Advice and development

Sexual harassment is not ‘just part of the job’

Nursing students should be given more support when dealing with sexual comments from patients
MeToo Standing together to fight sexual harassment

Nursing students should be given more support when dealing with sexual comments from patients

A discussion on Twitter caught my attention recently; a female nursing student was asking for advice about dealing with sexual comments from older male patients and responses were, unsurprisingly, mixed.

Many offered advice on how to be firm yet professional while preserving the patient's dignity, in the absence of danger, but others seemed to feel it was not a problem and the remarks should be laughed off.

Sexual comments from patients are all too common

Alarmingly, several felt it should be taken as a compliment, saying they would have thanked the patient. This advice, from senior nursing staff and fellow students, is dismissive at best. While some people may not mind comments of this

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Nursing students should be given more support when dealing with sexual comments from patients


'Nursing as a profession is long overdue its own #MeToo movement' Picture: iStock

A discussion on Twitter caught my attention recently; a female nursing student was asking for advice about dealing with sexual comments from older male patients and responses were, unsurprisingly, mixed.

Many offered advice on how to be firm yet professional while preserving the patient's dignity, in the absence of danger, but others seemed to feel it was not a problem and the remarks should be laughed off.

Sexual comments from patients are all too common

Alarmingly, several felt it should be taken as a compliment, saying they would have thanked the patient. This advice, from senior nursing staff and fellow students, is dismissive at best. While some people may not mind comments of this nature, there are multiple ways in which it is harmful to nursing professionals and patients.

Many of the replies to the Twitter thread suggested that sexual comments and behaviour from patients are incredibly common. This was reflected by a recent Twitter poll by WeStudentNurses, which found that 77% of the 215 people who responded had experienced some form of sexualised or inappropriate comments on a placement.

Why we need to raise awareness of sexualised verbal abuse

I also know personally of students and staff who are discussing these experiences, yet very few have been offered support from either their placement or university.

Last month, movie producer Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of rape and sexual abuse, reminding us of the effectiveness of the #MeToo movement.

Talking openly about abuse raised awareness of its prevalence and opened the floodgates to a broader discussion about the everyday harassment most women, and some men, face.

So where does an ‘I’m alright Jack’ attitude sit in this context, when many colleagues may not be alright with uninvited sexual comments or behaviour from patients?

Perhaps the best place to start is by considering how students should be expected to manage this situation. Such instances must always be reported to a senior member of the team and, failing that, university staff, preferably a personal tutor.

Nursing students should not be expected to handle sexual harassment alone

It’s important for clinical and academic staff to remember that students are often out of their comfort zone on placements. They are in a transient state as temporary members of the team. They are also learning and while some may feel equipped to manage these situations independently, no nursing student – or nurse – should be expected to handle this alone.

I have argued before that nursing as a profession is long overdue its own #MeToo movement. There is no reason why sexual behaviour from patients towards nurses should not be taken seriously, yet it is common to hear that this is ‘just another part of the job’.

‘When women are devalued but don’t fully recognise the systems responsible for this, we divide in an attempt to master our own destinies’

Many nurses care for vulnerable patients with learning disabilities, dementia and those who lack capacity. The dignity of these patients must be upheld at all times by actively managing sexualised behaviours with a planned and individualised approach.

A loss of inhibition could indicate a change in health status in some patients

A permissive attitude and vague acceptance that these things are inevitable does not help, nor does it preserve dignity. It’s also important to remember that disinhibited behaviour can indicate clinical change in some patients and present a safeguarding concern.

2020 is the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife and our contributions are long overdue for celebration and recognition.

But this coincides with the bicentenary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, a woman who seemed to believe that childless, unmarried women who were subservient to God would make the best nurses.

Nurses must unite to challenge everyday harassment 

Many women rise to prominent roles despite the odds stacked against them, then go on to perpetuate or reinforce the barriers they themselves struggled against. While I am frustrated that so many of us quietly accept sexual harassment or regard it as a ‘compliment’, I recognise that this exists entirely due to gender discrimination.

When women are devalued but don’t fully recognise the systems responsible for this, we divide in an attempt to master our own destinies. As a predominantly female workforce that continues to be underpaid and undervalued, perhaps the nursing profession’s ambivalence towards this behaviour is unsurprising.

Learning from some of the wider social movements, we need to start listening when a student or staff nurse tells us they are uncomfortable, that they have been harassed or groped by a patient or colleague.

Instead of passing it off as normal, funny or flattering – what if we were to unite in denouncing this kind of behaviour and support each other more generally? Perhaps we stand a better chance of addressing how undervalued we are if we face some of the uncomfortable truths voiced by countless women in this profession every day.


Leanne Patrick is a community drugs and alcohol nurse at NHS Forth Valley and project coordinator for The Mental Elf 

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