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You're a nurse, right?

butt grab nurse 
December 2, 2010 -- Today MSNBC ran a short "weird news" item about a common event:  sexual abuse based at least partly on patients' assumption that it's OK if the victim is a nurse. Teresa Masterson's piece tells the story of Joseph Wolf of Allentown, PA, a man who reportedly claimed that the reason he twice grabbed an emergency room nurse's buttocks was to say "thank you" for her care. Of course, this is a creative justification for abuse, but countless nurses have been "thanked" this way throughout their careers. What makes this story more notable is what Wolf apparently told the nurse after grabbing her: "Well, you're a nurse, right?" In other words, it's part of your job to provide sexual services, or at least to endure sexual abuse. Where would people get the idea that nurses are sex toys? Could it be the media, at least to some extent? You know--the same media the produces The Dr. Oz Show, which just last month included a segment featuring naughty "nurses" dancing with Oz as an "attempt at humor" in a segment about losing weight? When a prominent physician like Oz doesn't get it--even his "apology" suggested that he thought the nurses who objected were just too sensitive--what chance does the average patient have to understand these issues? It's as hard to imagine Oz dancing with women in naughty physician or lawyer outfits as it is to imagine a person following up a sexual assault with, "well, you're a physician," or "well, you're a lawyer." We thank MSNBC and other news outlets for reporting on this incident. But we saw no hint in these stories that most nurses experience this kind of abuse, or that not enough is done to address the abuse, to say nothing of the stereotypes that underlie it.

The MSNBC piece was headlined, "Nothing says 'thank you' like a tush grab or two." It explains that the 53-year-old Wolf was at Allentown's Sacred Heart Hospital late the preceding Sunday night, in the "waiting room demanding to be treated because he said he'd been assaulted."

Police say Wolf repeatedly demanded pain medication while using vulgar language, and when the nurse told him no medication was ordered, he twice grabbed the nurse's buttocks and said,

"Well, you're a nurse, right," reports the [Allentown] Morning Call.

When police arrived a little after 11 p.m., Wolf told them he didn't think his conduct was inappropriate because "in Europe, they kiss."

Wolf also reportedly claimed that grabbing the nurse "was just his way of saying 'thank you' for her service." Neither the nurse nor the police agreed, and it seems pretty unlikely that a person who is using profanity and is unhappy at being denied medication would be in the mood to thank anyone. Wolf was later admitted to the hospital for the earlier assault he apparently suffered, but he is now "facing indecent assault charges" and "being held on $8,500 bail."

It's no secret that nurses are often assaulted, and that these assaults often have a sexual component. In October 2009, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that a Utah man had allegedly grabbed the breast of a hospital nurse he found "cute." The man was at the hospital for the impending birth of his child. Police said that the nurse he assaulted was wheeling his child's mother to the delivery room. The man was arrested, so he missed the birth.

A 2009 study found that 56% of Japanese hospital nurses had been sexually harassed at some point in their careers. In a December 2005 study, University of Missouri communications professor Debbie Dougherty found that more than 70 percent of the nurses she surveyed in four U.S. states had been sexually harassed by patients. In March 2006, Dougherty told a writer for the Monster website that she was "surprised" at the aggression the nurses faced: "Patients threatened to attack nurses sexually and called them prostitutes." And a 2002 NurseWeek study found that 19 percent of nurses had been sexually harassed in the previous year.

Sexual abuse has a negative impact on patient care, as a December 2005 Associated Press item about Dougherty's study noted. A nurse traumatized by abuse cannot provide her best care, and the abuse contributes to nurse burnout and turnover, as well as nurses leaving the bedside completely.

Abused nurses often do not receive adequate support from their employers. Some seem to view sexual abuse as part of the nurses' job. In February 2009, the New York Daily News reported that a Queens jury had awarded a nurse $15 million after Flushing Hospital had allegedly allowed a physician to sexually abuse her and other nurses for years, even though hospital officials were aware of the physician's history of misconduct. The physician finally lost his admitting privileges after two 2001 incidents, including one in which he had allegedly chased the nurse through the halls, cornered her, and "aggressively groped her below the waist." We are pleased that the hospital and the police in Allentown appear to have taken this assault as the serious event it was, however comical the patient's explanations for his conduct may have been.

But what may be less commonly understood, and what does not seem appear in any reporting on these events, is the role that social attitudes about nurses play in such abuse. Of course these assaults are multicausal; not everyone who sees nurses as sex objects assaults them. Nor is this about any objection to sexual imagery in general. Naughty nurse imagery matters because nurses face a perfect storm of dangerous people and negative stereotyping about their workplace role. It seems clear that decades of relentless naughty nurse imagery in the media play a role in the attitudes of some, or else people would not make comments like Wolf reportedly made. When a person is altered--perhaps by drugs, mental health issues, pain, fear for his health, or stress from some other incident--and that person lashes out, it is natural he would choose a target society has told him is a disposable sex object, a woman of low status whose job it is to be sexually available and to accept abuse without complaint. After all, they are nurses, right? Naughty nurse imagery makes real nurses more attractive targets for people who are looking for targets.

Or even just an innovative way to say "thanks."


See Teresa Masterson's article "Nothing says 'thank you' like a tush grab or two: Man says he was trying to show gratitude but faces assault charge for groping nurse twice," posted December 2, 2010, on the MSNBC web site.


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