Drawing the line
March 12, 2010 -- Today the New York Daily News ran an item based on a Reuters piece reporting that a Dutch nurses union had launched a national campaign to remind patients that sexual services were actually not part of nurses' professional duties. Apparently, a young female nurse had recently complained that a disabled man had demanded that she provide sex as part of his care, then threatened to have her fired when she refused. And what might have given this Dutch patient the idea that sex was part of nursing? Well, we might point to that enduring global naughty nurse stereotype, but it also seems that the complaining nurse saw "some of her peers performing sexual acts with the patient." The short Daily News item by Ethan Sacks is a fair statement of the basic issues, though the accompanying photo (right)--of a hot model dressed in a regressive nurse's dress with cap, staring provocatively and directing a stethoscope at the camera--doesn't exactly counter the idea that nurses are mainly sexual objects. And the report might also have noted that sexual harassment is a major problem for nurses worldwide and a significant factor in nursing burnout. We thank those responsible for the basic report.
The Daily News headlined its piece "Dutch nurses need public service campaign, stat! Don't have to perform sexual acts for patients." The report says that the union NU'91 launched the national campaign the preceding Friday. The union said in a statement that sexual services are "not part of the job responsibilities of carers and nurses." The press item explains that the union's "I Draw the Line Here" campaign followed
a complaint made by a 24-year-old female nurse whose patient, a disabled man in his forties, demanded sex as part of his health care services. The nurse claims that she witnessed some of her peers performing sexual acts with the patient, and when she refused, the patient tried to have her dismissed on grounds that she wasn't fulfilling her professional duties, Reuters reported.
The photo with the Daily News piece shows a young, very attractive, heavily made-up female--a model--in what seems to be an old-school white nurse's dress with short sleeves and a white cap. There's no cleavage, but the way the nurse is staring and pointing the stethoscope at the camera, along with her posture, clearly suggest an interest which is not purely professional. Unless, of course, her profession is something other than nursing.
The text of the article is fine, laying out the basic story with no overt smirking, despite the subject matter. The piece might have provided a little more context about the overall role that these sexual issues have played in nursing. Is sexual abuse of nurses a significant issue in the Netherlands generally? Is that why the union felt compelled to start a national campaign? Sexual harassment is a major problem for real nurses in the United States and other nations, as studies have shown, and it seems likely that the widespread sexualization of nursing in the mass media in the past few decades is a factor, though of course the fact that most nurses are still females with relatively little economic and social power probably plays a role as well.
In this case, it sounds like some of the patient's care givers actually provided sexual services, perhaps because they felt compassion for him in his disabled state. But however difficult a particular patient's situation, it is too much to expect any professional nurse to provide such services. Perhaps there are other solutions for such a patient, and the nurses might have worked with him and other professionals to explore such options. Of course, the patient's reported attempt to have the nurse fired for her refusal is clearly wrong. But with some nurses apparently providing him with sex, you could see how he--and the public--might get the wrong idea. We urge nurses to consider the effects of their conduct on their profession. Giving people the idea that sexual services are part of nursing reinforces a damaging stereotype, undermining efforts to have nurses regarded as modern health professionals worthy of respect and resources for their education, research, and clinical practice.
Perhaps all of us, including some nurses, have something to learn from the "Draw the Line" campaign.See the article "Dutch nurses need public service campaign, stat! Don't have to perform sexual acts for patients" by Ethan Sacks in the March 12, 2010 edition of the Daily News.