An invitation to a cervical screening test upon your 25th birthday has become a necessary but often unwanted coming-of-age present. Despite years of education and advocacy from the Lady Garden Foundation and others about the benefits of screening, many women still do not attend. About 16 million women in the UK aged 25-64 are eligible for testing, but only 11.2 million took a test in 2022, the lowest level in a decade.
There unfortunately remains a false narrative that there are good reasons to be nervous about cervical screening tests. In reality, the test is not physically painful for the vast majority of women, although it can be a bit uncomfortable. However, the test can be needlessly emotionally painful, and for no good reason. This is in part because some women go through the experience of sitting with legs spread apart and “private parts” out, and then hear the nurse call for “the virgin speculum” to be used.
This is the archaic and unnecessarily sexualised term for the extra-small speculum. It should have no place being used in 2023, and it clearly creates feelings of vulnerability.
The Lady Garden Foundation, a charity that I co-founded and chair, is calling for this instrument to be renamed the “extra-small speculum” or at least its medical term, the Pederson speculum; the term virgin speculum should be removed from use by medical device advertisers and the medical profession (it is currently taught in medical schools).
This horrific term came into play in the 1800s, an age when misogyny was rife, yet is still present at the height of feminist achievement in 2023. All women, including me, are reliant on medical professionals to make us feel safe and to spot anything abnormal, yet the blatant labelling of sexual status makes us feel like the medical profession and industry are not in line with contemporary culture.
Our campaign to end the use of the term virgin speculum follows Vice UK’s finding that some British women are being denied proper healthcare because they are virgins. In some cases people were denied scans or probes in the interest of “preserving” their virginity. Dr Ranee Thakar, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, told the outlet that “healthcare professionals must not perpetuate harmful myths regarding ‘virginity’ when talking to women about their sexual and reproductive health care”.
Yet it feels that women being confronted by the virgin speculum plays right into this. Moreover, with the passing of the Health and Care Act, “virginity testing” is banned, and can lead to a five-year custodial sentence for anyone convicted of carrying out the practice. Therefore we look forward to the prospect of seeing any mention of virginity removed across the whole NHS.
Next week it is Cervical Cancer Awareness week, and we hope to shine a light on barriers to cervical screening testing that must be removed. This is especially true as a significant number of cervical cancer symptoms may go unnoticed, including bleeding from the vagina at times other than when you are having your period, unpleasant-smelling vaginal discharge and pain during sex. It is terrifying that fewer women are being screened than a decade ago, and we must reverse this trend.
By creating feelings of vulnerability around testing, we are allowing cervical cancer to continue to go undetected. All women should be aware of the importance of attending their cervical screening test and do so with confidence, regardless of their sexual status. This will play a valuable role in reducing the mortality rate.
Fundamentally, virginity is a social construct with no biological reality. Many medical associations already recognise this. It is time the rest of the medical profession and advertisers caught up. The small change of name to the extra-small speculum will have huge effects on eliminating psychological anxiety around cervical screening tests, just as we have reduced concerns over physical pain.
Jenny Halpern Prince is a co-founder of the Lady Garden Foundation
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