Embarrassment Today

Imagine that you are a fly on the wall in a geriatric skilled nursing facility while the staff are eating lunch together. They’re all just chatting about their days, their families, their dogs. Someone turns the conversation to embarrassing stories from the workplace. What do you think these stories are about? (Spoiler alert & trigger warning: they’re all about unsolicited sexual attention.)

Every single embarrassing story involved a resident making sexual overtures (typically not very subtle) towards staff members. One woman told of the time a resident literally pulled her into bed on top of him. Another woman shared that a former resident used to purposefully spill water on her chest. A man spoke of a former resident who dropped things for him to pick up, claiming to be clumsy and have vision problems, for an excuse to look at his ass. Another man related a story about finding out abruptly that, while he believed he was there to help the resident take a shower, the resident believed he was there to share the shower.

This conversation brought up a few different thoughts to me. First, why are all the most embarrassing stories about unsolicited sexual attention? Is it that sex in general is embarrassing? I thought we were past that, collectively. Many of these same people had no trouble sharing details about their consensual sex lives; those were positive tales of accomplishments, not embarrassing stories. So it’s just sexual actions without consent that are embarrassing? If this is true, we have a bigger problem of victim-blaming than I thought. A bigger problem than I’m going to tackle in this post.

Secondly, most of the women who shared these stories expressed that, for them, seeing this sort of behavior isn’t exactly uncommon, and not just from the residents. They experience unwanted advances from elderly residents, coworkers, and visitors at work. They get it at the grocery store, especially if they stop on the way home, still wearing scrubs. In short, they get it all the time. One male staff member replied that, in this case, they should be used to it; their stories are automatically less embarrassing (and thus less interesting) because we’ve all heard about the sexually harassed female before. We’ve all heard about the sexually aggressive heterosexual male before. Nothing new. Nothing interesting. (Sexual violence becoming commonplace and worthy of being ignored: another problem too big to tackle in this post.)

It then follows (and was explicitly said) that the male staff have the best stories, because those tales include such elusive cast as sexual women (even better, sexual women over the age of sixty!) or even sexual gay men (also over the age of sixty!). As we all know, either of these types of people are extremely rare. Whenever one is spotted, everybody within a certain radius must turn and stare at the strange and unusual occurrence. Stories of male staff being sexually harassed then move out of the realm of embarrassing and return to being awesome accomplishments. Instead of being about the horror of sexual advances without consent, instead of being about the indignity of having to pretend you aren’t being ogled at every turn, the stories turn into testaments to the sexual dominance of these men.

Unsolicited sexual attention is something to be offended by or upset about, not ashamed of or proud of. And personally? If I’m going to share my embarrassing skilled-nursing stories, I’ll tell you that I ran over my own foot three times in the space of five minutes with the same resident’s wheelchair. I’ll share the time I talked to an empty bed for a full minute before realizing the resident was not in the room. I’ll share the stories of me doing things without paying attention or thinking it through, not the stories about residents doing or saying things. Confidentiality is still a thing, after all.

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