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Nurses are No. male sexual fantasies

August 24, 2006 -- Today The Age (Melbourne) ran an unsigned Agence France Presse item headlined "Nurses and firemen top fantasy poll." It reports that a new poll has found that 54% of British men have sexual fantasies about nurses. No other profession hit the 50% mark for male or female fantasizers, though 47% of women apparently dream about "firemen." The results seem to show that nursing leads a list of traditionally female, service-oriented jobs about which men fantasize. That list contrasts sharply with the objects of popular female fantasies, namely traditionally male jobs associated with heroism and/or socioeconomic power, including medicine. The poll underlines why nursing remains in the midst of a life-threatening global shortage--daunting professional difficulty and hypersexualized social contempt is hardly a winning combination. We would urge the media to stop relying so heavily on naughty nurse imagery, if we weren't so concerned that there's no other way to sell beer and stuff to male consumers.

The AFP item reports that "[n]urses and firemen dominate the sexual fantasies of men and women in Britain." In addition to nurses, men fantasize about maids (44%) and flight attendants (40%), rounding out the stereotypical usual suspects. For their part, women also dreamed of soldiers (28%), businessmen (27%), and physicians (26%). At the other end of the list, less than 2% of women fantasized about politicians, while less than 7% of men fantasized about "traffic wardens." The poll, conducted by Budget Van Insurance, surveyed 1818 adults.

The primitive gender assumptions in all of this are striking, though the item mentions none of them. The jobs that women fantasize most about are associated with economic, physical, and/or mental power, while those that top the men's list are associated with care-taking or service--a classic dominant-submissive division. It is not clear if any allowance was made for the possibilities of male nurses or flight attendants, or female firefighters or physicians. Perhaps no one would fantasize about such freakish people, who defy all the accepted rules. The role of same-sex fantasy preferences also remains unclear. Do many women fantasize about (male or female) nurses? In addition, were poll takers presented with a defined list of jobs, or were the questions open-ended? Was prostitution an available choice? How would nursing compare with that profession?

What could be wrong with being the "hottest" profession in the U.K.? Well, just a few things. The results suggest that nursing is the most sexualized profession in British society. (We're sure the relentless association of nursing and sex by the world's entertainment and advertising industries has nothing to do with it.) Moreover, though both of the other "female" professions are important, neither job requires more than a high school education. As for the listed "male" professions, their places on the list represent something very different from the female entries. Not all of those workers are highly paid, but all are commonly associated with some combination of heroism and socioeconomic power, and it is difficult to imagine any of them feeling that their appearance on this list is any threat to their professional status. No bright, ambitious young man will be deterred from pursuing a career in medicine or the military because of this poll. But consider the comparable effect of the poll's finding on nursing.

Indeed, the deep-seated--and this study suggests unparalleled--association of nursing and sexuality continues to discourage practicing and potential nurses, foster sexual violence in the workplace, and contribute to a general atmosphere of disrespect that weakens nurses' claims to adequate resources. When you combine the lack of respect that this poll reflects, the college-level training nursing actually requires, and the difficulty and stress of actual nursing practice, it is no surprise that the profession remains in the midst of a crisis driven by rampant short-staffing. In fact, we hear short-staffing has gotten so bad, nurses don't have as much time as they once did to spend in male sexual fantasies.

But wait--what about the argument one young nurse blogger recently made, that the perception that nurses are "sexy" is a concern only for the "fat," "insecure," 50-year-old "leaders" of nursing? Well, it's funny you should mention that, nurse blogger. In fact, the main victims of the naughty nurse image are unlikely to be the people you have so lovingly described. Instead, it's more likely to be you, your friends, and your patients. Many nursing "leaders" no longer work at the bedside. But for those who do, the lack of real respect the "sexy nurse" enjoys is an important reason for the inadequate clinical resources that nurses and patients face every day, all over the world.

It seems to us that the naughty nurse image has little to do with a belief that real nurses are hot but serious professionals, and much to do with a desire to have anonymous sex with models dressed in lingerie-like "nurse" uniforms. It's diverting for some men, apparently, to think that the little handmaiden job of nursing is populated by disposable bimbos, which may also help such men handle the notion that female nurses actually have some power over them in clinical settings. But the disposable bimbo is not an image that appeals to most career seekers, particularly men, which is a key reason the profession remains over 90% female--never a prescription for power and respect. And it's not an image that persuades decision-makers to allocate sufficient resources to nursing practice, notably adequate staffing. Get back to us, nurse blogger, about how sexy you feel after a 12-hour shift spent rushing from room to room in a desperate effort not to kill any patients, hauling the obese ones around until your back throbs, all the while contending with leering demands for a little sexual healing.

See the Agence France Presse article: "Nurses and firemen top fantasy poll" in the August 24, 2006 edition of The Age.

See the Budget Van Insurance press release on the poll.

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