When Judges Assume That Men Cannot Control Their Own Sexual Urges

Women and men alike should be concerned by the Iowa Supreme Court's recent ruling that it's legal for a man to fire an employee he finds too attractive.
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In Homer's great epic poem The Odyssey, penned in the 8th century BC, the male hero Odysseus barely escapes the devious sorcery and seduction of several archetypal female temptresses. Perhaps the most universally recognized of these temptresses are the irresistible Sirens, who beckon Odysseus and his crew with their hypnotic songs, songs famous for clouding men's minds and causing them to blow off course to shipwreck on the women's symbolic shores. Only stopping their ears with wax to remove the temptation succeeds in saving him and his men from the Sirens' clutches. Yet Odysseus, titillated by the thought of them, wants so desperately to hear their bewitching song despite the danger, that he tasks his men with binding him to the mast in order to prevent him from succumbing to their lure and leaping overboard to his ruin.

Last Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on a gender discrimination case brought by a dental assistant who had been let go from her job because she was "too attractive." According to the court documents, the dentist who employed her, Dr. James Knight, claimed that "her clothing was too tight and revealing and was distracting." He testified that he "didn't think it was good for him to see her wearing things that accentuated her body." In fact, in their ruling, the Iowa justices wrote that Knight acknowledged that he once told his assistant that "if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing." The dentist and Melissa Nelson, a 32-year-old married mother of two, had exchanged messages about their respective children and always had a friendly relationship, one which Nelson describes as being like that of a "father figure" and daughter.

Apparently, the dentist had a decidedly less paternalistic interpretation of his relationship to her, and began sending her increasingly sexual text messages in the tenth year of her employment with him. Stumbling upon some of her husband's text messages, the dentist's wife decided that Nelson was too much of a threat to the Knights' marriage to be allowed to continue working alongside the good doctor. She was simply too alluring to him. So Knight, unable to stop his ears with wax, terminated her employment after ten years of service. Nelson, in response, sued Knight for gender discrimination. Unfortunately for her, the seven male justices of the Iowa Supreme Court, ruled unanimously both in December and on the subsequent appeal on July 12th, against her. Their ruling? Melissa Nelson was not terminated because of her gender, but because of the "perceived threat to Dr. Knight's marriage" that her continued presence in the workplace represented.

This court decision should alarm anyone who is a member of the workforce. The only basis for Melissa Nelson's termination was her physical appearance as a woman. This, her supposedly irresistible allure as a woman, was the "perceived threat" to her boss's marriage. Note the phrasing in the judges' ruling; Nelson's presence in the office was acknowledged as a "perceived threat" rather than a tangible threat. The only party who behaved inappropriately in this case was her boss, not Melissa Nelson. On one occasion, Knight texted her asking "how often she experienced an orgasm." She ignored the text. She did not respond to any of his advances. There was never a physical relationship between the two, something on which both parties agreed in their courtroom testimony. Still, through some spectacular semantic maneuvering and creative interpretation of precedence, the Iowa justices came to the conclusion that Knight had every legal right to terminate his employee in order to stop her from causing his pants to "bulge" and provoking him to send her sexually explicit text messages. The underlying assumption in their ruling was clearly that her mere presence was too intoxicating for any reasonable person to expect him to behave.

The legal precedence this ruling establishes endangers the premise of equal rights in the United States, and the ramifications are much further-reaching than this isolated case. The ruling appears to establish that an employee fulfilling all of his or her obligations in a job and doing nothing inappropriate can be legally terminated for unwittingly provoking another person's desires. In other words, this ruling shifts the responsibility for a lack of impulse control and inappropriate behavior from the perpetrator of sexually aggressive workplace conduct onto the "perceived threat": the archetypal femme fatale, the provocative Siren.

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Mieke Eerkens is a writer based in Iowa City.

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