Inside The Soothing, Intimate World Of ASMR Smear Tests

Photographed by Savanna Ruedy.
When you think of relaxation, listening to an unfamiliar medical practitioner whisper as they wave a speculum at you might not spring to mind. However there are many people who find watching ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos of smear tests deeply relaxing. In fact, there’s a growing niche online of ASMR gynaecologist content, with creators (or ASMRtists, as they’re called) role-playing as nurses, gynaecologists or doctors.
Far from being a random fad, this could serve a greater purpose. In 2019, Public Health England launched a campaign to tackle the fact that uptake of cervical screenings had fallen to a 20-year low, for reasons ranging from embarrassment to lack of knowledge. While this led to a slight increase in uptake before the pandemic, the impact of coronavirus on NHS services meant that those gains were lost in 2021.
To the uninitiated, these videos might sound like something you would usually find in a very particular, potentially risqué corner of the internet. Maybe you’re more familiar with the purely sound-based ASMR, whereby creators tap, crinkle, brush or whisper their way through a collection of objects. But medical role play is not new – in fact, it is a huge part of the ASMR community for both ASMR and educational purposes.
These role plays typically feature the ASMRtist softly talking or whispering their way through an eye test, cranial nerve exam or dermatologist assessment as if they were the doctor and the viewer the patient, in a way that mimics these personal interactions. The aim is to recreate real-life scenarios where people may have experienced ASMR, perhaps due to the personal attention, the sounds of medical instruments or soft speaking, in a way that can relax the viewer.
Anyone who has attended a gynaecological appointment will note that there’s a big difference between an eye test and a cervical screening. The latter is far more intimate and can be invasive, even anxiety-inducing. If the idea that these videos can be relaxing seems bizarre, the videos don’t immediately disprove that idea.
The camera sits in the viewer’s place with the creator reaching out towards the screen in a way that creates the intensely direct and personal attention which it is hoped will be relaxing (but definitely could be off-putting). The medical focus of the content means that it includes personal questions, simulated procedures and real medical instruments – all things that could yank the viewer out of a relaxed state, regardless of the ASMRtist’s soft tones. 
But reading the comments under these videos, it becomes clear just how helpful they can be for those who are anxious about gynaecological appointments. Viewers who feel nervous about a cervical screening or pelvic exam, for instance, express their gratitude towards creators whose videos have helped to alleviate the fear of the unknown and empower them to assert their needs in those situations. Interestingly, despite women commenting more often, there are a significant number of men also watching and commenting. Most of the comments from male viewers praise the educational aspect of the content, explaining that they previously didn’t know anything about the different facets of gynaecological care.
Speaking to the UK's leading cervical cancer charity Jo’s Trust about whether this kind of online content could have a positive impact on screening uptake and experience, head of information and engagement Eluned Hughes said: "If ASMRtists have done their research about cervical screenings and are able to portray appointment processes accurately in their video, this may help to educate people who haven’t yet been for a screening appointment or are not aware of what it involves." This is certainly the case for YouTuber Leanna the PA, who works as a physician's assistant in Detroit during the day and creates ASMR content on YouTube and TikTok in her spare time.
Leanna’s videos have a dedicated following, often getting over 100,000 views and hundreds of comments. While other ASMRtists like Be Brave Be You ASMR, WhispersUnicorn and ASMR Tingle Play have created one or two gynaecology-focused videos, Leanna has made ASMR gynaecology her focus.
Speaking to Refinery29 about what made her start making this content, Leanna said: "When I first started working in OBGYN [gynaecology], it became very clear to me early on that many individuals out there had little understanding and knowledge about reproductive health, including their own. For me, my new goal was to spread awareness and education regarding topics in obstetrics and gynaecology, topics that were labelled 'taboo' by many different cultures." She highlights that education is a key part of tackling the fear around gynaecology. "I want to empower and educate patients. I want them to know not only their options but their rights."
Leanna started out on TikTok, where she fell accidentally into the ASMR genre. "There was one TikTok in particular where I was educating viewers on what a pap smear [smear test] was – I remember that when I was making this video, I was speaking in a very soft, low tone so that none of my colleagues would hear me (I laugh about this now). That decision to speak quietly in that one video completely changed my approach to education on OBGYN. I was introduced to the ASMR community."
It’s easy but misguided to assume that anyone could easily find this information out by speaking to their doctor or scouring the internet. The sheer volume of information online and the difficulty of accessing an appointment with a GP means it is extremely valuable to have someone like Leanna lay out all the information for you in a kind, relaxed and non-judgmental way.

The camera sits in the viewer's place with the creator reaching out towards the screen in a way that creates the intensely direct and personal attention which it is hoped will be relaxing (but definitely could be off-putting).

According to Jo’s Trust there are many reasons why people may avoid gynaecological appointments like cervical screenings. Hughes tells R29 that there is a whole host of mental and practical barriers to getting care: anxiety and embarrassment, a lack of appointments outside nine-to-five working hours, trauma following sexual violence and a lack of support for trans men and non-binary people with a cervix. Karen Hobbs from the gynaecological cancer charity Eve Appeal suggests other barriers like physical disability, lack of awareness of the purpose of screening, or being put off by unpleasant gynaecological experiences in the past. These barriers mean that nearly one in three people invited for cervical screening in the UK do not attend their appointment. Cervical screening can detect high-risk types of HPV which, when found, can be stopped from developing into cancer. Its importance cannot be underestimated.
Could these ASMR role plays have the potential to increase attendance at gynaecological appointments? Or at least reduce the anxiety of those who do attend? Possibly, as many of these videos play out a full appointment, from answering health questions with a nurse to taking vitals like blood pressure and heart rate, all the way up to simulating what happens during various procedures like cervical screenings, STI tests, pelvic exams and contraception fittings. This is invaluable for alleviating fear of the unknown as, unfortunately, gynaecological care is still rarely spoken about and given little space in traditional media.
Hobbs acknowledges that these videos may help to calm people's nerves ahead of an appointment but urges viewers to manage their expectations. "These videos are brilliant at explaining slowly and calmly what will happen [during a cervical screening]," she said, "but the information presented in this way might lead people to believe that this is exactly how their appointment will pan out, which just isn't the case." Hobbs continued: "I think as long as people know that these videos are great for sharing information but will never be the identical experience someone will have in real life, then all is well."
The potential of these videos to change individual perceptions about gynaecological care is why they shouldn’t be dismissed as cringe or weird. "[ASMR takes] rather sensitive topics and experiences and deliver[s] them in a very calming way, which in turn will not only educate viewers but will have them associate these topics with peace and understanding, rather than fear and anxiety," says Leanna. Unlearning the anxiety, disempowerment and embarrassment that has been associated with gynaecology for so long will take more than just an ASMR video but anyone working to empower patients is helping us make steps in the right direction.

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