What Heroes Are All About: Susan Quilliam

April 20, 2009

From 2009 – 2011, Our Bodies Ourselves honored the work of women’s health advocates worldwide by asking readers to nominate their favorite women’s health hero. View all nominees by year: 2009, 2010, 2011

Entrants: Laura Bates and Joy Haughton

Nominee: Susan Quilliam, Sex and Relationship Psychologist


Susan Quilliam is an author, relationship psychologist and broadcaster, and an expert in women’s sexuality. Throughout her career she has raised awareness of issues surrounding women’s health and particularly women’s sexual health, and has worked tirelessly to break the taboos surrounding it.

We, the undersigned, having worked with Susan for almost four years, are still continually impressed at the depth of her commitment to women’s health issues and the breadth of her knowledge. She is a born educator and uses her talents to bring greater understanding of women and women’s health to a huge range of people, including health professionals, counsellors, policy makers, pharmaceutical companies, charities and, of course, women themselves.

Reacting to a deeply personal experience, Susan wrote her first book, “Positive Smear,” to challenge the deeply harmful social assumptions surrounding positive cervical smear results, shattering the myths that a positive smear is a result of promiscuity. It was a groundbreaking book which provided emotional support for the first time to women going through this traumatic experience.

Through tireless work with the Journal of Family Planning, the Family Planning Association, Relate and many other charitable organisations, Susan has dedicated a huge amount of time and effort to the cause of women’s healthcare, from her long personal replies to every woman who writes to her with a problem, no matter how obscure, to her support of cervical cancer sufferers and women in abusive relationships.

For many women suffering from sexual or reproductive healthcare problems can be deeply traumatic, not just due to the condition itself, but due to the social taboos surrounding these problems. Often the women I’ve seen turn to Susan have come to her as a last resort, with nobody else to confide in, nowhere else to turn. Her response is always warm, compassionate, swift and encouraging, and the depth of gratitude and happiness in the replies we receive from those she has helped are the strongest testament to the importance of the work she does.

We have watched Susan bring rooms full of hardened pharmaceutical reps to tears as she impressed on them the impact cervical cancer has on women’s lives. We have sorted the piles of delighted letters and emails that flooded in after Susan presented a psychological model for dealing with pre-menstrual syndrome at a charity conference. We have seen the light dawn in the eyes of doctors, nurses and even patients as Susan explains that no, erectile dysfunction doesn’t just affect the man – it is a couple problem.

But perhaps what impresses us more than any of these, is that although we didn’t see Susan take on the medical establishment twenty years ago in London, to persuade them of the emotional significance of a positive smear (pap) test – we’ve heard about it… from the doctors themselves. And that, for us, is lasting impact. And that is what Heroes are all about.

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