Every particle of me wants to disagree with the Iowa court that Friday protected a male boss’ right to fire an employee simply because he finds her “irresistible.” The court (all men) ruled 7-0 in favor of a dentist, James Knight, who terminated Melissa Nelson, a 10-year member of his staff, in the interests of saving his marriage. Things Nelson had not done: flirt, behave inappropriately. Things she had: exchanged personal but platonic text messages with the 53-year-old Knight (whom she says she regarded as a “father figure”), worn clothing that “distracted” him.
After Knight’s wife found out about the texts, the couple asked their pastor for advice, and the pastor approved the decision to axe Nelson. This seems like the wrong moral outcome for reasons that Nelson’s attorney articulated: It suggests that “men can’t be held responsible for their sexual desires and that Iowa women are the ones who have to monitor and control their (bosses’) libidos.”
How fundamentally unfair that, when guys prove incapable of regulating their urges, women get fired.
On a legal level, though, Knight’s defense appears pretty airtight. His lawyers bat away the charge of gender discrimination by claiming that their client let Nelson go not because she was a woman, but because her ineffable attractiveness threatened his marriage. This is lame, but valid in the eyes of the law: Bosses are allowed to fire workers for stupid emotional/family reasons, such as to mollify one’s wife or eliminate nest-wrecking temptations. In his decision, Justice Edward Mansfield observes that Knight replaced Nelson with another female staff member, which would imply his motives were not purely sexist. According to an AP report, he once told her that “if his pants were bulging,” she should take it as a “sign her clothes were too revealing.” Also that her “infrequent sex life” was “like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.” Ick.
Clearly, Nelson has fallen prey to the whims of a horndog boss.
Another reminder that just because something’s lawful doesn’t make it right.
Kathy Waldman is a contributor to Slate, an online magazine of news, politics and culture.