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Supporting survivors of sexual violence before, during and after cervical screening

In this section:We created this information in partnership with Rape Crisis.


Self-care note: This information talks about sexual violence and cervical screening. We know that sexual violence affects many people, including health care professionals, and self care and access to support for you as a worker is vital. We have a section on getting support that may be helpful. We use the term ‘survivors’ throughout, but understand not everyone relates to it. This information also includes quotes from survivors of sexual violence. 

The aim of this information is to build your confidence so you can effectively support and engage with people who have experienced sexual violence. 

What is sexual violence?

Sexual violence is defined as any unwanted sexual act or activity, which can include:

  • rape
  • sexual harassment or assault, like unwanted touching or indecent exposure
  • sexual abuse or exploitation
  • forms of gender-based violence, such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and 'honour-based' violence.

In legal terms, a person can only consent to sexual activity if they have the freedom and capacity to agree by choice. Anything non-consensual – including sexual activity between intimate partners where coercion and emotional abuse is involved – constitutes sexual violence. Similarly, someone under the influence of drugs or alcohol may be unable to give free and willing consent.

Across the UK:

  • In England and Wales, 85,000 women are raped each year (including attempted rape), approximately 90% of whom know the perpetrator prior to the attack, while roughly half a million women each year experience some form of sexual assault[1].
  • In Scotland, 1,755 rapes and 123 attempted rapes were reported to the police in 2016-17[2].

Perpetrators of sexual violence may be complete strangers, but in most cases they are actually already known to, and trusted by, their victim – as acquaintances, friends, relatives, colleagues, employers, lovers, partners, or people in positions of power.

How might an experience of sexual violence affect someone?

This type of violence has a long lasting and wide-ranging impact on survivors, who may suffer long-term physical, emotional, psychological, and psychosexual harm as a result of their experience.

Besides their immediate injuries and bruising, survivors may also be at risk of longer term sexual health complications, such as contracting an STI or becoming pregnant as a result of the attack.

Emotionally, many survivors will suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress, which can include depression, anxiety, dissociation, nightmares, flashbacks, self-harm, misuse of drugs or alcohol, and suicidal thoughts. They may also feel ashamed and 'dirty', or blame themselves for what happened, which understandably impacts on feelings of confidence and self-worth. These responses may get worse if survivors have had negative responses from other people, for example feeling judged, blamed or not believed.

For obvious reasons, sexual violence can also have a significant impact on survivors' interpersonal relationships, including finding it hard to trust others, and difficulties with romantic and sexual relationships.

Intimate medical examinations can also become a source of trauma, discomfort and distress. As a result, many survivors may avoid or postpone seeking medical advice and attending screenings for breast and gynaecological issues, as well as other regular health appointments like visiting the dentist.

Read more about how survivors may feel about cervical screening >

“The healthcare professional I spoke to [at my smear test appointment] was not at all understanding. Whereas my dentist was amazing! So I've had wisdom teeth removed, but haven't had a smear test.”

- A survey respondent and survivor


1. Rape Crisis England & Wales, https://rapecrisis.org.uk/statistics.php [Accessed: August 2018]

2. Rape Crisis Scotland, https://www.rapecrisisscotland.org.uk/ [Accessed: August 2018]

Date last updated: 
30 Jul 2018
Date due for review: 
30 Jul 2021
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