- if there was a signal that could be used to stop the test if necessary
Professionals should also avoid using the trigger word “relax” during the test, because that word is sometimes used by perpetrators during an act of abuse.
A sexual abuse victim and professionals give suggestions on how to overcome negative emotions associated with Pap smears.
Maureen Clancy, a licensed clinical social worker, said in an email that she had a client who won’t receive a Pap smear because of the helpless feeling she gets lying down with her feet in stirrups.