Why Firing A Sexy Employee Reflects Implicit Sexism

By now, the news that an Iowa court upheld a (male) dentist firing his (female) assistant for being too sexy has made the rounds. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the employee has been flirtatious or dressed inappropriately; the employer’s comfort level was the main factor in the decision.

Other bloggers have tackled why this is a problem, pointing out, for instance, that this ruling sends a negative message by objectifying women (which is not technically illegal) – so maybe the law should change. Perhaps a new law preventing employers not just from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender, but also discrimination based on the employer’s feelings of sexual attraction (or lack thereof) would help.

However, I believe that this case reflects an unconscious level of sexism that many Americans don’t even question, which is what we really need to be discussing in order to change things for the better. First, the ruling reflects the belief that men are sexual creatures and will be tempted to stray from monogamous relationships at the slightest provocation. Pervocracy brilliantly nicknames this the “myth of the boner werewolf,” or the “pernicious myth out there that the male sex drive is unstoppable and irresistible–that once a man is aroused, he literally cannot control his actions.”

Clearly, people (yes, even men!) (yes, that parenthetical note was a joke!) are capable of choosing not to have sex. But social norms and the media obscure this fact with frightening regularity. Saying that “he couldn’t help himself” in cases of sexual assault reinforces this view of male sexuality as predatory and uncontrollable. I refuse to believe this, and I think this employer should be honest about his motivations for firing this employee: was it that he couldn’t help it or wouldn’t help it?

Further, our culture has such distorted communication about relationships that it’s no wonder he could displace his marriage’s problems onto his employee. It’s totally wrong for him to do so – but it’s not surprising. Given that some theorists believe that monogamy doesn’t come naturally to us, yeah, it can be hard for people to stifle their urges to seek intimacy outside their primary relationship. If that’s an issue in your monogamous relationship, though, it’s your problem to work through; don’t go blaming other people for drawing your eye away from your spouse. Yes, if someone continues to pursue you once you’ve indicated that you’re unavailable, they’re being disrespectful and that is a problem, but everything I’ve seen about this case indicates that this was not was was happening.

Finally – and boy, this one makes me mad! – our culture needs to be more aware of the oppressive beauty demands that women face on a daily basis. A woman who wants to obtain and keep a job where she is seeing other people (such as customer service or anything else face-to-face) MUST ensure that she looks good. Legal scholars believe that the “beauty bias” is real; in fact, a book of the same name explores appearance law, arguing: “Appearance-related bias infringes fundamental rights, compromises merit principles, reinforces debilitating stereotypes, and compounds the disadvantages of race, class, and gender.”

It’s a classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation: women who refuse to conform to coercive beauty standards are less likely to land a good job, while women who do too good a job of presenting themselves as attractive will be punished by being over-sexualized in the eyes of others (employers or fellow employees). Until our lawmakers acknowledge this cultural reality, they won’t be able to pass laws that protect everyone.

The cynic in me wants to say that if you need a law to protect your marriage, you’re doing something wrong, and this is just another example of how heterosexual monogamous marriage is failing as an institution. Instead of passing more laws to prop up an outdated institution, we should be be deconstructing it: extend the right to marry to everyone who wants it. Quit using the temptation to cheat as an excuse for bad behavior. Encourage more cultural dialogue about all of these issues. Sadly, the realist in me doesn’t see this happening anytime soon, despite the wonderful progress in making gay marriage legal in more states.

About Jeana

Jeana

Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.