“Some Other Pretext”: Sexual Harassment & Melissa Nelson

By: Robin Jones Kerr, Communications Intern

The Iowa Supreme Court recently ruled (for a second time) that it was acceptable for a dentist to fire one of his employees “simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.” Dr. James Knight claimed his employee, Melissa Nelson, posed a perceived threat to his marriage and terminated her 10-year employment.

The New York Times op-ed on the subject was titled “Fired for Being Beautiful,” and raised some valid points about lookism in the workplace. In retrospect, this title is a terribly minimizing description of what happened. Almost every single news organization that covered the story made sure to include a picture of Nelson. It was as if they knew their audience would have a desperate need to know what the complainant looked like, to see if this woman deemed too attractive for the workplace was actually attractive. Bringing physical attractiveness into the discussion — that complicated, subjective measure that is often based on unrealistic expectations and that judges women by a harsher standard than it does men — ignores what Nelson’s story is really about: sexual harassment.

Nolo.com writes of sexual harassment: “Sometimes the connection between sexual harassment and the injuries it causes is simple and direct: A worker is fired for refusing to go along with the sexual demands of a coworker or supervisor. Usually the company (or individual manager) uses some other pretext for the firing, but the reasons are often quite transparent.”

I’m no lawyer, but in this case I would argue that the “some other pretext” used was Nelson’s physical attractiveness, which her boss argued threatened his marriage. This “transparent reason” disguises that the story is actually pretty simple: a woman was fired by her sexual harasser. She was hit on, asked how often she orgasms, told her clothes are inappropriate (so “inappropriate” that they, her uniform scrubs, induce erections). All this was inflicted by a superior who fired her when she ignored his behavior and refused his requests. A sexual harasser just fired his victim.

Yet we bring physical attractiveness into the argument. That’s how the Iowa Supreme Court ruled — they said because the firing was motivated by Knight’s feelings for Nelson, not her gender, that it wasn’t a case of sex discrimination and therefore was not illegal. While many have noted correctly that judging someone based on their looks is a form of sex discrimination, I can’t help but think that this wasn’t the right approach to take to this case. I can’t shake the thought that Nelson could have been successful had she sought justice against her harasser, instead of trying to teach a morality lesson to a sexist pig. And this isn’t a thought I like thinking. I don’t want to write that we should fight the smaller battles instead of the bigger ones — I like full measures. But it would have been easier to find Knight guilty of sexual harassment than it was to find him guilty of sex discrimination and, since I want so badly for Nelson to have won, I wish that’s the route her attorneys had taken.

So it’s fought and lost now, and Melissa Nelson is still out of a job and James Knight still has an all-female staff. This blatant sexual harassment is going completely unpunished, and the many complicated facets of the case — age, relationships, work, beauty, consent — fade away in favor of a (literally) sexy headline. Despite the complexities of the story, we reduced a woman (as we so often do) to her appearance and neglected to consider anything else.

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