Skip to main content

Fired because a man can't control himself

By Pepper Schwartz, Special to CNN
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Tue July 16, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Iowa court rules it's not sex discrimination for a man to fire a woman because she's attractive
  • Pepper Schwartz thought we're at the point that if a man can't control his lust, it's illegal
  • Schwartz: Women are insulted, not hired if unattractive, fired if they are too pretty
  • Saving your marriage by firing an employee for her looks is a gender issue, she says

Editor's note: Pepper Schwartz is professor of sociology at the University of Washington and the author or co-author of 17 books, the latest of which is "The Normal Bar." She is the AARP love and relationship ambassador and writes the Naked Truth column for AARP.org. She is a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit organization that gathers research on American families, and chief expert for perfectmatch.com.

(CNN) -- Just when you think we're becoming civilized and smarter about our knowledge of gender, you get a stupid decision such as the one from the Iowa Supreme Court and you wonder whether sanity will ever reign.

I thought we had decided the issue that men's "uncontrollable lust" was indeed controllable, and if they didn't control it, they were going to be charged and convicted of sexual harassment, rape, frottage -- well you get the idea.

So now the all-male Iowa Supreme Court has said, albeit in a new way, that men are so controlled by their gonads that they can fire an employee at will for being able to incite attraction, sex, love, whatever. No matter that she is just going about her job or being a stellar employee; if she's got a cute butt or a nicely turned nose, her job is history.

Pepper Schwartz
Pepper Schwartz

If you haven't heard, the court stood by an earlier ruling that a Fort Dodge dentist acted legally when he fired his dental assistant -- even while acknowledging she had been an excellent employee for 10 years -- because he and his wife were afraid he would try to start an affair with her and ruin their marriage. The employee had sued for sex discrimination. But the court said firing an employee for being too attractive, despite no inappropriate behavior on her part, is not sex discrimination because gender is not the issue. Feelings are.

Don't tell me this has nothing to do with gender.

I don't see women firing men because they can't control themselves. Is this because they don't have manly kind of urges? Or is it because they don't have access to the same excuses, such as uncontrollable attraction and desire? Either way, it's a gender issue. And if a woman is denied employment because of her gender, that is a protected legal status.

Don't tell me this has nothing to do with gender. I don't see women firing men because they can't control themselves.
Pepper Schwartz

But the Iowa Supreme Court guys didn't see it that way. By the way, Iowa women: Is this enough to motivate you to get some women on your Supreme Court? The guys saw the issue, at least in part, as protecting the institution of marriage rather than an infringement on a woman's right to work.

Let's be real honest here: If the only way this man and woman could protect their marriage is to remove an attractive woman from their midst, then I'd say this marriage has a lot more problems than just an attractive dental assistant.

What is this dentist's wife going to do -- put blinders on her husband like a race horse? Do employees have to pass an ugliness test? Do they pick the couples in their extended friendship network according to whether the wife is curvaceous?

Women have been at risk because of their looks for a long time. There are online sites where women are evaluated like so many heifers on whether they are " Hot or Not?" Words such as "dog" "sow" "and needing a "paper bag over her head" have been thrown at us as a part of male bravado.

Beautiful women get cat-calls, sometimes really rude and threatening gestures and unwanted commentary on their looks. Talk about women being between a rock and a hard place. Insulted and not hired if they aren't attractive, fired if they are too attractive.

Could someone tell us just exactly how we should look?

More important, could we have some continuing education for the courts around the nation so that they realize looks are a gender issue -- and therefore protecting women from being fired because of them is appropriate.

If another case like this goes through the judicial system, I hope a very different conclusion will be reached. Otherwise, all kinds of firings may arise that use this excuse to get rid of women employees.

Why, this could even spread to the courts -- male judges might ban some women lawyers from presenting cases because, gosh darn it, they are just too lovely.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Pepper Schwartz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT