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November 1, 2019

The 'sexy nurse' costume is a Halloween favorite. Is it time for that to end?

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Oct. 28, 2022.

    The "sexy nurse" costume is one of the most popular Halloween costumes of all time, but real-life RNs warn that the costume perpetuates stereotypes about the profession and can contribute to workplace harassment, Allana Akhtar reports for Business Insider.

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    The problem with the popular costume

    Each year for Halloween, retailers sell scores sexy nurse costumes, Akhtar reports. In fact, this October, "Sexy Triage Nurse" was one of the top 15 best-selling women's costumes on Amazon. And Entertainment Tonight said the "sexy nurse" costume is one of the bestselling of all time.

    But when Lisa Kullack, a RN from New York, saw a picture on Facebook of a male surgeon dressed up as a "sexy nurse" with fake breasts for Halloween, she felt "enraged," Akhtar reports. According to Kullack, costumes like this perpetuate stereotypes that nursing is a low-skilled profession only for women, when in reality, a lot of nurses also have doctorate degrees and contribute to critical medical research..

    "A sexy nurse costume, particularly when worn by a physician," who are often considered more skilled than nurses, "feels like a big [insult]," Kullack said in an email to Business Insider. "This speaks volumes about the unequal power structure of health care," she added, "This feels like misogyny."

    Do sexy nurses make things harder for real nurses?

    Sexualizing the nursing profession is not only insulting to RNs, but can directly impact their work, Akhtar reports.

    For instance, Sandy Summers, the executive director of the non-profit The Truth About Nursing, said the sexy nurse imagery can impact nurses' ability to get funding and undermines their position as skilled researchers.  

    "When people don't respect nurses, they don't fund their work," Summers said.

    Beyond funding issues, the stereotypes can lead to even "more sinister" consequences for nurses, namely workplace harassment, Akhtar writes.

    Between 60% and 87% of nurses experience sexual harassment at work, according to a 2006 literature review, and a 2018 poll found that out of 569 nurses, 71% had been harassed by a patient.

    Kristen Choi, a RN at a mental health hospital in Los Angeles, said she gets sexually harassed at work "consistently." Some patients even call her "baby" and make comments on her appearance when she treats them.

    According to Choi, the Halloween costumes help normalize and encourage this behavior, especially among patients.

    "Sexualizing any profession that's mostly women may feel harmless, but it's creating a caricature and it really does translate to real world harm whether you intended to or not," Choi said (Akhtar, Business Insider 10/31).

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