Monday, December 24, 2012

Lenin's Tomb vermin of the week

So get this. James Knight is a dentist in Fort Dodge, Iowa. For about ten years, he employed a female assistant named Melissa Nelson. Then he fired her for being too irresistibly attractive.

No one denies that she did her job with utmost professionalism and competence. Indeed, she coped with a great deal more than the job itself ought to have demanded, as Knight was a persistent lech. He bombarded her with lewd suggestions, once remarking that for someone with her body not to have lots of sex was like someone owning a Lamborghini and never driving it. He commented that if she saw his pants bulging, she would know she was dressing inappropriately. He would routinely complain that her clothing was too tight or provocative. He texted her at one point to ask how often she experienced orgasm.

She was not interested in an affair. She was married, as was he. She had a son. His wife, who also worked at the surgery, found out about an exchange of texts between the pair. And she insisted that he fire her. After receiving advice from his pastor, who urged him to go ahead and fire his assistant, he did so on the grounds that by being so attractive, she was a threat to his marriage. He would, he admitted to her husband, try to initiate an affair if he kept her in his employ.

Wait a second, there's more. Melissa Nelson sued her employer for sex discrimination. The all-male panel of seven judges in the Iowa district court heard the matter recently, and ruled in favour of the employer. You can read the judgment here. Their rationale for concluding that the sacking in no way contravened the Iowa Civil Rights Act outlawing sex discrimination was that the employer was motivated by emotions and feelings, his commitment to his marriage, and not gender prejudice. The judgment noted that the dentist had always hired female assistants, and had replaced Nelson with a female assistant. "Ms. Nelson was fired not because of her gender but because she was threat to the marriage of Dr. Knight," the judgment says. Judge Mansfield asserted that to allow Nelson's law suit would be to stretch the definition of discrimination. So, the Iowa district court asserts that employers can sack employees for being too irresistibly attractive.

This judgment places the full arsenal of capitalist patriarchy - political, legal, cultural, moral - behind sexist employers. The assumptions and the nature of the inferences made all reinforce patriarchy in its dominant 'family values' register. The court's reasoning identifies the blameless employee as the problem, the threat to the holy sacrament of marriage. In doing so, it alludes to complaints from Knight's wife to the effect that Nelson flirted with Knight. Now this allegation is not strictly relevant, but it's worth notiing that all concrete evidence cited in the judgment indicates that Nelson put up with, rather than instigating or encouraging, flirting. The judgment notes that Nelson did not tell her boss that she was offended by his texts and that their texting was mutually consensual. Rather than considering the power relationships condensed in such exchanges, then, the court tacitly identifies the woman as the temptress, seductress, and prick-tease.

Very importantly, the court cites the precedents for the law buttressing capitalist patriarchy:

"Several cases, including a decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, have found that an employer does not engage in unlawful gender discrimination by discharging a female employee who is involved in a consensual relationship that has triggered personal jealousy. This is true even though the relationship and the resulting jealousy presumably would not have existed if the employee had been male."

So, although the court acknowledges that the situation as such can only occur in a relationship between male employers and female employees, that gender does indeed occupy the key determining place, they refuse to 'stretch the definition of discrimination' that far. Essentially, even if an employee is at no fault, as long as she is female this is just one of the burdens she has to bear. The responsibility is on her, not her male employer, to safeguard against eroticism, to ensure that her boss doesn't want to fuck her.

At each step, Knight, his pastor, to an extent his wife, and certainly the Iowa district court fell back on and fortified a particular knot or intersection of power (business, family, and church) that I have called capitalist patriarchy. That's why they are Lenin's Tomb's vermin of the week.