Today I had my first pap smear. Having been sexually active since I was fifteen, it was a good seven years overdue. “WHAT?! You’ve never had one?” I can hear you say, adding “but your cervix is a ticking, HPV time-bomb waiting to explode into full blown cancer” if you’re my mother. Or maybe, if you’re another twenty-something year old: “Yeah, me neither. They sound so awkward and painful…I’m never going to get one.”
It is not unusual for young women to have an aversion to pap smears. Whenever the topic comes up in conversation, an ominous silence enters the room, which is quickly ushered out by a rapid-fire of excuses for putting it off. For me, it was a combination of laziness, confusion and fear of the general unpleasantness, but it wasn’t always this way…
As a diligent, seventeen year old hypochondriac, I called up the local medical centre and made an appointment. Against my mother’s advice – “go to Susy, she’s great. She even does your father’s prostate checks” – I opted for a doctor who I had never seen before. After deliberating over whether or not waxing was required for the occasion and consulting google about what exactly the procedure entailed, I was ready to go.
The doctor grilled me on my sexual history, and after finding out that the bulk of my experiences had been with other women, gave me a pitying little smile, said that the procedure wasn’t really necessary, and sent me on my way.
It wasn’t until a few years later, when university had moulded me into an aware young queer, that it became clear just how incorrect – and screwed up – that statement was. It doesn’t matter what kind of sex you have, HPV can be spread through any genital, or even mouth, skin-to-skin contact. Furthermore, queer women have the same infection rates as their hetero counterparts.
But still, more years passed, and while I happily joined the chorus of liberated feminists who believe that women’s bodies and sexualities have been hidden away for too long, I remained smear-free. By then it had become an issue of feeling too busy (but strangely having enough time to go to the dentist), too broke (what about bulk billing?), and too complacent that those three needle jabs at high school would do the trick (surely having a dead arm for days meant that those little vials were doing something to my body?).
The recent realisation that many of my friends – and even my twenty-five year old partner – had never had a pap test, or even made plans to, finally hit a nerve. The aversion has become a fully-fledged denial: Young women, particularly queer young women, are not getting pap smears. So, today I got one, and I’ve been telling everyone about it.
How was it? Fine. Apparently my cervix was uncooperative and hard to locate, but that’s something you work with in the name of early diagnosis of cervical cancer, and besides, you can’t expect it to eagerly greet a cold speculum.
How long did it take? 10 minutes max.
Was it awkward? Not really. When I told the receptionist my name she didn’t loudly proclaim “Clare! You’re here for your first pap smear,” and even if she did, who cares? The procedure comes part and parcel with being born with a vagina and being sexually active, and there is a first time for everything.
Oh, and ‘pap’ is just an abbreviation of ‘Papanicolaou,’ the doctor who discovered in 1928 that cells in the cervix change slightly just before they become cancerous, and not clinical, medical-speak for vagina.
So, if you haven’t had one, go and do it. Regular pap smears can help prevent up to 90% of the most common type of cervical cancer. While it’s amazing that we live in a time where women can have more sex, and different types of sex, than ever before, we need to look out for our cervixes while we’re doing it.