October 13, 2017

Sexual Harassment In Nursing - It's More Common Than You Think.

Sexual Harassment In Nursing - It's More Common Than You Think.

By Nurse.org Staff Writer

When news of Harvey Weinstein’s deplorable, decades-long history of sexual harassment began coming to light in the world outside of Hollywood, many nurses recognized it as an all too familiar violation of women’s rights and a pervasive attitude among powerful men who feel entitled to behave any way they please.

In a field dominated by women (nearly 90% are female), nursing seems like it should be immune from this type of problem.

But it’s not.

The Inappropriate Patient

Due to the sexualization of nurses by the media, many nurses must deal with unwanted sexual advances from patients. The idea of the ‘naughty nurse’ feeds the misconception that nurses are there to provide a sexual service to patients. 

According to Executive Director of the Missouri Nurses Association, Belinda Heimericks, this happens all the time. “I suspect that if you ask nurses if they’ve been harassed by patients, a majority would say yes. Nearly every nurse will run into it at some time in their career,” she says.

This type of harassment can be anything from offensive jokes, sexual comments, to inappropriate touching. Federal and state laws protect nurses from sexual harassment by patients and in most cases, can be handled before a lawyer has to be called or charges filed.

What you can do when a patient behaves inappropriately:

  • Set boundaries early. What can begin as a seemingly innocent joke can quickly escalate to an onslaught of sexual commentary.
  • Make it clear the attention is unwanted. Sometimes changing the subject or an unamused look isn’t enough to get the point across. 
  • Report the harassment to your supervisor. They may be able to reassign the patient to another nurse.
  • Do not be alone with the patient. If you are unable to have the patient reassigned, bring in a coworker.

These are steps you can take with most patients. However, when mental illness is involved, this behavior can escalate to violence.

Just last May, a nurse was taken hostage, beaten, abused, and raped by a patient brought in from a county jail who wasn’t properly restrained.  When dealing with these patients, take further precautions.

And assault by patients isn’t the only thing nurses have to fear.

The Sleazy Superior

What made Weinstein’s behavior so reprehensible is the aspect of the power differential associated with his actions. The women he targeted were struggling actresses who knew that success in Hollywood often comes from a lucky break and impressing powerful producers, directors, company heads.

Nurses are often in similar situations when hospital administrators value doctors and surgeons more than nurses. In 2009, Janet Bianco, a nurse from Flushing Hospital in New York was awarded $15 million after being sexually harassed by Dr. Matthew Miller for years that ultimately led to two violent attacks in 2001.  

Despite complaining to her supervisors, no action was taken, even though the doctor was previously sanctioned by the state medical board for what they called, “moral unfitness to practice medicine.”

Why We All Need To Act

What is most disturbing about the Weinstein case is that for decades, everyone knew about it, but no one did anything about it. The same was true for Nurse Bianco. In fact, the harassing doctor tried to force his tongue down her throat as the hospital’s medical director, Dr. Peter Barra looked on.

Nurses who are sexually harassed at work face frustration, emotional consequences, and professional setbacks. Many leave the field altogether. That’s why it’s important that all of us watch out for each other, report inappropriate behavior, and make our hospitals safer places to work.

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Photo Credit: “Harvey Weinstein David Shankbone 2010 NYC”, © 2010 David Shankbone, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

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