The truth about sex in the hospital

An excerpt from The Nurses: A Year of Secrets, Drama, and Miracles with the Heroes of the Hospital.

The outdated caricature of the sexy nurse — breasts straining buttons on a form-fitting white minidress, shapely legs slipped into white heels — remains pervasive and global. Nurses say it also holds the profession back.

Imagery that sexualizes nurses presents a difficult job requiring significant expertise as nothing more than a provocative cartoon.

But some hospitals aren’t above spinning the stereotype. A Swedish hospital recruiting nurses for the summer of 2012 posted an ad instructing, “You will be motivated, professional, and have a sense of humor. And, of course, you will be TV series-hot … Throw in a nurse’s education, and you are welcome to seek a summer job.” The hospital trivialized nurses’ qualifications, tossing in a nursing degree as if it were an afterthought.

In 2010, a Dutch nurse union received complaints that male patients were requesting sex and some nurses were complying. Reuters reported that a nursing student saw a 42-year-old’s home care nurses sexually gratifying him. The man, who had a muscle disorder, told her his previous seven nurses had done the same. When the student refused, the patient claimed she was unfit for the job. The incident prompted one newscaster to remark, “I’ve got to get myself a nurse in Holland.”

For now, let’s set aside the idea of happy-ending health care and tell it like it is. Like men and women in any other profession, nurses have sex. When they want to, why shouldn’t they? In an unscientific poll, I asked more than 100 nurses whether they or nurse colleagues had engaged in a sexual relationship with a doctor, nurse, or other coworker. Eighty-seven percent said yes.

Depending on the hospital, a nurse’s relationship landscape can range from “I feel like I’m actually living Grey’s Anatomy” (Washington State) to “Hospital life is so damn far from Grey’s Anatomy, it’s not even funny. Our doctors aren’t that hot, supply closets almost always have two doors and they never lock from the inside. And no one has time to go make out with a doctor anyway, because we’re usually behind in charting, haven’t peed in nine hours, and are fighting hypoglycemia on a constant basis because we don’t get the time to eat” (Colorado).

Nurses describe affairs with doctors, trysts with staff, and certain infamous units. “Some places, everyone is banging each other,” said a Delaware nurse. “The nurse is hooking up with the medic, who is also seeing the case manager, who just got the physician pregnant. It happens whenever you put young, money-strapped, stressed-out people together for long hours with few breaks.”

It also happens on hospital property. Nurses have gotten intimate in on-call rooms, equipment lockers, storage closets, linen closets, family conference rooms, stairwells, visitor bathrooms, libraries, patient rooms, offices, and parking lots.

Nurses offer several reasons for their coworkers’ allure, beyond what a Washington nurse who slept with a tech called the “heady” feeling of illicit relationships in a taboo place. In any situation when people spend long hours together, they’re more likely to consider each other potential romantic partners. “In the ER, there were always residents who’d try to convince nurses to join them in the call room at night,” said a Virginia nurse practitioner who dated a med student.

The medical setting adds an intoxicating variable: Surrounded by reminders of mortality and infused with the adrenaline rush of tackling emergencies, professionals can get caught up in the enticement of sex and affairs. Nurses said they hook up with coworkers for the same reason they’re drawn to police officers and firefighters: They understand what it’s like to save a life, to face a trauma, to try to help, to fail.

If colleagues can remain discreet, are their relationships such a bad thing? “We’ve gone to a quiet stairwell, listening for someone coming,” said an Indiana nurse who dated staff. “People are able to keep it a secret unless they act like awkward idiots.”

Or unless they’re caught in the act. At one Mid-Atlantic hospital, a camera captured a nurse giving oral sex to a surgeon in the library. “The entire staff found out about it,” said a travel nurse. “CCTV is a bad, bad thing for a secret hospital rendezvous.”

As happens anywhere, intimate relationships can complicate interactions with coworkers, who may feel they have to take sides or keep secrets. After a Louisiana nurse accidentally walked in on her preceptor having sex with a doctor, the preceptor criticized the new nurse daily until she drove her out of the job. An Arizona nurse’s coworker dated several doctors in the same hospital. “She became a joke among the docs,” the nurse said. “At social events, she showed up clinging to the arm of a different doctor each time. Bad social move, bad career move.”

It takes two (or, in the case of nurses caught having sex in one hospital’s geriatric ward closet, three), but the nurse commonly suffers more consequences than the doctor. Upon learning that a nurse manager was sleeping with a doctor, Virginia administrators fired the nurse and promoted the doctor, even though the couple got married. When a resident and a nurse were caught having sex in a Maryland hospital supply closet, the hospital gave the resident a slap on the wrist but fired the nurse.

This reaction to nurses having sex is yet another double standard that dismisses nurses and glorifies doctors. Until hospitals improve nurses’ working conditions – giving them breaks, safe nurse:patient ratios, and empowered voices – nurses have few other outlets to relieve the stress of exhausting shifts.

There is an odd dichotomy by which the public seems to want to sexualize nurses yet keep them from having sex; they can be whorish angels but not angelic whores, nor anything in between.  The step that will end the objectification of nurses is the same step necessary to get them the credit, and freedom, they deserve: All of us must fight to remind hospitals that nurses – skilled, educated, heroic providers – are more than just a caricature.

Alexandra Robbins is the author of The Nurses: A Year of Secrets, Drama, and Miracles with the Heroes of the Hospital.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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