Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Western style sex and humor?

Here is a story from MSNBC about a restaurant in Arizona with waitresses dressed up as scantily clad nurses. One of our nurses mentioned it to me and expressed her feeling that this was not only demeaning to the women in the restaurant but also to nurses and the nursing profession.

The owner says, “If anything, I think it glorifies nurses to be thought of as a physically attractive and desirable individual. There’s a Faye Dunaway, Florence Nightingale hipness to it. Nobody wants to think of themselves as some old battle ax who changes bedpans for a living.”

It goes without saying that this kind of place would never survive in Boston or indeed anyplace east of Minneapolis. (I hope! Tell me if you think I am wrong.) Even accounting for the free spirit of the wild West, I am having trouble with this one. Beyond the obvious pornographic aspects, it is demeaning to the profession and the people in it. The guy's comments just add to the insult.

You don't buy that? Think about it this way. Some guy habituates this place and gets used to seeing "nurses" in this outfit and flirting with them. Later, he is in a hospital for real. Does anyone out there think that he will not look at and regard the hospital nurses in the same way?

19 comments:

Patient Dave said...

One problem is that everyone in such a discussion tends not to see where fantasy ends and reality begins. Your question (about whether he'd repeat his fantasy when facing a nurse in reality) touches on that point.

So my answer to "does anyone doubt what he'd do" is, it depends on whether he himself is self-aware enough to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Then there's the issue of stereotypes. If this were a restaurant where blacks played some stereotyped role, like the lantern-holding driveway jockeys of 50 years ago, it's pretty clear that they wouldn't get far except in a neighborhood of David Dukes. (btw, I can't believe that vermin came out of hiding to go to the Holocaust denial conference in Iran.)

Some people have fantasies about secretaries, nurses, teachers, "stewardesses," you name it, and can't keep their fantasies in their heads - they start thinking or hoping their fantasy will come true.

One irony is that the object of such fantasies is usually someone in a position of power or brains (not a meek flirt as in porno). Having had a number of female nurses and doctors as close friends, and being married to one, I can vouch that brains are attractive. But not in a way that depends on "cladness." Competence is just attractive to me.

Here's my favorite example of women lampooning stereotypes. In the Ms. Magazine book Decade of Women, ca. 1980, there was a great quote from a flight attendant: "I don't think of myself as a waitress. I think of myself as someone who can open the escape hatch of a 747 while upside down, in the dark, under water."

My bottom line:

1. Fantasies ought to be recognized for what they are (a form of sexual stimulation in the imagination) and ought to be displayed only in appropriate places (not in public restaurants).

2. People (including that restaurant owner) ought to realize that stereotypes are harmful because they keep good people down, and ought therefore not to play to the stereotypes.

p.s. Re "noplace east of Minneapolis": I detect a wee bit of northeastern myopia. :-) There certainly are Hooters restaurants all over the country and I'd be surprised if no "fantasy restaurant" exists anywhere from Wisconsin to New Orleans to Florida.

Auron said...

I absolutely agree that this is really slimy, but as an Arizonan living in Boston, I myself take issue with the characterization to this as "Western." It's "idiotic" which can come from everywhere. I know we're all sick from Massachusetts being lampooned in the '04 election, and Arizona isn't any less deserving of respect as we are.

Arizona's libertarian lifestyle, which sometimes drives me up a wall (I'm anything but libertarian) emphasizes a sort of personal responsibility which begins to explain why it's likely that the AG and Maricopa County will get involved, if nothing else to shame him out of business; this is an affront to Western values as much as it is to ours.

Not all of the West is Las Vegas.

codeblog said...

I think that if admitted to a hospital, he would be able to tell the difference between his waitresses and real, live hospital nurses.

I think anyone would be able to, especially when faced with being ill enough to have to be admitted to the hospital.

I believe that most actual RN's portray a professionalism that is unmistakeable.

As a nurse, I am not offended by this silliness. It's a funny concept, even if juuuuuust a bit unhealthy.

Anonymous said...

Patient dave,

I applaud that you can vouch that brains are attractive. I can only wish that most of the country can say the same. However, "One irony is that the object of such fantasies is usually someone in a position of power or brains (not a meek flirt as in a porno)" may not actually be all that ironic.

It is possible that people feel more powerful when they can subject people of power or brains, as opposed to meek flirts as you call it.

That Arizona restaurant not only demeans nurses, it demeans all women. Why should women have to deem themselves as "physically attractive and desirable" in order to feel any self worth?

Paul Levy said...

Dear Auron,

Of course I know you are right about my characterization of "Western". I was just poking fun a little bit, but I actually did it to present a subliminal example of the same problem. When you denigrate a group by creating a stereotype, it is really insidious and nasty. See how you as a Westerner felt? That's the way the nurse who came to me felt when she saw what was happening in this restaurant and especially when she read the owner's comments.

I apologize (a little) for using this device, but your reaction was just what I hoped for to make the point.

Patient Dave said...

For decades I've felt that all the different human rights and civil rights issues boil down to equal opportunity, respect for each other, and especially respect for what each person can and does contribute to humanity.

There is SO MUCH greatness available in all these humans around us (especially those who give their lives to health care!), it's just goofy (in a tragic way) when any group (or individual) gets suppressed, intentionally or unintentionally.

--On a related note, re "why should women have to deem themselves attractive" - I couldn't agree more. One of the best things we can do for each other is share empowerment, like "Who you know yourself to be has nothing to do with what others think. You are still who you are, even if some jerk thinks otherwise."

And meanwhile we work to teach each other to be aware of suppression and spot it when it happens. (Paul's sneak attack was a pretty subtle device to teach that - I sensed something was up but I fell for it!)

Patient Dave said...

Okay, one last comment, and I'm done with this thread.

I wrote what I wrote without actually reading the original MSN article. I just read it now, and there's a fresh little outrage, from a surprising place:

“Nurses are the most sexually fantasized-about profession,” said Sandy Summers, executive director of the Center for Nursing Advocacy, based in Baltimore. “We’re asking people, if they’re going to have these fantasies, please don’t make it so public. Move these sexual fantasies to other professions.”

I can't believe (s?)he said that! Which profession would appreciate having the fantasies be moved to them??

Anonymous said...

This is just one more thing that perpetuates unattainable standards of physical appearance for women in society. I mean, this is right up there with flawless, thin models being idolized (in my book, anyway).

Dove released an interesting commercial in Canada awhile ago to address this issue. While it is mostly focused toward models, I think it holds true in this case as well.

See it here

Anonymous said...

what happened to choice??? if you have a problem with it, don't go.

do patrons of hooters restaurants go molest women in tight swimsuits on the beach? should we ban beaches too?

Monica said...

i agree with codeblog and the guy who wants to ban beaches.

granted, in any community, there is understandable tension when a few individuals in that community propagate a negative stereotype that everyone else would like to end. as a nursing student, i hate it when fellow students whine at the hospital - i feel like it propagates the stereotype that young nurses are whiney. but those students are in my community - they bring my image down with them. a bunch of waitresses in AZ playing dressup are not in my community and really dont bear much on public perception of real nurses.

Do neurosurgeons mount indignant campaigns because the attendings on greys anatomy are sleeping with their interns? no, because those too are fantasy characters that are not part of the surgical community and do not have any baring on public - or surgical intern - expectations.

people can discriminate between entertainment and reality. i think in the interest of being politically correct we err on the side of making everything sacred and shielding everything from satire! the nurse thing, the east coast thing: lighten up.

merry christmas ;)

Anonymous said...

I'm writing in response to your "Western style sex and humor" posting.. When my co-workers and I read the article written in the Standard Times we too were appauled. We one, worked far too hard to earn the credential attached to being a nurse and two, are more than "eye candy"! We are professionals and deserve to be treated with respect.....

RN said...

Why is there such a fuss over this issue....maybe because there is an underlying story that needs telling:

We are all influenced by the world around us- we are constantly getting messages about our race, our sexuality, and of course our professions.

For example, the role of the physician is consistently glamorized in many facets in our culture (just watch ER, Greys Anatomy, Scrubs...to name a few) Their stereotype is clear across the board. This media based advertising of the role of the MD attracts a certain type of person which as a results helps to build the profession of medicine.

The personification of nursing in media ect-tends not to reflect the true nature of what a nurse does in a day. This incongruence can be incredibly frustrating for a nurse. Maybe this is what the fuss is about- Lets face it there is a significant nursing shortage and many talented people are leaving the profession.


The art of nursing involves science, creativity, resourcefulness, and caring. The traits embodied in nursing are to always be cherished and yes...kept "sacred". While some may view a reaction to a "naughty nurse" as overly sensitive, I see it as necessary to challenge a paradigm on nursing that doesn't serve the profession or those that practice.

When we all wake up in the morning to begin our days "work"... as a MD, mother, father, nurse, or CEO of a hospital like Paul, we want to know that we are valuable. We want to know that what we do matters, that we are important and are contributing in meaningful ways to the world around us.

The profession of nursing is filled with these opportunities and needs strong and talented individuals to continue to improve our practice and challenge stereotypes such as the one reflected in the article mentioned.

Paul Levy said...

I have been trying to figure out why this particular case bothered me so much. I don't think it is my concern for political correctness, as suggested by Monica. I have truly never held much stock in political correctness, as my friends will tell you. I also like to think that I have a reasonable sense of humor, although my daughters might disagree. :))

I think "rn" may have captured it. I see nurses working their hearts out all day and all night at our place with expertise, judgment, and a devotion to care that is truly extraordinary. Then, I read the comment of the restaurant owner, and I was really offended -- probably more so by that than by the costumes worn by the waitresses. (After all, they chose to do that, and they are adults.) And, in fact, it may have been less his thoughts about the young nurses than it was his awful characterization about the older one.

I am not sure I would have felt this way before taking on this job at BIDMC. I might just have looked at the story and said, "What a jerk," and forgotten about it. I might even have laughed at the concept of the "nurses" serving vats of grease to "patients" in the restaurant. But now I see too many sick and dying people being taken care of by people who have devoted their lives to healing. When one of them said to me that she was offended and upset by this story, I guess I internalized that viewpoint and adopted it as my own.

(By the way, it was the same young nurse whose letter to me is included below in my posting "Errors, Improvement, and Discipline," dated October 19. Read that and tell me you don't have tremendous respect for her point of view!)

Sandy Summers said...

The global media's relentless linking of sexual images to the profession of nursing reinforces long-standing stereotypes. Even though those images are often "jokes" or "fantasies," the stereotypes they promote discourage practicing and potential nurses, foster sexual violence in the workplace, and contribute to a general atmosphere of disrespect. Even humor and fantasy images affect how people act. That's why advertisers spend billions on them. Desexualizing the nursing image is a key part of building the strength the profession needs to overcome the current shortage, which threatens lives worldwide, and to meet the challenges of modern health care.

Most people today probably don't think the average nurse goes to work in lingerie, looking for sex. But the fusing of lingerie with nurses' work uniforms in popular media images, and the exposure of sexy "nurses'" bodies in these images, still associates the profession with sex in the public mind. One recent U.K. study [http://www.nursingadvocacy.org/news/2006/aug/24_fantasy.html] found nursing was the most sexually-fantasized-about job. And suggesting that nurses are primarily sex objects in turn conveys the idea that nursing work consists of satisfying the sexual needs of patients and/or physicians, or at best, that nursing is so unimportant that nurses have the time and energy to focus on sex while supposedly caring for patients. Some people may just regard nurses as being more sexually available than average. I'm not kidding: Please read a first person account by a patient who discusses how he overcame some of these ideas and developed a deep appreciation for the nursing profession. [http://www.nursingadvocacy.org/faq/what_does_a_nurse_do.html]

Other people may simply see nurses as looking to meet a physician--even an already married one--to take them away from the dead end job of nursing, a stereotype that was actually expressed in late 2004 by Dr. Phil McGraw on his popular television show. [http://www.nursingadvocacy.org/news/2004nov/18_dr_phil.html] When a profession is associated with sex, there is no bright line between "sex" and "romance." This association may be subtly reinforced even in relatively sophisticated products like "ER," which would be unlikely to present a blatant "naughty nurse" image, but in which the lone major nurse character often spends most of her time managing romances with physicians. Thus, even members of the public who don't think nurses actually have sex at work may be influenced to believe that looking for romance is a big part, if not the biggest part, of why they are at work. That is not a feature that is generally associated with serious professionals.

Naughty nurse and other stereotypical images add to the chronic underfunding of nursing research, education and clinical practice. This is because health care decision makers--many of whom are sadly uninformed about what nursing really is--are less likely to devote scarce resources to a profession that has become so degraded in the public consciousness. Such images discourage talented men and women from entering and remaining in the profession. When you combine this lack of respect, the intense college-level training nursing actually requires, and the difficulty and stress of nursing practice, it is no surprise that the profession remains in the midst of a global shortage driven by rampant short-staffing.

Many who display stereotypical images of nurses doubt that such images can really harm the nursing profession. However, as public health professionals at the University of Southern California's Hollywood, Health and Society project [http://www.learcenter.org/html/projects/?cm=hhs] and elsewhere can attest, popular media items clearly do affect how people think and act with regard to health issues. For instance, a 2000 JWT Communications study found that US youngsters in primary and secondary school got their most striking impression of nursing from the fictional television show "ER," and consistent with that show's physician-centric messages, the youngsters found nursing to be a technical field "like shop," a job reserved for "girls" and one too lowly for private school students. Nursing is none of these things. In addition, a Kaiser Family Foundation study found that "ER"'s message is so influential that one-third of the show's viewers use information from the show to make health care decisions. Please see the research here. [http://www.nursingadvocacy.org/faq/hollywood_research.html]

So what's wrong with being perceived as sexy? Nothing--as long as that's not your dominant image in the workplace. Recent research [http://money.cnn.com/2006/11/07/news/economy/dress.fortune/index.htm?postversion=2006110814?cnn=yes] suggests that more sexualized work attire actually lessens respect for female workers in responsible jobs like management, causing others to see them as less competent and intelligent. Of course, the naughty nurse image seems to have little to do with a belief that real nurses are sexy, and perhaps more to do with a desire to have anonymous sex with hotties dressed in lingerie-like "nurse" uniforms. It may be diverting for some to think that nursing is populated by disposable bimbos, which may also help them handle the idea that female nurses have some power over them in clinical settings.

But the disposable bimbo image does not appeal to most career seekers. Nursing remains over 90% female. Of course this sexualized female image is not the only reason, but it is part of an overwhelming social understanding of nursing as "submissive" and "female." This is the difference between sexual images of female nurses and, say, female FBI agents. The FBI is not in crisis because it does intensely demanding mental and physical work that few people really respect, in large part because of the idea that its agents are brainless handmaidens and bimbos. Nursing is.

Of course, it may be hard to see how one apparently minor "naughty nurse" depiction can affect the real world. But each such image is part of a wave of images from the global entertainment, advertising, hospitality, and apparel industries, from Fortune 500 companies to isolated sandwich shops, suggesting nursing is about hot females bestowing sexual favors. In the aggregate, it's just common sense that decades of this kind of broad societal disrespect will have an impact, and will be a factor in people avoiding and leaving that profession. Of course, it's not the only factor; the handmaiden stereotype is probably more damaging because it's more credible and widespread, and nursing would be a difficult, stressful job even if it was well understood.

Some argue that nursing's poor public image has nothing to do with the nursing crisis, because it's really all about poor working conditions and inadequate faculty resources. But that's like arguing that cancer death has nothing to do with cigarettes, because it's really all about cancer. Many things cause cancer, but cigarettes are one of them. For nursing, the lack of resources was not handed down from some divine place. It was the result of human decisions. Those decisions were made on the basis of what the decision-makers (government, hospital executives, the public) thought about how important nursing was relative to other things they might do with the resources available.

It's also common to see suggestions that objections to the constant association of nursing with sex indicate prudishness or a lack of humor. But the Center for Nursing Advocacy has never objected to sexual images generally--only to the use of nursing as a marker for dim, submissive, sexually available females. So this is not about whether sexual images degrade all women, but about their frequent application to a specific professional group. And the suggestion is not just that nurses are silly sluts (ha ha! just joking!), but that their job is about that. Research shows that nurses suffer an inordinate amount of sexual and other abuse at work (see AP [http://www.nursingadvocacy.org/news/2005dec/15_ap.html] and Monster [http://www.nursingadvocacy.org/news/2006/mar/01_monster.html] articles). Although it's difficult to prove the extent to which that is caused by naughty nurse stereotyping, that doesn't require that we ignore what would be the obvious results--if a profession is an object of sexual mockery and contempt, it's going to encourage sexual abuse, and the profession is unlikely to receive the human or material resources it needs. If a profession is constantly associated with female sexuality, it's not going to attract and retain many men.

We assume few skeptics would require extensive evidence of ill effects if the media stopped "jokingly" suggesting that nurses were giggling bimbos, and started in on the female family members of the skeptics themselves. Even if the media barrage was "silly" (ha ha! just joking!), would the women in that family be taken as seriously in doing high-stress, life-and-death jobs with extensive public contact? Would they get all the resources they needed? Wouldn't they get more than their share of sexual abuse? Wouldn't they sometimes wish they weren't part of the family? Sure, those close to them might know there was no truth to the media image. But it's not like most in society would know them to be serious professionals. Most would just know what they heard in the media--that the women in that family were kind of a bad sex joke.

The Center for Nursing Advocacy takes no position on the prevalence of sexual imagery in modern society. But we do object to the close association of that imagery with a traditionally female profession that must now fight through a critical shortage to keep millions of patients alive and on the road to recovery. In many cases, stereotypes do not simply go away of their own accord--they must be confronted and rejected. And the "naughty nurse" has proven its staying power for decades.

Of course, we realize that sexual fantasies do not go away simply because images become less prevalent, and that deep-seated sexual desires are presumably not subject to anyone's control. Some aspects of current human sexuality may be practically unchangeable, perhaps because they have a strong evolutionary basis, or for some other reason. But we doubt that something as culturally and temporally specific as the "naughty nurse" image of recent decades is biologically predetermined or immutable, at least on a society-wide basis. It seems to us that the image is largely the result of specific cultural information, though it may incorporate some broader elements, such as the eroticism of apparent innocence. What is seen as "sexy" may vary in different contemporary communities, and we're not sure all of them have a special thing for the naughty nurse. And some aspects of human attraction may evolve over time, perhaps in response to changes in the perceived needs of the species. For instance, common standards of human beauty do not appear to be the same today as in past centuries. We think it would be in humanity's long-term interest to start considering new ways to think about nurses.

One could also argue that the work of nurses is so intimate that it will always be subject to some level of sexual fantasy. But the jobs of others that are now subject to this kind of stereotyping (such as flight attendants) do not involve intimate contact. Instead, the common theme seems to be that they are traditionally female jobs that are seen--we said seen--to involve simple personal service. On the other hand, traditionally male professions that may involve intimate contact and/or personal service do not seem to suffer in the same way. People may imagine physicians sexually, but they are not generally presented with revealing images of physicians as silly and available. On the contrary, physicians are often seen as perhaps the ultimate marital prize, and it is hard to imagine the profession suffering from this kind of image in terms of recruiting, retention, or resources.

At ground level, the devaluation of nursing translates into an underpowered profession that may not be strong enough to save your life when you need it to do so. The "naughty nurse" isn't going to catch deadly medication errors, intervene when a patient is about to crash, or teach a patient to survive with a life-threatening condition. It's time for her to change into something a little more comfortable.

This was our naughty nurse FAQ.
http://www.nursingadvocacy.org/faq/naughty_nurse.html

Sandy Summers, RN, MSN, MPH
Executive Director
The Center for Nursing Advocacy
203 Churchwardens Rd.
Baltimore, Maryland (MD) USA 21212-2937
office 1-410-323-1100
fax 1-443-705-0260
ssummers@nursingadvocacy.org

Mary-Louise White said...

It was Alan Toffler who said that "The illeterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."

The behaviors and subsequent comments of Heart Attack Grill's management epitomize Alan Toffler's prediction regarding illeteracy.

The Nursing profession has come a long way since Florence Nightingale.

Nursing is not, and has has never been a profession in which unattractive battle axes empty bedpans. Some of the most intelligent, powerful, effective and yes attractive leaders I have had the privilege of meeting are nurses.

So when the management of Heart Attack Grill's responds with :- “If anything, I think it glorifies nurses to be thought of as a physically attractive and desirable individual.... Nobody wants to think of themselves as some old battle ax who changes bedpans for a living,” speaks to the fact that there is a vast amount of learning, unlearning and relearning that needs to occur here.

As a nurse in an Executive Leadership position, I take grave issue with Heart Attack's poor taste in theme as well as its defense of its ignorance.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the naughty nurse situation: the larger problem ,of course, is how most people accept, and often do not recognize, behavior demeaning to women in general,regardless of ones profession.All these unmindful,insulting actions insidiously filter into our perceptions of what is accepted in our society.

#1Bro said...

The restaurant owner’s assumption that nurses would be flattered by being viewed as nothing more that sexy eye candy is a joke. Having a relative who is a nurse, I have to agree that this is a demeaning and unfair stereotype. Nurses aren’t just “old battle axe’s”, they play a central and crucial role in our Nations Hospitals and are at the foundation of our Healthcare System. After getting through nursing school, nurses face a daunting and demanding work environment. They work long hours, coordinate the treatments of an overwhelming amount of patients and provide many of the important functions needed to keep a hospital running. Every one of a nurse’s action has a direct effect on the health and wellness of our loved ones. That’s a lot of responsibility to have when you go to work (definitely more than having half naked women serve food in your restaurant all day).

Labor Nurse said...

Hi Mr. Levy,

How cool of you to have a blog. I also posted on this exact issue. You can visit it here to see what I felt about it. I found it interesting that the other nurses in your comments on a whole were not offended by it, and the other non nurses were. I am sure the nurse advocacy groups would be happy to read that. Overall, I think it's unfortunate that nurses generally have a poor media image, yet we still manage to be one of the most trusted professions by the public. I guess the fundamental question is where do we draw the line? At what point do we say that has gone too far? When I see the pictures of the waitresses at this Arizona restaurent I don't see the image of a nurse at all. On the flip side, when I go to other restaurants I am offended when the server says, "I'll be taking care of you tonight." No, you will be serving me tonight, is what I want to say. I, as a nurse, care for people, not waiters and waitresses.

Anonymous said...

Sexist pig. Obviously that guy knows nothing about the profession, and I think it is sad to portray nurses in such a way that they are only sex objects. I am a nursing student and it really irritates me that there are people out there who would demean nurses like this.