a masterclass in gaslighting: the toxic narrative that stands between cervical cancer screening and sexual violence survivors.
Trigger warning: this piece deals with discussions surrounding sexual assault, suicide, medical abuse and medical procedures. Some parts may be too graphic for some readers.
One lovely October morning I awoke to a DM on twitter from a friend, the DM included screenshots from the Instagram stories of Layla of @lalalaletmeexplain, an influencer, sex educator and podcaster with over 111k followers.
The stories consisted of her advocating for cervical screening and encouraging her followers to share what barriers they face that have prevented them from going for a smear test. At first upon seeing this I was happy to see someone actually talking about barriers and raising awareness…then I read her responses.
She starts out supportive, saying that it’s an important point and that she knows how daunting and triggering smear tests can be for survivors, but despite this she quickly changed her tune and started belittling and gaslighting us survivors.
The “it’s better than cancer” and “if you think a smear test is bad try cancer treatments” arguments are sadly something survivors are very familiar with, we hear it all the time, we hear it from our families, friends, coworkers, celebrities, and our favorite social media influencers.
If you face any barriers to participating in screening you’ve heard it a thousand times, yet somehow no matter how many times you hear it it never stops feeling like a slap in the face.
Her posts show extreme ignorance of how being a survivor of sexual violence works, we can’t just “find a way to make it less traumatic” although we wish more than anyone that we could.
Our trauma is not a light switch that we can just flip when it gets in the way, we can’t just get over it, or suck it up. Our traumas are a part of us that we have to live with everyday, and it’s not as simple as just having a chat with the nurse and going for tea and biscuits afterwards.
And suggesting it’s as easy as just “doing it” is ignorant and insensitive. This is not a Nike ad, sit back down Layla.
I had my first and last smear test shortly after turning 25, I got the letter in the mail when I was 24 and I promptly tossed it into my partner’s Barbecue grill and lit it on fire before I even finished reading it and I felt insurmountable relief in watching the colorful little leaflet filled with pictures of smiling women burn. And I didn’t think about smear tests for a long while after that, I always managed to dodge my GP’s questions and pushing for me to get one, until he’d had enough of my cervical screening runaround and finally gave me an ultimatum; Screen or don’t get treatment for an unrelated issue. He bullied me into feeling I had no choice and made me feel weak and stupid for being unable to do it.
I left that visit knowing I didn’t have cervical cancer, but bleeding, in pain, humiliated, and feeling violated and small. That one test undid almost a decade of recovery from rape and PTSD, and reminded me that in the eyes of many I am weird, broken, and weak because I struggle with the idea of allowing my vagina to be pried open and poked around in by a complete stranger, while naked and laying spread out. I can’t imagine a more vulnerable position for anyone to be in, but being a survivor adds a lot of unique complications to that.
Like it or not, or want to admit it or not, smear tests are invasive, and sexually invasive at that, and many aspects of cervical screening are very reminiscent of many of us to our assaults, the vulnerability, the feeling of someone else having control over your body, the language used with terms like “relax” “move here” “hold still” all said with little concern for how many of us flinch and grit our teeth at the words.
The cold hard truth is survivors are an afterthought when it comes to cervical screening, if even thought about at all, and access to trauma informed care and resources for the estimated 3.4 million women in the UK who face sexual violence every year is abysmally lacking.
Hurt by Layla’s words and hoping she’d be open to being educated on why her words were hurtful and damaging to the survivor community I reached out to her via email. I was hopeful she’d respond well and we could have an open discussion about barriers since Layla pushes a message of acceptance and education. I even opened up to her about how I attempted to take my own life at one point largely because of feeling like all the work and tears I’d put into recovering from my assault was wasted because all it took to undo it all was a stupid smear test.
Sadly Layla’s response disappointed to say the least.
She explained some of her own backstory and then went on to say that she feels women like me who make the decision to skip smear tests for the sake of their mental health are “putting perpetuators (of sexual violence) in control and allowing them to take more from us”
If her previous words from her Instagram story were a slap in the face this was a baseball bat to the head.
Imagine being in my position and being told a decision you’ve made for your mental health is allowing your rapist to have control over you. Take a moment to think about how that feels, many of you know exactly how it feels because you are in a position similar to mine.
No I can’t have a smear test, yes it’s detrimental to my mental health, yes I know all the risks of making that decision. But I made it for me. Me and only me. And it was one of the most empowering and liberating decisions I’ve ever made, I am not giving my rapist control over me by making it and insinuating that I am is disgusting and incredibly harmful. Everyone heals in different ways, if conquering a smear test is how you heal, or how Layla heals, or how anyone heals, fine, wonderful, good for you. But it is not how I healed, and I think it’s ridiculous that a social media influencer is seemingly trying to police how others heal and telling me I am doing it wrong.
How on earth can someone say that to a survivor who just confided their struggles with suicide, PTSD, and the emotional fall out of rape in them and still have the audacity to claim they’re an advocate? And worse of all Layla is not the only person I’ve seen online claiming that making the decision to avoid triggering medical exams is somehow allowing our abusers to further control our lives. Some people cannot face triggers head on, and if they try the results can be disastrous and even fatal.
I responded letting her know that I was disappointed in her response and felt hurt by it.
This was her response to that.
Why, thank you Layla, it’s so lovely to see how much you care and how much you value the input of people who support you and look up to you.
At this point this is not a person with purely good intentions who said something insensitive without realizing it was hurtful, this is a willfully ignorant, hostile, entitled child throwing a temper tantrum over not getting the pats on the back and likes and engagement from her adoring fans she expected.
This is a woman whose ego is so fragile she gaslights and belittles anyone who dares to give her constructive feedback or try to educate her on how she can be a better advocate.
Tonight thousands of Layla’s fans who are survivors will go to bed knowing a person they looked up to doesn’t care about them, and thousands of Layla’s young fans will think her behavior is OK and that gaslighting and belittling survivors is the way to increase smear uptake and save lives.
Layla has also refused to acknowledge the potential risks of cervical screening, because like all medical procedures it does come with risks like over treatment, misdiagnosis, and false positives. Those risks should be considered when deciding weather or not to screen.
And I’m not the only one who is disappointed in Layla.
Here’s what a fellow survivor of sexual violence and medical abuse and former follower of Layla’s had to say.
“Essentially, whenever these types of posts are made, especially when there’s a well-known influencer involved, I just feel a sense of panic that shaming and nasty or cruel conversations are going to happen.”
they went on to explain “It’s been really damaging to see a narrative arise about women who struggle to attend/choose not to attend being silly and immature/braindead/f*cking idiots (all phrases I have actually seen on social media). It’s good when barriers are acknowledged and a step forward, but still really triggering when it’s presented as if there’s no choice but to grit your teeth and do something really traumatic.”
several of Layla’s former supporters have reached out to me online expressing similar concerns to mine, all of them who have agreed to comment wished to remain anonymous for fear of backlash from Layla.
“I really liked her (Layla) and looked up to her a lot. She taught me so much about sex and my body when I really didn’t have many resources about those things”
Another former supporter of Lalalaletmeexplain told me in a DM on Instagram.
“I was a little hurt when I saw her story, I felt she was diminishing my experience, and then I saw one of my friends saying she was also hurt by it. I ended up sending Layla a DM after going back and forth about it quite a bit… I’ve seen her clap back against people before and it was a little scary, especially because I run a small makeup Instagram account and can’t afford to be attacked by a big influencer”
She then unfollowed Layla and hasn’t heard back from her at the time of this publication.
If it was just Layla who was the problem that wouldn’t be so bad, but she’s far from the only one who shares this view on how smear tests affect many survivors.
Even major charities like Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust has said some extremely harmful and ignorant things about survivors and faced quite a lot of backlash in 2019 after a survey they’d done asking about barriers failed to even ask questions about the role sexual violence and survivorship played in cervical screening uptake.
There’s quite possibly thousands of folks on social media weaponizing a narrative similar to Layla’s against survivors like me who dedicate serious time and effort to advocating for informed consent, trauma informed care, and sensitive and compassionate resources for survivors.
I’ve been an advocate for 3 years now and sadly I’m no stranger to gaslighting, bullying, threats, and mockery.
All of the following screenshots are responses I’ve personally gotten from people online when I’ve tried to educate them on barriers that survivors face.
I’ve been called an “idiot” “retard” “freak” “clown” and worse.
I get relentlessly mocked, told to kill myself, and have people wishing I’d die of cervical cancer, I’ve even gotten the odd death and/or rape threat.
I don’t share these with you in hopes of garnering pity, or sympathy, or followers. I share these in hopes that you’ll see what survivors already have to deal with, how stigmatized talking about barriers is and how violently we’re lashed out at when we try to break that stigma. And in hopes that you, the reader who may not be a survivor will decide to not do what Layla did, what Jo’s Trust did, what all these people did.
The rhetoric that survivors who deal with barriers are immature, stupid, throwing their lives away, don’t love their families, and are dying of embarrassment vastly over simplifies the issue and to those people who spread this narrative I just want to ask. Do you really think this is helpful? Do you really not understand that we would literally give anything for things to be as easy as you so ignorantly claim? Do you not see that for every “it’s better than cancer” post you make there’s a survivor out there staring defeatedly down at their phone screen shaking their head in sadness and disappointment?
Do you not see the harm you’re doing, or do you just not care?
Please stop weaponizing our trauma and fears against us.
And if you can’t be trauma informed, and compassionate please just be quiet and let us do the talking because we know what’s best for us. Not you.
Please don’t be a Layla.
Please stop belittling and gaslighting us.
if you are a survivor or struggling with suicidal thoughts or actions here are some safe and helpful resources for you to use.
RAINN offer a helpline and resources for survivors of sexual violence.
suicide prevention resources from around the world.