One of the several reasons that men die younger than women on average seems to be a reluctance to seek out medical care, a reluctance that feels at odds with the long-standing sexual objectification of nurses. How did nurses become sex objects? There are historical reasons to be sure — nurses were, in many cases, the only women available to fighting men in Europe during the World Wars — but evolutionary biology is likely what’s to blame for the fetish. Data suggests that men are primed to find certain caregiving qualities appealing in females, which means that all that hospital porn and all those unsettling Halloween costumes are, on some level, derivative of men’s desire to be cared for and “mothered.”
“Men in our culture are seen as the protectors, so they have a deep need to be cared for and nurtured,” marriage and family therapist Katie Ziskind told Fatherly. “If a man is not getting these needs met from his partner at home, he may feel attracted to a nurse who is caring for him, tending to his needs, and helping him get food.”
Few studies focus on the sexualization of nurses specifically, but there’s evidence that they’ve been fetishized for decades. The proliferation of the “Nightingale Effect“ trope, nurses developing romantic and sexual feelings for their patients, certainly hasn’t helped. Neither have dirty or dirty-ish movies. The earliest example of the sexy nurse stereotype on film is 1967’s Carry on Doctor, in which Barbara Windsor wears a sexy nurse outfit. Sexy nurses appeared again in the 1972 film Deep Throat and have been over-represented in porn ever since. The meme is now so normalized that during half-time at a 2012 basketball game, the Dallas Mavericks Dancers did a sexy dance to the Robert Palmer song “Bad Case of Loving You” and zero nursing unions complained.
It makes some scientific sense why nurses might be more attractive to some men. Positive personality qualities like compassion, openness, and kindness have been found to make men less superficial about physical characteristics when it comes to attraction. These qualities tend to be associated with caretaking professions. Unfortunately, the few studies that have looked at this attraction have been focused on the real-life problems it causes for men and women in the nursing profession, including homophobia and sexual harassment. Those are serious issues worthy of serious study, but it would also be extremely interesting to see additional work about what the sexualization of nurses is really telling us about the needs of men.
Courtney Watson, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in sexuality, suspects that men’s simple attraction to caregiving is probably not the only reason the sexy nurse has become the stereotype that it is today. She suggests that in American society in particular men and women are kept so separate that the only time men are looked after by members of the opposite sex they tend to be receiving medical attention (it’s worth noting here that more modern pornography often portrays women as doctors rather than nurses, which is likely a sign of progress but a semantic difference in that context).
“Thinking about physical touch, touch and nudity and care by women who are not mothers nor wives, it makes sense that nurses could be sexualized as they were regarded as socially acceptable women to receive touch from,” Watson explains. Lesser but similar effects of this can be seen through men’s tendencies to flirt with waitresses.
Watson is also careful to note that this attraction is different from a nurse fetish, which is more potentially connected to other kinks like needle play, coprophilia, and a specific type of paraphilia associated a sexual attraction to the paralyzed and disabled. While these individuals may be attracted to nurses for different reasons, most men probably responding to compassion being a genuinely attractive trait and generations of rigid gender roles about how women attend to men’s needs. And it’s not wrong or inherently creepy for men to feel this, as long as they don’t act on it and make it more difficult for nurses to do their difficult and important jobs.
Watson notes that understanding where this attraction comes from should help both men and medical providers understand and address the problem.
“The only problem I could see arising from a nurse fantasy is the man feeling like he could engage his nurse as if it were reality,” Watson says, noting that even seemingly innocent flirting should be considered off limits. “Enjoy your fantasy, just don’t be inappropriate with your nurse.”