Is it Christian to fire a sexy employee?

I wasn’t going to blog this week and instead re-post old blogs from each of the months in 2012. But my blood is really boiling about the case in which the all-male Supreme Court of Iowa ruled that there was no gender discrimination at play when dentist James Knight fired a dental assistant Melissa Nelson because he was “irresistibly attracted” to her. Dan Brennan has a much more eloquent response, but I guess I just needed to write something too. Knight’s wife discovered that her husband and Nelson were sending text messages to each other, so she confronted her husband about it and he responded by firing Nelson. What bothers me the most is that a pastor from Knight’s church presided over the process of Nelson’s firing. They had a meeting at which the pastor was present where Knight read Nelson a prepared statement announcing her termination. In response to the oft-played card that “straw men” are being deployed in the evangelical church’s gender debates, this would be an example of a living straw man. This is a case of the false narrative of sexuality in “family values” culture creating an abominable, misogynistic ethics.

Being a married man and a pastor at that, I know that it’s a real battle to look away from female bodies that I don’t want to be looking at or thinking about. Believe it or not, women do not always dress very conservatively when they come to church. I actually got into a spirited conversation recently on a feminist blog in which I tried to explain that men who are trying to be chaste genuinely suffer when women dress in a way that causes men to look and have thoughts that they don’t want to have. I don’t think it’s fair to take the radical stance that women have no ethical responsibility to their community in how they dress, which is different than saying women are responsible for how guys respond to how they dress. Think of it this way. If men were walking around in clothing that deliberately accented a certain swollen part of their anatomy, that would be considered sexual harassment. So I think that both women and men should have a baseline of decency in how they dress (e.g. g-strings and man-thongs are not appropriate grocery shopping or even gym attire).

However, the question of that baseline of decency is not applicable in this case. If there’s an employee dress code problem, you make a policy; you don’t send text messages to your employee talking about the “bulge in [your] pants.” How in the world is that not blatant sexual harassment? The worst part for me is the spiritual malpractice of this pastor presiding over a parishioner’s unjust personnel decisions and framing it as a legitimate defense of his marriage. To do that is to condone sin and punish the victim rather than the perpetrator. Sorry Melissa, but James just can’t help himself; I’m sure you understand. Now Mr. Knight’s lack of self-control has the blessing of his church. Now the pastor has legitimated James’ self-abandonment to his lust rather than counseling him to take responsibility for his actions and resolve the conflict in his marriage in a way that doesn’t involve scapegoating a third party. Certainly the media storm will create a different reality now for Mr. Knight, but otherwise wouldn’t this outcome basically mean that he’s free to flirt with his hygienists in the future as long as he’s willing to fire them when he crosses a line that makes his wife uncomfortable?

I’m very interested in hearing what complementarians have to say about this. Here you have a pretty blatant example of what you would call a “caricature” of your beliefs. Are you going to speak out against it? Or do you think the values represented here are a legitimate expression of what you believe about how men and women should relate to one other? Friends, the fruit continues to testify.

54 thoughts on “Is it Christian to fire a sexy employee?

  1. No worries Morgan – I wasn’t offended. I didn’t think it came off as a dig against Lifesign – it just got me wondering about what type of clothes you would find distracting or inappropriate. Since you mentioned church, my mind immediately went to that type of community to get an idea of what you might be getting at. I do totally understand that people can dress inappropriately, even at church! Before we had kids, Eric and I did a lot of chaperoning of the youth activities (both at this church and others before we moved here). There were times that I was beyond shocked at what some of the teens would wear! But I do think that tends to be the exception rather than the rule. I think I just have a hard time wrapping my head around the workings of the male mind. If an attractive male wore inappropriate clothes to a venue, I’d assume he was either disrespectful or oblivious to the social norms of that group. In either case, my thoughts about him would be focused on why he was dressed that way – certainly not what he looked like. That’s just me, though.

    • I think men do perceive bodies differently visually, but I have no idea to what degree it’s because we’ve been manipulated into doing so by the advertising industry.

  2. I agree with your point that everyone, as functioning members of a community should adhere to the social standards of that community, which includes dressing appropriately. Beyond that, I have a hard time following the logic of your argument. You make a reference to people dressing inappropriately at church – I can be quite oblivious about this, but nothing comes to my mind immediately when I try to think of someone wearing something scandalous at Lifesign. What is overly sexual to you may not be overly sexual to the next guy. I think everyone would agree that someone wearing a bikini or midriff-baring top would probably not be appropriate. But how about a mom who might accidentally flash cleavage when her baby pulls at her shirt? Or maybe a male has a particular thing for ankles – should women not wear capris or shorts because he’d have inappropriate thoughts?

    I think your argument is a bit too reminiscent of the case for burqas. For a man to dress modestly, he can wear pretty average casual attire. For a women to be modest, she has to be covered from head to toe in a shapeless sheet.

    In the case of the dental assistant, I read that her “distracting” attire was actually scrubs. Shapeless draw-string pants and a shapeless baggy top. If someone finds scrubs to be distracting . . . it is their own personal problem.

    • Definitely not at LifeSign! I was talking more in general. It’s interesting because when people dress more formally like on Sunday morning, there’s a greater likelihood that women’s clothing is going to be more risque due to contemporary styles. But I definitely realize there’s a double-standard in clothing standards between men and women. To be honest, I mostly put that paragraph in to say that I’m not immune to the struggles that all guys have just because I’m a pastor, but I probably could have chosen my words differently. I definitely didn’t mean it as a dig on anyone from our church and I’m sorry if it came across that way. The overall point was simply that I didn’t think a pastor had any business supervising the firing of a congregation member’s employee for any reason.

    • Yes and amen. I would also add that the current “community dress standards” in Western societies are highly imbalanced and weighted towards men and their comfort. As you point out, men can dress “modestly” without even trying. Women, on the other hand, have had more than half of their bodies declared erotic, and have a much harder time.

      We need both genders to comply with normal decency of dress, but we also need to STOP the trend of sexualizing everything about the female body. Men are generally seen as people who have sexual body parts; women are often perceived as sexual bodies which contain people. We need to equalize that phenomena, in the direction of personhood first, for everyone.

      • I definitely agree. Capitalism has created this monstrous fetishism with its marketing of female bodies. So how do you think the curse is undone?

  3. Dritta, you wrote,
    “I find your assumption that the wife’s “pain and heartbreak” was caused by the employee to be mind-boggling….”

    I don’t assume that nor did I suggest it. Her pain and heartbreak is the result of her husband’s sin. He is to blame.

    • Yes, the husband is to blame. And yes, the wife appears to be one of the victims in this situation. But still, Ms. Nelson has lost her job, the ability to provide for herself and her family. You imagine mountains of job offers for a dental assistant (an inportant job, but not a highly skilled one) who just achieved notoriety for suing her previous employer? Hardly. She’ll be lucky to get work at a temp agency. She, along with the wife, are the victims of this man’s sin. And the legal resolution of this situation – to deprive one woman of her livelihood for sexist reasons, which does *nothing* to help the other woman – is highly disappointing.

  4. Morgan,
    As a pastor, what would you counsel the couple to do who comes to you presenting an ultimatum from the wife that either Nelson goes or she is filing for divorce? Why do you privilege the momentary loss for Nelson over the pain and heartbreak of the wife? And why do you presume that this is the end of the matter rather than only the fledgling first steps of Knights repentance, restoration and journey into sexual purity?

    I have to say I disagree with your judgment of the participants here. I wrote a piece expressing my commendation of Knight and my dislike of Brennan’s blog post on my blog. Brennan’s comments on it haven’t changed my mind.

    • It’s no small thing to lose your job in this economy, Chad. I’m not sure how you can call it a “momentary loss.” There’s a lot of privilege being exuded in that statement. Regardless of whatever misrepresentation has occurred through the media, no pastor should be sitting in the room when a congregation member is in the process of firing one of their employees.

        • I would reject the binary, Chad. Pastoral care is more than advice about decision-making. I’ve worked with couples on infidelity before. What are you trying to prove with your position on this?

      • Morgan,
        Let’s say you are the pastor and are presented with the following scenario from a couple who comes to you for help:
        Wife: Pastor, I want a divorce. My husband has been cheating on me. For years I have watched him develop an inappropriate relationship with his employee, Melissa, at the office. He always says there is nothing to it and brushes me aside. But a wife knows, pastor. I know there is more going on than he is willing to admit. For years I have dealt with betrayal through the use of pornography, and now I’ve found sexual text messages to Melissa which confirm my worst fears. Do you have any idea what it is like having to wait at home for my husband to arrive, wondering why he and Melissa are staying late at the office when I know he lusts after her? I’m a wreck! The last few years I’ve been depressed, anxious and unable to trust my husband. I can’t live like this anymore!

        Pastor: Well, it sounds like you both need some serious marriage counseling (dritta)

        Wife: Ha! Yeah, we do! And I’ll consider it but not with her in the picture. Either James fires Melissa or I’m out. For years he has said “I’m sorry” and “It won’t happen again” or “You are making a big deal out of nothing.” He’s made me think I’m crazy, pastor! Like it’s MY fault! If he is serious about saving our marriage than he needs do something to prove it by firing the woman he claims doesn’t mean that much to him. I will not even consider counseling until that is done!

        Morgan, naturally I wasn’t there (nor were you) and don’t know that this is how it played out. But it very well could have. In fact, speaking from personal experience of which you already know, I’d put money on it that it happened very much like this. I know all too well the pain a wife goes through over years of marital infidelity – depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, rage, paranoia, etc.

        How would you, their pastor, respond?

        I’m surprised by the complete and total lack of empathy towards the wife in this story, who is truly the real victim. Melissa Nelson is famous now. I bet her biggest problem right now is having to sort through all the job offers coming her way. Meanwhile, Mrs. Knight is left holding the bag of a marriage that she doesn’t know will be healed, and if that is not hard enough to bear, her family is being dragged through the mud and crucified, even by fellow brothers and sisters in Christ! As though they are without sin.

        I’m surprised by the number, and size, of stones being thrown at 2 broken people who need our prayers, not our contempt and trivializations of “patriarchy” and “sexism.”

        • “I’m surprised by the number, and size, of stones being thrown at 2 broken people who need our prayers, not our contempt and trivializations of “patriarchy” and “sexism.” That’s a very fair observation. You’re absolutely right.

    • I find your assumption that the wife’s “pain and heartbreak” was caused by the employee to be mind-boggling, as well as serving to release the husband from being responsible for his actions an role in the situation.

      Why would the wife feel jealous, if she were married to a faithful man? And if her husband is indeed faithful, then doesn’t the fault lie with her lack of faith in him instead?

      In either case, the employee *who isn’t married to either of the possibly guilty and/or troubled parties* should not suffer for the marital problems of her boss or his wife. And, her suffering is pointless, since it won’t do anything to address the real problem which has nothing to do with her.

      Any pastor worth his or her salt would recignize the “other woman” shtick as a foil for trust and fidelity issues within the marriage, and would recommend marriage counseling to address the real problem. Firing an attractive employee won’t solve the problem, which lies within the marriage itself.

  5. “I don’t think it’s fair to take the radical stance that women have no ethical responsibility to their community in how they dress, which is different than saying women are responsible for how guys respond to how they dress.”

    You’re a pastor so not having a real job you probably don’t realize companies have dress-codes. Women can’t show up just wearing their Victoria Secret lingerie to work. They can be fired for that, because the dress code says you can’t just come to work in your panties. It also says you can’t wear flip flops, because they’re dangerous. Generally it prohibits wearing denim except on Fridays. It usually prohibits miniskirts and tank tops and such. It is perfectly legal to fire a woman for not wearing enough clothes, if its specified in the dress code and if its enforced equally. It would also be perfectly legal to fire a guy who shows up in a muscle shirt or tank top, or shorts, if its in the dress code. But what you say in the quote above does smack to me of saying that “women are responsible for how guys respond to how they dress” and I disagree with you. And why all the harping on women anyway? Only men lust? Only women can dress inappropriately? Its like you’re living in the stone age. Society has already fixed this problem. Its the churches that can’t get a handle on it.

    This case in the article, however, is an exception, because its so bizarre. If it was a simple case of a woman showing up dressed inappropriately and then being fired, it would be an open and shut legal firing. But since he sent her inappropriate text messages, it is clearly sexual harassment on his part. For the Supreme Court of Iowa to rule in this guy’s favor, if your presentation of it is accurate, is totally insane.

    • Junly, I agree with a lot of what you’re saying in this post, but this sentence:

      “You’re a pastor so not having a real job you probably don’t realize companies have dress-codes. ”

      is totally uncalled for. Being a pastor is every bit as real of a job as anything else. It is demanding, often thankless, and not very well compensated. It is obvious that Morgan takes his job seriously, and I think he should commended, even though I don’t always agree with what he says.

      • Its not like I meant it literally. I just mean that pastors tend to forget how the workplace works because their workplace is so totally different. Like for example some think people can just take off work willy-nilly to attend special services, like if there is a week-long or two-week-long revival going on, and just don’t get why anyone wouldn’t be able to take off. When you aren’t part of the daily grind you tend to forget how hectic it all is. In a ‘real job’ environment, you don’t even have time to lust after the sexily dressed chick a few cubicles over because you’re too busy.

    • Junly, thanks for your response. Can you please confine it to one comment until I’ve had the chance to respond? Thanks so much.

  6. To further explain what I mean because its so different from your way of thinking it might not make sense. Those who think “looking at a woman to lust after her” is literally equal to physically committing adultery don’t think its possible to look at a woman and appreciate her beauty without lusting after her. In their minds the very act of looking automatically produces lust, which is why they always harp on the woman about the clothes she wears — their lust is HER fault, in their minds. But the reality is, looking at a woman and even acknowledging or enjoying her beauty does NOT always result in lust. It is possible to look at a woman and think “man that is one fine woman” and yet have absolutely no desire for her whatsoever — it is possible to look at a woman and appreciate her form and yet not want to kiss her, touch her, or sleep with her. But the religious fanatic who takes the saying “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery in his heart” CANNOT admit this reality….he is locked in to believing that all looking leads to lust, that indeed looking itself produces lust, and that there is no reason to look at a woman nor possibility of looking at a woman for any reason other than “to lust after her.” In Islam this causes them to but their women in “bee-keeper outfits” and in Christianity it causes lusty men who REFUSE to control themselves to blame the way women dress for their sexual harassment or even assault of those women. To acknowledge the possibility of looking without lust is the first step toward being able to look without lust. Duh.

  7. “Being a married man and a pastor at that, I know that it’s a real battle to look away from female bodies that I don’t want to be looking at or thinking about. Believe it or not, women do not always dress very conservatively when they come to church. I actually got into a spirited conversation recently on a feminist blog in which I tried to explain that men who are trying to be chaste genuinely suffer when women dress in a way that causes men to look and have thoughts that they don’t want to have.”

    This is a perfect example of sexist if I’ve ever seen one. Just get some self-control. Oh, I forgot, the crazy lunatic interpretation that looking itself is as sinful as committing adultery drives this sexism and there’s no way to get rid of that lunatic interpretation without being branded a heretic. Oh no, I’ve said too much.

    But really isn’t this the whole point of the post? The man liked looking at her, so he fires her. He can’t just control himself and say “Yeah, she’s hot, but I’m not going to make a move on her. Just because she’s hot doesn’t mean I have to go for her….especially when I’m married.” Instead, precisely because of the forbidden fruit caused by false religious messages like looking is equal to banging, he salivates over her and can’t stop thinking dirty thoughts. If that religious narrative was not there or if he rejected it, he would be able to look and say in his head “man she’s hot” and then forget about it instantly and move on. The teaching that looking is a sin itself prompts more looking!

    This is the only case in which Paul’s claim that the Law increases sin rings true, and here its not the Law but the gospel that does it, since the Law of Moses doesn’t say if you look at a woman that’s adultery — its the gospel of Matthew that says it! But even there, I think Jesus really meant “if you keep thinking about it, it will lead to adultery” rather than that its literally the same guilt level. The people who think he meant its literally the same guilt level are the ones who ironically lack self-control in this area — they see women only as sex objects.

  8. I think there are various issues at play here. Do I think the dentist should have fired her or gotten his pastor involved because of *his* attraction to her? No. But, *legally*, the court did seem to make the right decision because she wasn’t fired because she was a woman, but because she was attractive to him, and “attractive” is not a protected class.

    • The issue of “attractiveness” by itself makes no sense, because she would not be attractive unless she were a woman. Without the gender issue, the case is absolutely absurd. You cannot take out the reason she was attractive and have anything continue to make sense.

      If she were not a woman, she would not have been attractive, and would not have been fired. In this case, “attractive” is code for woman, which IS a protected class.

      • Unless he was bi, in which case he could fire both men and women willy-nilly for being attractive to him. It would be an easy way to get around all the red tape involved in firing people.

  9. I’m torn. As it’s presented in the article, it’s insane and I totally agree. There is this part of me that is legitimately curious about the rest of the circumstances. Obviously the dentist should be disciplined, but this is a tough one.

    My only complaint about this article is the serious of questions at the end. I don’t really see this coming from a distinctively complementarian view of things, so I’m not sure there’s a real onus of responsibility on their part explain this any more than there is for egalitarians.

    • In a complementarian ethos, an abstract gendered order is posited and privileged as the basis for sexual ethics rather than a sense of interpersonal hospitality. Men just “are” a certain way and the way that men “are” must be accommodated. They have to be in charge or else they’ll leave the church and they have to be protected from
      their sexual urges or else there will be consequences.

    • Here’s a direct question: do you think that a pastor should sit in on a church member’s personnel communication in their workplace? You can’t claim “liberal media bias” regarding the pastor’s presence in the room. Either he was or wasn’t.

      • Two points:
        1. I never claimed a “liberal media bias”, just the probability of a complex situation that’s hard to report fully in a short article.
        2. Yes, I think that’s awkward, but, I thought I read somewhere that they were both part of the same congregation, in which case you now have a more than professional situation. Again, I’m not saying I agree with the decision at all. At first reading my reaction is the same as yours. But then my skepticism kicks in and I remember some of the goofy reporting we’ve encountered over the last year in various cases where other details come out and things look very different.

  10. 1. No one complains when not so pretty and not so handsome persons are not given the job because of their looks why complain when someone is fired for their looks?

    2. Everyone packages what they are selling. Clothes are the wrapping.
    You do not see street walkers advertising their goods wearing suits.

    3. Males are conditioned and trained to believe “the eye” is the culprit and have been given a pass when it comes to eyeing the female. The church, to this day, hold the male is stimulated by what he sees. Females are given no such pass.
    If you think the female is not stimulated by what they see you are very mistaken.

    You can’t have it both way ladies. Freedom comes at a price.
    If you want to be judged on your brain power sell your brain and ability.

    • Just to clarify, are you saying that everything that happened in this situation was appropriate? If not, what do you agree with and disagree with?

      • Mary Wollstonecraft wrote “A vindication of the rights of woman” in the 1700’s.
        She is one of my favorite feminist writers.
        Here is a little of what she has to say:

        “A modest man is steady, an humble man timid, and a vain one presumptuous:-this is the judgment, which the observation of many characters, has led me to form. Jesus Christ was modest, Moses was humble, and Peter vain.”

        “But, with respect to propriety of behaviour, excepting one class of females, women have evidently the advantage. What can be more disgusting than that impudent dross of gallantry, thought so manly, which makes many men stare insultingly at every female they meet?
        Can it be termed respect for the sex? No, this loose behaviour shews such habitual depravity, such weakness of mind, that it is vain to expect much public or private virtue, till both men and women grow more modest-till men, curbing a sensual fondness for the sex, or an affectation of manly assurance, more properly speaking, impudence, treat each other with respect-unless appetite or passion give the tone, peculiar to it, to their behaviour. I mean even personal respect-the modest respect of humanity, and fellow-feeling-not the libidinous mockery of gallantry, nor the insolent condescension of protectorship.”

        You should read the whole piece.

    • You are mistaken on so many levels.

      1) *I* complain when ‘not so pretty’ and ‘not so handsome’ people are judged on their looks, and not their abilities. It is injustice, and it is wrong. It is no less, or no more, wrong than firing people because they are attractive. Two wrongs do not make a right, particularly not when we are discussing “christian” ethics.

      2) Comparing a professional woman working in an office to a “streetwalker” is demeaning and inappropriate. I must assume that you intended to insult her and call her a slut, because how else could you possibly assume that those comments are appropriate? I have no idea what you are basing your opinion upon. Every option I can think of is ignorant, sexist, and demeaning. Also, pretending that women are in control of what is expected and available for them to wear is ABSURD. How many women design clothes or set the fashions? Our current culture (INCLUDING “christian” culture) expects women to look youthful forever, be eternally “pretty” (aka attractive), but never be “slutty” (aka attractive), always be professional, but never dowdy, and has constantly changing rules about what is considered “okay” to wear. The definition of “tight” changes every other year, as does the length of the “scandalous” hem or neckline. “Packaging,” as you call it, is a hell of a lot more complicated than a simple A (slut) or B (brain) choice.

      3) None of the ladies want it “both ways.” We’d be perfectly happy if the modesty standards and expectations placed upon men were placed upon us as well. It would be an enormous relief, since they are so incredibly minimal compared to what is expected of women. But instead, our (male dominated) culture places a HUGELY disproportionate burden upon women only, and then pretends that it isn’t there, and then expects us to do everything perfectly so that the men can continue on their merry way without being bothered by our pesky bodies disturbing their lives.

      In the area of modesty/sexuality, I would give my eye teeth to be judged “as a man.” I would be able to wear comfortable clothes, which would always have pockets. I wouldn’t be expected to appear to be a 30 year old woman just emerging from puberty. I would be able to wear functional clothes and not be judged upon whether I was “letting myself go” or “giving my husband a reason to wander.”

      • Dritta
        To say you have no choice is ridiculous.
        Cleavage in….cleavage out.,
        We also can conduct ourselves in a professional manner on the job.
        Trading personal e-mails with the boss is not professional.

        Comparing the street walkers dress was to point to the packaging used to sell goods. It was an example of the way not to dress, male or female.
        Not all street walkers are female. To assume so is a bias in itself.
        It was an example and should need no explanation.

        My experience is the following…speaking as a woman in a professional field.
        Women miss more time and use their children as an excuse to do so.
        Some women flirt just as much as any man I have ever worked with and then cry they are discriminated against when they find the jokes a little too colorful. I have seen these same women cry foul and discrimination when things do not go their way.
        These women make it hard for other women to get past preconceived ideas some employers have about women.

        So if you want to be seen as a pro..try to act like one.
        Dress like a pro.
        Work the long hours the males are working to climb that ladder.
        And for cying out loud..don’t tell sexual jokes and then cry foul when they don’t suit you.
        No one needs to know or cares if you had some body sculpting done.
        One woman I worked with made everyone aware of her enhancements than filed a discrimination suit against her supervisor when he made a comment about the procedure.

        That”s what I mean by haveing it both ways.

  11. I seriously doubt this story is as simple as it has been presented. These are real people who have been rendered as stock characters in a contemporary morality play. The guy who can’t help himself, the hygeinist with cleavage, the “wife on the warpath.” So I’d like to restore them to their full humanity and ask, “How should a pastor counsel a man who is attracted to his assistant, and, as it sounds, she is attracted to him? Do we really think it is as simple as her needing to dress differently and he needing to grow up? I suspect it is just too easy to blame this all on cleavage. But text messages have been sent and received. The woman could dress in a paper bag from here on out, and I suspect we’d still have a problem. Yes, the man can blame the woman — which lets him off the hook, and likely makes his wife feel better. (He can’t help himself, and its only the cleavage.)

    By the way, I think “wife on the warpath” is a pretty dated construct. It made me wince. There is no compassion here for a wife who may have very good reasons to feel threatened and angry, and to feel like the only solution is to remove the threat. She found what sounds like flirtatious text messages, so how did she get to be the villain here? I’m not saying the woman should have been fired, or that the pastor belonged in the room. At all. Only that infidelity is widespread, and attraction and desire are not fully explained by the logic of Archie comic books. This is a situation ripe for pain all around. The pain of an insecure spouse (rightly so, it seems) the pain of an employee who has lost a job, and the pain of a man who, perhaps, finds himself attracted to someone other than his spouse. This is a very, very tough situation.

    • You’re right about the “wife on the warpath” comment. Unnecessary and misogynistic on my part. I’ve been kind of editing this one as I get feedback about it. Thanks. I get that it’s more complicated than the media makes it out to be. I guess it was hearing about the pastor being in the room that got me riled up. It fits a pattern of patriarchal values that I try to define myself against.

      • Right, pastor in the room grosses me out too. But then I think about how people might have argued themselves into this place. If this relationship was barely on this side of an affair, I can imagine Mr. Dentist and his wife deciding that the best thing would be to discontinue the working relationship. (You know, the every-day-alone in the office thing, between patients. Can you blame them?) Mr. Dentist can leave, but that leaves Ms. Hygenist without a job anyway. (I sure don’t see an easy solution here.) So Dentist decides to fire Hygenist, and doesn’t want the sort of drama likely to arise if they are two people alone when this news is delivered. You know, somebody breaks down crying, someone else comforts, and they’re in each others arms in seconds. So the dentist asks his pastor to come as a third party. (Maybe he should have fired her by phone instead?) But he asks the pastor, because then he feels shored up, and he hopes it will leave no doubt in the mind of the woman that this “relationship” is over. Wife is a little less on tenderhooks too — there was a witness to the ending of things. Was it smart? Was it the best idea in the world? Nope. It didn’t factor in the power dynamics, two men, both in power positions. But I sure see how people got there. And the much tougher thing is to be a pastor trying to help people out in a situation like this. Maybe that pastor regrets it too.

        I’m a feminist. But sometimes life has gender issues mixed up in other issues about being human. This seems like one of those cases.

  12. I am almost with you 100%. Everything about this situation is sexist and horrifying and sinful and wrong. Absolutely.

    The point I question is where you would consider “the line” for a woman’s responsibility “to their community” for how they dress. Your example of a man making someone uncomfortable by flaunting his package was a good one… and if you stick to that line, and apply it *in the same way* to women then that’s fine.

    But usually, the people who apply those same standards of common public courtesy do not go on, as you did, about how those women “make” you feel, or what their clothing “makes” you think. Those issues in your head have nothing to do with them or their clothes. As an attractive woman who has heard that shit for far too long, I can assure you that no matter WHAT I am wearing, or what I say or do, even if all I do is sit in a fucking burka in the corner and giggle at a joke a man tells, someone will accuse me of “flirting” and “leading him on.” That is not my, or any other woman’s, problem.

    Women are responsible to *themselves* for how they dress, and whether they are seeking inappropriate attention. Women are responsible for their own intentions and thoughts, and nothing else. They are NOT responsible for the thought choices of anyone else, ever. Men are responsible both for their actions, and their thoughts. Men are not, as you seemed to imply, only responsible for their actions and not their thoughts and emotions.

    The role reversal makes it so clear to me. Do youth pastors spend time chastising young men for “causing the ladies to stumble” when they show off playing basketball shirtless? No, they don’t. Instead, they tell the girls to “guard their hearts”, because they know that the young women need to be responsible for themselves. It’s time we started expecting the same of our young men, instead of pretending the women are somehow responsible.

    You can’t say that the situation in Iowa is wrong, and then keep on saying the exact same thing as those judges. If women can be held responsible for a man’s thoughts, then the court ruled correctly. If she can’t, then don’t pretend that she can.

    • I also disagree with your use of the term “biological impulses” use to describe a man’s response to the way a woman is dressed. Modesty codes are NOT based on biology! They are culturally created and transmitted. The term “biological” makes the response seem inevitable, which would make men not responsible. But, sadly (?) for men, this is not the case.

      I have lived within a culture in East Africa where a woman’s knees were considered erotic. Wearing shorts was a huge no-no, as were any skirts shorted than mid-calf. However, breasts were bared all the time. They were tools for feeding babies, and nothing more. A man would not look twice at a topless woman, but would be turned on by seeing her kneecap. This was not caused by African men having different “biology” than American men; rather, it is culture, NOT biology, which determines both how women are “supposed” to dress, and how men are “supposed” to respond.

      This is not to say that it should be “easy” for men to overcome their culturally transmitted impulses (culture is powerful!), nor does it excuse women if they are intentionally triggering cultural responses. However, unlike biology, culture is not inevitable. We are all responsible both for how we use it, AND how we respond to it.

      • I appreciate your conversation. I’m trying to understand how to talk and think about these things in a way that isn’t oppressive to women and isn’t dishonest to what I experience as a man. When you say, “Women are responsible to *themselves* for how they dress, and whether they are seeking inappropriate attention,” I agree in the sense that it’s the motive that matters, unless we all want to wear astronaut suits. The only thing I’m uncomfortable with is the individualism. I feel like we’re always responsible to each other for our choices to some degree, though I absolutely do not interpret this to give an “authority figure” within a community the right to impose draconian rules on that community.

        I think men probably don’t appreciate enough that women have motives for wearing clothing that seems to feature aspects of their bodies other than manipulating them seductively. I don’t think women should have to be sweaty and miserable on a hot day because the guys in their community claim to be helplessly lustful. But I also know guys get resentful when we’re not allowed to name the fact that seduction is a powerful force and that there is such a thing as using seduction manipulatively and playing dumb about it. It seems disingenuous to pretend like that never happens, even though I realize guys often think that it’s happening when it’s not and I hear what you’re saying about being accused of that when you’re just being your natural self (“Don’t laugh because you look pretty when you do and then I get feelings inside me that I don’t like having!”).

        I don’t think men get to tell women how to dress based on what their fetishes are. But I do think that women should have frank conversations with each other if they have enough of a level of trust between them and you can tell that a friend is trying to be seductive in an unhealthy way. When I was a high school teacher, if a girl was wearing clothing that seemed like it created a distraction for the boys, I would never say anything to her about it myself because that felt like sexual harassment. If it was really egregious then I would mention it discreetly to a female colleague. Otherwise I would just hope that a woman would say something.

        It’s interesting because I’ve lived in co-ed intentional community before where we saw each others’ bodies a lot and it wasn’t a big deal. Somehow we became like brothers and sisters even though there were definitely women in that community whom I would have been attracted to if we didn’t know each other. Of course the circumstances in which we saw each others’ bodies were often quite unflattering. It’s a very perplexing issue to think about. And there are so many overlapping factors that contribute: the ubiquitous use of sex in marketing, the way that bourgeois people cling to sexual prudishness as their virtue par excellence, etc.

      • I will accept that women are responsible, as part of a community, for their own intentions in how they dress. I don’t mean to make it individualistic; rather, I mean to draw a very, very strong line between what is a woman’s responsibility (herself) and what is not (her surrounding culture, the thoughts/actions/intentions of men).

        “I think men probably don’t appreciate enough that women have motives for wearing clothing that seems to feature aspects of their bodies other than manipulating them seductively. ”

        I could not agree more with that statement. As I mentioned in another comment, the cultural pressures on women for how to dress are numerous, and most of them have nothing to do with women desiring men to look lustfully at them. They include (but are not limited to):
        – social acceptance (HUGE) (women are judged far more harshly than men on their clothes, and people make more character judgements about “frumpy” clothes than most men realize. Dressing poorly has real life repercussions, both socially and professionally.)
        – the pressure to “look pretty” so that other women won’t judge you and/or your spouse won’t leave you
        – acceptance/admiration/connectedness with other women (HUGE, especially for younger women)
        – professionally, pressure to dress in a way that [male] colleagues will take you seriously, and will judge you to be a competent worker.
        – pressure to FEEL pretty, to combat the constant advertising messages designed to make women feel ugly, fat, and inadequate.
        – low self esteem
        – high self esteem
        – nothing else was available at the store (I have sometimes had problems finding “appropriate” swimsuits when the fashions trended towards risque. Also, women with non-standard body types can have a VERY difficult time finding clothes that fit, and may have a limited selection).
        – I had no time this morning to find something else, and/or wasn’t paying attention.
        – it’s hot outside
        – etc.

        Basically, as a woman who has been dressing herself for more than a quarter century (and been accused in conservative “christian” circles of being immodest on more than one occasion) I can attest that the vast majority of the time I and my friends were struggling to manage all of the cultural/social crap. There were a few times when I was actually trying to get male attention, but most of the time I was seeking female acceptance, trying to appear socially competent, battling a body image disorder, and fighting to not internalize the “male gaze” into my soul. This was a common experience with my whole set of friends growing up, and continues to be true of many of the women I know as an adult.

        The continued emphasis on the impact of all of this crap on men and boys, ignoring the enormous negative impact this pressure has on women and girls, is a problem. Not because it doesn’t affect men, but because that approach does double damage of presenting a false “solution” (fix the women, and the problem will be fixed!), and preventing the women from gaining understanding or help to prevent themselves from being damaged by these caustic messages.

        • Thanks for sharing that list. It’s a helpful reminder. I realize all that stuff goes on, but sometimes I don’t connect the dots very well. I think a lot of guys file these things into disconnected parts of our brain: social issues in the abstract and then what’s going on in the moment when I personally see an attractive female. When you get mad at yourself for looking, you want to be able to say it’s because the girl was being manipulatively seductive.

      • I can understand the impulse to blame women for “causing” an undesired thought, but that doesn’t make it less of a male-privileged response.

        Male privilege over women’s clothing manifests in multiple ways. One way is through the expectation that women will wear scanty clothing, objectified (de-personified) for the convenience and pleasure of the lewd male viewer.

        Another way is through the expectation that women will wear “modest” clothing, again objectifying them for the convenience of the chaste male viewer. It is the same objectification and privilege of making men and their desires more important than women and their desires. It’s the same sexism, just with a different (male) goal.

        The problem which continues to arise is defining the appropriateness of women’s clothing/body based upon ONLY a male response to it (male gaze) instead of considering FIRST the woman’s perspective on her needs for her body, and then AFTER that, the desires of her surrounding community (including men).

        In other words, the world of women’s clothing doesn’t, and shouldn’t, revolve around men.

        • What you’re saying makes sense to me. FWIW I don’t think she’s going to hear you on this because judging from the tenor of her comments, her self-identity is rooted in a repudiation of anything that sounds feminist.

    • “I can assure you that no matter WHAT I am wearing, or what I say or do, even if all I do is sit in a fucking burka in the corner and giggle at a joke a man tells, someone will accuse me of “flirting” and “leading him on.”

      Tell them their 19th century sundresses are tacky.

  13. You nailed it. This is nothing more than sanctified misogyny. And sadly, it happens all the time in churches—pastors firing secretaries, pastoral divorces blamed on the wife, outspoken women silenced when they challenge an all-male elder board. We can only hope that the revolutionary postmodern thinking will enlighten more and more people to the truth about patriarchy.
    And I couldn’t agree with you more regarding human sexuality: Personal responsibility is a must for both sexual beings. I take responsibility for my sex appeal, you take responsibility for your sex drive.

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