January 23, 2011 -- A few days ago the London Evening Standard reported that Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is now under investigation for alleged corruption and paying underage prostitutes for sex, had hosted parties at which young women were asked to don naughty nurse attire for "lesbian stripper acts." Today, a short item on the New York Times website reported that one wiretap had revealed a Berlusconi agent telling a young party invitee to wear a "nurse's outfit" with "nothing underneath except white garters." That must be what the prime minister was thinking of in December 2006 when he thanked his nurses at the Cleveland Clinic, where he had just had a pacemaker implanted, by noting that "Italian nurses are better looking. . . These ones scare me a bit. Don't even think about leaving me alone at night with one of them." It's encouraging to know that such national leaders, who make key decisions about funding for nursing practice and education, regard nurses so highly and have such a keen appreciation for their work. Anyway, we hope that the 74-year-old media magnate has more than teenage stripper "nurses" to take care of him should he ever require further health care.
The Evening Standard item "Nurses attack Silvio Berlusconi over striptease," written by Nick Pisa, reported that Berlusconi was "attacked by nurses and police after it emerged that women were encouraged to dress in their uniforms for 'lesbian stripper acts' at his parties." The piece quotes Italy's "national nursing union":
Using our uniforms at erotic parties hosted by the premier is obscene and seriously offends us as women and nurses. A nurse's uniform is a symbol of our competence and duty to patients. It insults our dignity to be ridiculed like this.
The police union had a similar reaction. The piece goes on to explain that court documents had revealed that a "belly dancer known as 'Ruby the Heartbreaker,'" who was only 17 years old when she attended a party, told a friend that she had had sex with Berlusconi. The piece also reported that she had later denied having sex with him--while appearing on one of Berlusconi's own television stations. Today, the New York Times added a little more detail in an item by Rachel Donadio headlined "Surreal: A Soap Opera Starring Berlusconi".
"Do you have a nurse's outfit?" the television agent Lele Mora asks one young woman he is inviting to a party at Mr. Berlusconi's home, according to one transcript of a wiretap. "Go out and get one today," he adds, telling her to wear nothing underneath except white garters. In another, Mr. Mora likens the villa to Michael Jackson's house. "Wow, Neverland," she answers.
Naughty nurse imagery, even when presented as "joke" or just for "fun," undermines nursing because it reinforces an enduring stereotype of nurses as brainless bimbos, and not serious professionals who save lives and improve patient outcomes, as nurses really do. But policy makers and opinion leaders who regard nurses in the ways that Berlusconi's reported statements and actions suggest that he does are unlikely to support the provision of adequate resources for nurses in clinical settings, education, and research. They are also unlikely to be strong proponents of increasing the number of men in the profession, which remains overwhelmingly female throughout the world. And a lack of respect and resources underlies many of the more immediate causes of the ongoing global nursing crisis.
Perhaps it would be pointless, at this stage, to urge Mr. Berlusconi to reconsider his views. But we do urge everyone else to consider whether continuing to associate professional nursing so closely with female sexuality is in society's best interests.