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All these women. But who are they, and how much risk?
The nurse probed unsuccessfully, having more trouble than three years earlier. 'Possible slight discomfort' is how they often describe it when they're encouraging you to turn up, but these stabbings to take a smear test were way up on the Richter scale of pain.
The woman muttered, looking almost as humiliated as I was. 'How old are you now? Obviously through the menopause, but....'
I reminded her.
'And do you have any problems having sex?'
And there it was again: another day in another year when I felt obliged to explain.
I'm 59 and solo. After some 15 years without so much as a date, I've immunised myself to the Valentine's Day card messages mis-aimed at women like me ('Some may call you junk: me, I call you treasure.' 'I'm glad you're as weird as me.'). And I manage just as easily to ignore the sporadic attempts to re-brand 14 February as 'Singles Awareness Day' ('SAD', aren't they?).
I have a healthy, busy life. I'm bursting with creativity, have plenty of friends and family and live in the brilliant social experiment of a cohousing community that mixes homes for singles with homes for couples and families. It's just that I've not met anyone who might qualify as 'the right man' - or 'possible right men', even - for well over a decade. In the end, I was so preoccupied with other things that I merely forgot to keep looking.
I should celebrate being single as a mature, happy life preference, and yet here I am, nearly 60, still explaining myself ('I just haven't met the right man. Anyway, a man would complicate all my routines'); so my subconscious clearly isn't celebrating, is it? And why? Because too many experiences in my life, like that smear test, exacerbate my self-image of social misfit: of being somehow lesser, if not outright forgotten.
To continue the horror story, the nurse called in the doctor but he had no joy either.
'Why don't you have it done under a local anaesthetic with a colleague who's a specialist? Of course a woman,' he added tactfully. 'I'm going to refer you. And given how you're feeling, maybe you'd prefer to start by talking on the phone.'
Because I needed bracing to explain myself again, it took me a week or two to contact the specialist at a nearby hospital. But she was a sympathetic listener as I babbled on about feeling violated and exposed. And it was only now that she told me something that no one ever had: that for older women who have been sexually inactive for a very long time, the risk of cervical cancer - although still dependent on many factors such as heredity, smoking and sexual history - can be fairly infinitesimal. Once we'd checked that my other risk factors weren't that high, she let me sign off in a disclaimer. And, she said, until and unless I felt I needed to review, that was the end of that.
Why, for the last few three-year cycles of invasive proddings, had no one thought to share the specialist's rather consoling news? Because till then the medics had assumed that - like everyone, surely - I must be sexually active: to them, I was a social pea in a pod. Not to mention that medical advice and media bulletins about the dangers of cervical cancer - as about so much else - are not nearly nuanced enough (Huffington Post, 15 January 2014: Women over 50 urged to have regular smear tests to lower cancer risk).
In the social scheme of things we long-term older, celibate women are still being overlooked. And yet our number is going up - and by 'single' I don't just mean not married, or unmarried but cohabiting, as so much data defines the word. By my lights, female solos should potentially encompass the many who are divorced, widowed or separated, lone mothers in households with children, and women like me who just plain live alone.
The UK's Office for National Statistics, 2013, showed that we're a growing, significant group:
- 68% of over-65s living alone in the UK are women.
- The number of solo dwellers, male and female, in the age range 45-64 grew by 28% between 2001 and 2013.
- Of the 26.4 million households in the UK, 29% of them are occupied by one person, and that figure is going up.
US trends are similar. In 2007, nearly 42% of Americans were divorced, widowed or never- marrieds, and more singles lived alone than in family structures, and these trends continue : see Bella DePaulo and E. Kay Trimberger (http://belladepaulo.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Single-Women-Fact-Sheet-11-1-08.pdf).
Medics and the media, please start thinking of us. Improve your communications with us and about us. I rest my case.