The impact of sexual violence can be huge. It’s not an over exaggeration to say that every area of someone’s life can be affected. And one of those areas, which could have some pretty serious implications further down the line, is managing intimate health checks.
Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust found three quarters (72%) of women who have experienced sexual violence have not attended or have delayed cervical screening because of their experience.
And it’s not just women, men who have experienced sexual violence can find it just as traumatic to go for their intimate health checks too, delaying or avoiding tests in the same way.
None of this is really surprising. Intimate health checks are, well, intimate in the areas they are usually focused on. They usually involve someone looking at and touching our genitals or breasts. The majority of people will feel vulnerable in this situation but for someone who has experienced sexual violence, it can become an overwhelming experience.
For a lot of people it’s a very triggering event. Not just with the position we have to physically lie in and the nature of the procedures, but the perceived lack of control and power imbalance, the fear of flashbacks or not knowing how to start asking your health care provider for what you need.
For many survivors, our relationships with our bodies after sexual violence can have another aspect; not feeling worthy of the self-care involved in maintaining health checks, or (in very simplistic terms) that our bodies do not deserve to be looked after.
But intimate health checks are important, not just from a physical health perspective but can also play a part in recovery and reworking our relationships with our bodies.
We’ve put some ideas together for you to think about when it comes to managing intimate health checks after sexual violence.
Speak to the doctor or nurse about your experience if you can
It can be hard to talk about your experiences but your health care provider can play a really important role in helping you manage any intimate health checks. Your emotional wellbeing is just as important to them as your physical health and they will be able to work with you to help make the whole process as easy as possible. It might be an idea to book an appointment just to talk about this and then when it comes to appointment day you’ll already have a plan in place.
Agree a safe word to stop and chat about the language they can use
Part of your conversation with your doctor or nurse could be around the words they use. “Just relax” can be very triggering for some survivors, often a phrase used by their abuser. But it’s also a natural phrase for a professional to use in this situation too, so letting them know that this might be a good thing to avoid is really important. You can also agree a clear safe word so they know to stop if you need a break.
Ask for a longer appointment
You can ask for a longer appointment when you’re booking your tests, or perhaps the last appointment of the day. Knowing that you have more time may be useful for taking some of the pressure off and allowing you the space to take a break if you need to.
Get details about what exactly will happen
For a lot of people, knowing exactly what’s going to happen can be reassuring. Ask your health care professional to talk you through the whole procedure from start to finish. You could also ask to see any equipment they will use and ask them to explain what everything is for.
Take someone you trust with you
Taking someone you trust with you can be really useful. Depending on what you feel comfortable with they could wait in the waiting room, or come into the room with you. You may want them to stand near your head, or if you would just prefer them to be in the room there will usually be a curtain that can be pulled around when you’re having any tests.
Think about the time afterwards too
Think about what you might need. You may feel emotionally uncomfortable afterwards, perhaps even dissociated, so have a plan. You may need some space and time to process how you’re feeling, you might decide that going into work or meeting a friend for coffee is the best thing. But be prepared to play it by ear too; allow yourself to do what you need, even if you’ve already put plans in place.
Remember you don’t have to go through with it if it’s too much, you can always re-book
If you find that you just can’t do it that day then that’s fine. You can always book an appointment for another day. No one will judge you for it, and it can give you the opportunity to go through your plans and see if anything needs tweaking.