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Blowing Up Bioethics: A Response to Atrium’s Bad Girls and Head Nurses

Rachelle Barina, MTS and Devan Stahl, MDiv

Northwestern Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program recently published its 2014 issue of Atrium, titled “Bad Girls.” In the issue, William Peace writes an article about “Head Nurses,” which is accompanied by an overtly sexual image (see page 20). “Head nurses” were women who gave young paralyzed men like himself blowjobs in the late 1970s. Peace describes “shapely young women” giving “world-class blowjobs” to men who were worried their “dicks” did not work and they could not “fuck.” Peace describes his own despair and his anticipated encounter with a “head nurse.” Peace nostalgically claims, “This woman was able to provide me a level of care and a connection that no longer exists.” “She reaffirmed my manhood and masculinity in a way I will forever appreciate.” “[T]he nurse injected a compassionate eroticism that made me a better man,” and ultimately, “…gave me myself”

Peace’s narrative is a worn-out and objectifying trope. He leaves unexamined his implied assumption that his masculinity and identity could best be restored through sexual pleasure given by a female nurse acting well beyond the scope of her practice. He also fails to notice how the seemingly compassionate act of the nurse was entangled with patriarchal pressures and expectations. While sex and sexuality can be a site of power for women, we live in a culture where all too often women’s bodies are assumed to be objects available for use by men. Regardless of the position of power a woman occupies, she is vulnerable to violence and exploitation by men who believe it is a woman’s duty to affirm their masculinity.

If Peace’s narrative is in fact true, it is possible Peace’s nurse freely participated in her sexual act. According to Peace, his nurse initiated the blowjob without his request. Nevertheless, it is hard to see her act as radically distanced from the cultural expectations placed on her to care for and affirm the manhood of her male patients through the use of her body. Moreover, her act perpetuates the assumption that women best care for men by putting their bodies in the service of unreciprocated sexual pleasure. Peace explains, “that night [when she gave me head] forged a lifelong friendship with this woman, one that lasted until her death two years ago.” Notably, it was not the compassionate and ongoing nursing care that forged the friendship. For Peace, the performance of the “head nurse” was the defining feature of her role as a caregiver and the quintessential gesture of what it means to be a compassionate professional woman. Peace laments that rehabilitation medicine today cannot provide the same level of compassion as the “world-class-blowjob-providing” nurses who cared for him.

As women who have worked in health care, we have encountered more than a few men who have treated us as sexual objects rather than professionals. Patients and clinicians continue to make inappropriate sexual jokes and advances toward their female colleagues and nurses.  In 2014, we call this sexual harassment (which continues to be underreported and under-penalized) and recognize that sexual harassment is not just inappropriate individual actions, but is motivated by societal and institutional cultures and expectations. Peace’s narrative is not only linked to a culture of using and objectifying women, but augments and promotes it when told uncritically.

We imagine that when choosing the theme for this year’s Atrium magazine on “bad girls,” the editors intended to gather provocative stories of transgressive women making a positive impact on medicine and health care. For the most part, this is what they got. Still, we wonder if “bad girls” was the ideal way to elicit the content and tone they sought. The infantilizing theme subtly perpetuates a disregard of women, who are thought to be like children in need of discipline. “Bad girls” also carries the obvious reference of sexual promiscuity or deviance – to be blunt, of whores who fulfill male fantasies. The phrase appears to be awkwardly and uncritically forced into the other articles to reference the issue’s theme, when adjectives like confident, strong, inspirational, empowering, or transgressive would better characterize the women (not the girls) that the articles laud. Indeed, Peace would probably not have felt his story belonged if the issue had called for stories under another title.

In applauding the “Bad Girls” issue on IJFAB’s (International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics) blog, the editor, Alice Dreger, celebrates how “unashamedly feminist and anti-misogynist the issue turned out to be.”  We find Dreger’s assertion and the possibility of overcoming the pitfalls of the “bad girl” trope suspect. To us, the “Head Nurses” article perpetuates views of women, sexuality, and professionalism that best serve male power, rather than the power of women. The “bad girl” theme of the Atrium issue allowed for an article that imported expectations of female sexual subservience. Perhaps in the future we should all be more careful about the words and stories we promote in the name of female empowerment.

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