Backlash after cervical cancer campaign appears to ‘sexualise’ smear tests

'Who thought this was a good idea?'

Backlash after cervical cancer campaign appears to ‘sexualise’ smear tests
advert at Manchester Piccadilly station
People haven’t been impressed (Picture: @NorthWestCancer/X)

A cervical cancer screening campaign has been met with backlash for ‘sexualising’ the medical procedure.

The strap line for North West Cancer Research’s campaign is ‘Don’t Keep Em Crossed’ and features sculptures of bare crossed legs, with pointed toes.

Cervical cancer rates in the region are 19% higher than in the rest of England, and the installation features at Manchester’s Piccadilly Station.

While the well-intentioned could be seen as reclaiming the line – often used in reference to suggest women must be more ‘ladylike’ and cross their legs – we’re struggling to understand how it ties in with smear test uptake.

One woman on Mumsnet summed up the confusing legs with: ‘It looks like a promo for a lovely legs competition in a seaside resort in the 1970s.’

The advert reads: ‘Our region’s cervical cancer rates are 19% higher than the rest of England. Yet almost 1 in 3 people aged 25-49 in the North West don’t attend their cervical screening leaving their risk of developing cervical cancer to chance.’ 

advert at Manchester Piccadilly station
Sexualised (Picture: @NorthWestCancer/X)

Viewers, understandably, haven’t been impressed.

Debbie Cameron, a feminist campaigner and Oxford University professor, wrote on X: ‘What is the matter with people who design campaigns to encourage cervical cancer screening?

”’Don’t keep em crossed” is a line for a lech (and ”you should have kept them crossed” is an old excuse for rape). The whole thing is objectifying and offensive.’ 

Another writer and feminist, Toni Hargis, said: ‘Can’t believe it. WHO thought this was a good idea? Sexualising a vital health procedure and using a phrase that’s employed to shame women.’

Many women have questioned how effective the advert will be in achieving its goals of getting more people to have their screenings – people know that smear tests can be uncomfortable, and a sexy pair of legs isn’t going to fool anyone.

However, most smears are over within 10 minutes, and shouldn’t cause pain. Those with a cervix can also ask for a smaller speculum if needed, and listen to music to focus on something else.

Sophia Smith Galer, the author of Losing It, said of the misguided campaign: ‘Cervical screening campaigns like this put an onus of failure not on the healthcare systems that have failed to create a more comfortable screening, but on women and people themselves.

‘These are traumatising for many of us beyond our control.’

Despite the backlash, Karen Swan, director of Influential – the advertising firm behind the campaign – has doubled down and said it was deliberately ‘playful and a bit cheeky’ to ‘grab attention’.

She described the Don’t Keep ’em Crossed’ strapline as ‘perfect’. 

A spokesperson for North West Cancer Research said: ‘Our campaign was designed by women, led by woman and it is their legs that feature in the photographs supporting the work.

‘It is obviously disappointing to find that the style and tone of the approach we have taken on this occasion has caused some disquiet. We are going to reflect on all the comments we have received. 

‘The work was designed to draw attention to the underlying problem – which is people keeping things crossed and hoping for the best. We acknowledge there has been some negative reaction, but it does not reflect all the feedback we have received.’

They also said women at Manchester Piccadilly station had ‘come forward to share their stories and thank us for drawing attention to the issue’. 

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer affects the lining of the lower part of womb. The most common symptom is unusual bleeding, such as between periods, during sex or after the menopause, but other signs can include:

  • Pain during sex
  • Vaginal discharge that smells 
  • Pain in the pelvis

Causes can include:

  • Age – more than half of sufferers are under 45
  • HPV infection – which affects most people at some point in their lives
  • Smoking – responsible for 21% of cases
  • Contraceptive pill – linked to 10% of cases
  • Having children
  • Family history of cervical or other types of cancer

Source: Cancer Research UK 

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