In 2010, a dental assistant in Iowa, Melissa Nelson, was fired by her dentist boss of 10 years, James Knight, because he was worried that his attraction to her would tempt him into having an affair.
Nelson sued on the grounds of gender discrimination but the case was dismissed by the Iowa district court stating that she was fired "not because of her gender but because she was a threat to the marriage of Dr. Knight." She appealed, but just last week the all-male Iowa Supreme Court unanimously upheld the district court's decision, maintaining that an employee "may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction."
Nelson's lawyer, Paige Fiedler stated, "normally if a worker's sex plays a part in the decision to fire her then it's illegal sex discrimination but the court carved out an exception saying as long as the defendant was motivated by his sexual desire for Melissa in particular, then it doesn't have anything to do with her sex and it's not illegal in Iowa."
Because this case was filed under Iowa law only, the Iowa Supreme Court is the final authority. For Nelson the case stops here.
There are many, many things wrong with this story. Most importantly the court's claim that gender had nothing to do with it. Let us count the ways that it does.
1. Gender Reversal is Not a Strong Enough Argument: Fox Business argues that the case was based on "feelings" and their "relationship" not gender. Claiming that should Knight had suddenly developed "gay feelings" for a gay male coworker and decided to fire him he wouldn't have been fired for being a man, but because their relationship had changed.
Firstly, what? Secondly, maybe he wouldn't have been fired for being a man but he would've been fired for being gay. Thirdly, it is the very nature that Nelson is a woman and Knight is a heterosexual man that he is attracted her.
The fact that he can even claim that she is "too attractive" for the workplace is a proclamation of reverse lookism – a discrimination "rooted in the same sexist principle as discrimination against the ugly. Both rest on the power of the male gaze." He is inherently claiming that her fellow female colleagues are unattractive enough to work for him. Just because he finds it particularly difficult to restrain himself in front of only her, doesn't make it any less about what she looks like. And just because he thinks she's the prettiest of them all doesn't make it a compliment.
2. Blatant Sexual Harassment is a Form of Gender Discrimination: It's speculated that if Nelson had sued for sexual harassment the case would have had a different result. While hopefully that is true, the result of this case highlights a very real lack of understanding of gender discrimination and the legal system's inability to protect women from it. The fact that the well-documented sexual harassment throughout this case was not considered to be in the realm of gender discrimination is a bit boggling to the mind.
Again, a gender reversal argument can be applied as men are victims of sexual harassment as well, but given the context of a culture that disproportionately sexualizes women so frequently in our everyday lives that it continues to go unnoticed, it is impossible to separate gender from the sexual harassment she experienced. Their female bosses may harass men sure, but they do not experience that in the structural and institutionalized ways that women do.
3. An Inability to Control One's Sexual Desires Against the Consent of an Unwilling Participant is Symptomatic of Rape: What is perhaps most disturbing in this case is that Nelson was a completely unwilling participant in Knight's advances. She did not share nor appear to share his attraction to her. As the case records state she never attempted to engage in sexual activities with Knight or pursue anything but a professional relationship. While it was clear that she did not reciprocate his feelings, Knight's attraction to her was so strong that he feared it would result in an affair. An affair that Nelson had given no indication that she would even hypothetically consent to.
When you stop to think about what that really means, you must question whether or not Knight was really saying that he feared that he would rape her if they continued working together? And if so, how on earth would it be okay to fire her for that? Reminiscent of rape cases the world over, he often criticized Nelson for her clothes being too distracting, stating, “if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing." Nelson adhered to the dress code of wearing scrubs.
I'm no lawyer but I know a thing or two about gender and I've never heard of a more blatant case of work-based gender discrimination. Perhaps in the state of Iowa it does not legally fall under "gender discrimination," but it should. In 2013, it leaves me wondering how long it will take for the law to become a mechanism to project women from the gender discrimination they face rather than a tool continuously used to justify it.