Calling things what they are: firing an employee who was harassed

You read that right. In a recent Iowa case, a dentist fired an employee because she was so attractive that he and his wife were uncomfortable. Several sites have covered this as the “firing attractive employee” case, and that’s bad enough. But when you get into the details, it seems there’s something they overlooked:

But sometime in 2009, he also began exchanging text messages with Nelson. Most of these were work-related and harmless, according to testimony. But others were more suggestive, including one in which Knight asked Nelson how often she had an orgasm. She never answered the text.

In late 2009, Knight’s wife found out about the text exchanges and demanded her husband terminate the dental assistant because “she was a big threat to our marriage.”

That looks like sexual harassment to me. I don’t know what the legal nuances are, and I’m not saying she should have sued him, but when a boss starts asking me about my orgasms, that’s inappropriate. So let’s call this what it is: first he sexually harassed her, then he fired her for his bad behavior.

The court ruled that the dentist wasn’t discriminating against her as a woman when he fired her, so it was legal. Apparently he was only discriminating against her as an attractive woman, and that’s a-okay. That’s awful. But the way that others are reporting on this story while neglecting what makes it really reprehensible just goes to show how we still don’t take sexual harassment seriously.


About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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4 Responses to Calling things what they are: firing an employee who was harassed

  1. Widdershins says:

    Somehow that pertinent bit of backstory got lost in the race for sound bites!

  2. Dom Mill says:


    There has got to be an appeal. I can’t believe an advanced democracy like the U.S. would let this judgement stand.

  3. senarae says:

    I think the decision, however ridiculous, is based in the legal nuances. My understanding is that she sued for wrongful termination. Apparently the nuances of that led to the decision. It is obvious, based on what we have been allowed to see, that the sexual harassment angle would have made sense. Much more sense.

    • Literata says:

      I haven’t examined the legal nuances; the reports I’ve read said that her suit was based in part on discrimination – she wouldn’t have been terminated if she had been male. I’m not saying she should have sued for harassment; I don’t know if this behavior rises (sinks?) to the level of the legal definition, and even if it did, the way she responded to it would be up to her. I just want the apparently uncontested fact of what most feminists would call harassment in the social sense to be included in the discussion of the situation.

      This seems to me to be important not just because, well, it matters, but because according to the Reuters’ report, it was his harassment that led directly to her termination. If he hadn’t texted her, his wife wouldn’t have seen it, and his wife wouldn’t have pressured him to fire her. He didn’t make this decision solely on the basis of him being distracted, and he didn’t go home and admit to his wife, “Oh, I can’t stop thinking about so-and-so at work.” As a feminist, that adds insult to injury to the social situation in my mind, regardless of any bearing it has on the legal nuances.

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