A trial which looked at whether women wearing “mildly erotic nurse costumes” could lure people into getting medical checkups has caused something of a stir in the normally placid world of community health studies.
The study was designed to test the hypothesis that “hedonic stimuli that nudge people towards preventive actions could reduce health disparities”. In order to do that, the researchers from the University of Tokyo hired young women from a temp agency to dress up in “sexually attractive nurse costumes” and accompany a pop-up health check-up service positioned in a Tokyo pinball parlour. They calculated how well the service did at attracting customers, compared with a control setup which had normally-dressed nurses.
Predictably, the health check-up service with added “sexy nurses” attracted more customers, particularly among the socioeconomically disadvantaged, the researchers reported.
“Offering check-up opportunities equipped with ‘tricks’ that nudge people to act might be effective for anyone but is particularly valuable for socially vulnerable people,” the authors conclude, although they caution that “ethical discussions” are needed before considering the use of “erotic stimuli” in such endeavours.
That note of caution did nothing to quell the outrage in letters to the editors of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, which is published by BMJ Journals.
One professor from the University of Tokyo wrote to say that she felt “deeply offended” after reading the paper. “As a Japanese woman and a registered nurse, I found phrases such as ‘young women wearing mildly erotic nurse costumes’ or ‘solicitation by young women wearing sexy nurse costumes’ to be derogatory and disrespectful.” She added that by using such expressions, the authors and journal editors “tacitly accept and capitalize on stereotypes and prejudices against young women and nurses, and assume that readers will share such insulting views as well.”
Another professor, from the Hong Kong Polytechnic of Applied Social Sciences, opined that “seeing an article which encourages the objectification of women being published in this peer-reviewed journal is both shocking and disappointing”. And paediatrician Dr Patrick Ip of the University of Hong Kong wrote of his “major concern on the authors’ unethical design by regarding young women wearing sexy nurse costumes as a form of acceptable behavioural intervention”.
Faced with the barrage of criticism, both the authors and the journal editors were suitably contrite.
“We acknowledge that the intervention involved drew on stereotypes for female nurses, reinforced the objectification of both women and nurses, thus reinforcing gender inequalities,” the authors wrote. “We are deeply sorry for our poor judgement and for the negative impacts of this paper.”
Although they have not retracted the research article, the editors have appended a note to it which says that the journal “condemns the use of sexism, gender and professional stereotypes” for any purpose, including health promotion programs.
“We are conducting an audit of our review process and will put in place measures to ensure that the material we publish condemns sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination.”
You can access the full paper (and letters of outrage) here.