On December 21st, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a wrongful termination case in which Ft. Dodge Dentist Dr. James Knight fired his assistant Melissa Nelson because his “irresistible attraction” to her threatened his own marriage.
The all-male Supreme Court unanimously agreed with the horny dentist.
Now I won’t offer any pretense in understanding the legalities in question, but even a layman (including men who like to get laid) would agree there’s something seriously troubling in the Court’s finding that a boss can fire an employee because he (or she) may not be able to repress his (or her) own sexual urges as related to that employee.
Mrs. Nelson sued under Iowa’s Civil Rights law for gender discrimination, not as a sexual harassment case even though at one point over the course of her employment Dr. Knight explained to her that she would know the scrubs she was wearing were too sexy if “she saw his pants bulging”.
What was the Taliban’s, I mean Court’s, legal basis for affirming Mrs. Nelson’s termination? That Dr. Knight did not illegally fire Mrs. Nelson for being a woman, precisely, but for being an irresistibly attractive woman (ugly ladies need not worry.)
To affirm his moral superiority over the happily married mother of two, Dr. Knight consulted with his mullah – er – I mean his minister for guidance. The two pious men concluded that the dental assistant who was twenty-one years younger than him was too sexy to handle a periodontal curette. So Dr. Knight prepared a written statement, and with another wizened-to-the-ways-of-women minister at his side as witness, read to Mrs. Nelson his reasons for firing her after ten years with his office. He gave her one month severance pay.
She is guilty for his feelings.
What is so agonizing about the Court’s affirmation is that Mrs. Nelson had done absolutely nothing to invite Dr. Knight’s obsession. She wore scrubs, same as the other girls. She regarded Dr. Knight as a father figure, not potential lover. In the court brief it is even acknowledged that Mrs. Nelson had not engaged in flirtatious behavior with Dr. Knight.
This decision may seem insignificant because, after all, women in the U.S. aren’t being gang raped and eviscerated like the 23 year old Delhi woman riding the bus home from her late night shift at a Canadian call center. But it is just as insidious. It shifts the agency. It is beyond reason that the all-male court’s decision shouldn’t be nullified based on U.S. Civil Rights case law and 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
At this point, Mrs. Nelson’s attorney has filed a motion for a rehearing given Iowa’s long history of protecting Civil Rights. I hope they do so with haste, for how is any worker now secure in his or her profession if at any time, his or her employer can claim “sexual tension” as a cause for termination? If simply being considered “sexy” – however one defines this subjective adjective – can be grounds for termination, the rules of causality are flipped upside down.
It’s not unlike the argument that women can prevent rape by not wearing certain things, going certain places, or acting certain ways. That line of thinking presumes that men are incapable of control, or that women are mere subjects of men’s desires, not independent actors of their own lives.
Despite advances made by women in the past century to gain legal rights, including the right to vote, divorce, own property, etc., women workers’ compensation shamefully lags behind that of their male counterparts. Women’s average wages remain only 79 cents for every dollar a man earns. Women also comprise the majority of extremely low wage professions, making up 2/3 of minimum wage earners. Despite a wage disparity which could urge some women to shrink back into their domestic roles and hope to at least marry successfully, women make up nearly half of the workforce. The one statistical arena where women workers now exceed men is their unemployment rate is 7.3% compared to 7.2% for men nationally.
Beyond the wage gap and the enormous burden this puts on families – more of which are being headed by single women – female workers in Iowa must now contend with a new stunningly sexist obstacle: being considered too attractive to work.