I interned at a VA medical center in the early 1990s. In some ways, the experience was a glimpse into the future: funds recently allocated to assist veterans of the first Gulf war had allowed the VA system access to state-of-the-art equipment and training opportunities and the ability to hire first-rate clinicians. In other ways, though, the place was a throwback to the 1950s, when all of the patients and doctors were male, and sexist jokes and attitudes were de rigueur. I was grateful for my experience waiting tables at a truck stop when I was in college; nothing could have prepared me better for what often passed as repartee.
The chief of a department, the training director, and several members of the medical staff visited strip clubs together periodically. The training director would describe these adventures enthusiastically during staff meetings and in my supervision sessions.
He was a nice man and a good teacher, and I never felt he was using this material to harass, intimidate, or seduce anyone. He led an otherwise sedate life — responsible job; stable marriage; large, mortgaged house in the suburbs — and I think he gloried in these “boys’ night” outings as reminders of a wilder and more carefree youth. But I found these narratives embarrassing and demoralizing, and eventually I realized I had to say something.
One day when he started in during a supervision session, I asked him to please stop. “I don’t want to hear this stuff,” I said.
He bristled visibly. “Oh, god, you’re not going all EEOC on me, are you?” He proceeded to explain what harmless fun these outings were. The “girls” were well compensated, and at least one was putting herself through college on her earnings. “I happen to think the female form is beautiful, and I enjoy looking at it. My wife doesn’t object — why should you?”
There was so much wrong with what he was saying — but I was an intern, dependent on his good evaluation and his goodwill. Finally, I said, “When you talk that way, the other guys look differently at all of the women here. They start thinking about us in sexual terms, and it makes it harder for us to do our jobs.”
He could accept the idea that the problem did not lie with him, but rather with those other men who could not separate the hot girls from the professional women. He stopped talking about his exploits, at least when I was around. My life became a little more pleasant.
But I didn’t challenge his thinking about the okayness of exploiting other women, or even about the fact that those visits were, indeed, exploitation. I experienced myself as a member of a vulnerable underclass, and in one sense I was — but in important ways, I was part of the elite, privileged to ignore the situation of the real underclass.
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