I’m a proud native Iowan, but the news out of my home state involving a lustful dentist and a “stellar” but “too attractive” dental assistant has me hanging my head. The boss, James Knight, fired Melissa Nelson because he "didn't think it was good for him to see her wearing things that accentuated her body" and, not coincidentally, because Knight’s wife demanded that she be fired. “She was a big threat to our marriage,” Jeanne Knight testified.
The all-male Iowa Supreme Court considered the case twice, ruling last week, in a 7-0 vote, that Nelson has no legitimate claim of unlawful sex discrimination against her boss. The 53-year-old Knight was within his rights to fire his loyal 32-year-old employee of ten years because she was — no joke — “irresistible.” The court’s decision includes some embarrassingly salacious details:
On several occasions during the last year and a half when Nelson worked in the office, Dr. Knight complained to Nelson that her clothing was too tight and revealing and “distracting.” Dr. Knight at times asked Nelson to put on her lab coat...Nelson denies that her clothing was tight or in any way inappropriate.
Dr. Knight acknowledges he once told Nelson that if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing. On another occasion, Dr. Knight texted Nelson saying the shirt she had worn that day was too tight. After Nelson responded that she did not think he was being fair, Dr. Knight replied that it was a good thing Nelson did not wear tight pants too because then he would get it coming and going. Dr. Knight also recalls that after Nelson allegedly made a statement regarding infrequency in her sex life, he responded to her, “[T]hat’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.” Nelson recalls that Dr. Knight once texted her to ask how often she experienced an orgasm. Nelson did not answer the text.
A day after learning about this disturbing case in a problematic New York Times op-ed by Michael Kimmel, I have more questions than answers. Here are some:
1. If civil rights legislation protects women from being fired for being women, how can it deny them protection for being fired for being attractive women?
2. If Dr. Knight is so easily distracted by a woman in ambiguously tight pants, who in his or her right mind would subject themselves to him for an extraction, or, Heaven forbid, a root canal? (A quick glance at his scathingly negative online reviews shows that this lawsuit will do little to boost his business.)
3. Is this just one odd ruling by seven men who sympathize with a guy who can’t for the life of him keep his eyes on his fries, or does it represent something bigger about the law as a vehicle for male privilege?
4. The dentist’s wife insisted that the dental assistant posed a “big threat” to their marriage. But in what sense, if any, has the lawsuit inspired by Nelson’s termination been a boon to Dr. and Mrs. Knight’s relationship?
5. Is there no shame in publicly admitting to having no self-control?
6. Why did Dr. Knight worry that his temptations would lead to him having an affair with Ms. Nelson? Did he think he was so irresistible that she, a married woman two decades his junior with two kids, would have succumbed to his charms if he just said the word?
I mentioned earlier that Michael Kimmel’s op-ed on this case was problematic. Here is the passage that furrowed my brow:
Maybe instead, the Iowa Supreme Court should require all beautiful women to wear burqas. With Ms. Nelson completely covered, Mr. Knight could pay full attention to his patients’ dental concerns — while ignoring the ethical cavity that mars discrimination law in Iowa.
The implication of Kimmel’s overdone closing quip is that the Iowa Supreme Court is Talibanesque in its willingness to oppress women in order to help men keep their sexual desires in check. I agree that the seven judges unjustly discounted the negative consequences Nelson suffered as a result of her boss’s inability to rechannel his lustful leers. But the joke comes off as dismissive of religious traditions that teach sexual modesty. We shouldn’t poke fun at women who wear long dresses, headscarves or even burkas in defending the rights of women who opt to wear sensible pants. The problem with the court’s decision is its absurd contention that gender equality is perfectly compatible with a horny boss’s inability to deal professionally with female employees in the workplace.