Dissecting the “sexy nurse” stereotype

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There’s no denying that the “sexy nurse” stereotype isn’t going away. Every fall, for example, as Halloween approaches, if you check out the shelves and racks of novelty stores, you’ll find “sexy nurse” Halloween costumes making their annual appearance. In “adult stores,” you can find—year-round—gadgets, costumes and DVDs that cater to those who want to play out “sexy nurse” fantasies.

Television shows haven’t helped matters. Over the years, the nurses of ER, Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs, Nurse Jackie and Mercy certainly have “made the rounds.” Even in the classic TV series M*A*S*H, the nurses weren’t exactly models of good behavior. In recent years, there have also been plenty of commercials that have played up the “sexy nurse” image.

In a 2010 poll conducted in the United Kingdom by the online recruitment agency HireScores.com, 68 percent of the men polled said that the sexiest job a woman could have is being a nurse. Some men find the whole caring thing sexy. Some seem to find uniforms or scrubs sexy because there’s that mystery of what lies underneath.

Unfortunately, the simple truth is there’s no light at the end of the tunnel yet; the “sexy nurse” stereotype seems to be as strong as it ever was. So, what’s a nurse to do? We’re going to get those “sexy nurse” gibes every once in a while—at work and away from work.

When you’re at work, of course you’re going to have to report anything that even borders on sexual harassment, and the sad truth is that nurses represent one of the professions that incurs the most sexual harassment. But you need to use your common sense to gauge what’s sexual harassment and what isn’t. If a chronically ill 90-year-old patient tells you he has fallen in love with you, well, that’s simply sweet and harmless, and you might as well enjoy the compliment.

And remember that people have different definitions of “sexy.” Sure, for some, it implies the arousal of sexual desire, but for others it simply means “attractive” or “appealing.” If someone has a nice smile and a friendly manner, for example, that could be called “sexy.” Intelligence is often perceived as being sexy—and let’s face it, since you’re a nurse, you’re definitely intelligent and that could be translated into “sexy.” Think about a day in which you help save a life and then go home to make love to your husband. Some people might think that you have a pretty cool (aka sexy) life. So it may actually be okay to be called “sexy” if the intent isn’t degrading, demeaning or insulting—if it’s not based on the stereotypical “sexy nurse” image.

The costumes, gadgets, DVDs, television shows and commercials—those are degrading, demeaning and insulting. If this is an issue that you feel strongly about, consider taking part in the campaigns of the Center for Nursing Advocacy, for example, to help eliminate the “sexy nurse” stereotype that’s propagated by the media and to improve the image of nurses in the public eye.