Jessica Fink


Much has been written about “lookism”—the preferential treatment given to those who conform to societal standards of beauty. But in a recent case before the Iowa Supreme Court, a sex discrimination plaintiff alleged “reverse-lookism,” claiming that her male employer terminated her long-term employment because she was too physically attractive, thus tempting the employer to consider entering into an extramarital affair. To the great surprise of many who followed this case, the Iowa Supreme Court sided with the employer, declining to find him liable for sex discrimination. As one might expect, uproar ensued, with the media, the public, and the academic community eviscerating the court for its failure to recognize and rectify sex discrimination. In story after story, reporters, academics, and pundits framed this decision as one involving an “irresistible woman” and a man’s “uncontrollable lust.” Though such characterizations made for catchy headlines, they were not quite true: The court’s decision did not hinge upon outmoded stereotypes regarding gender roles, but rather contained a plausible factual and legal basis for denying the plaintiff’s claim.

This Article expounds on the decision of the Iowa Supreme Court, exploring the complicated reasons behind this employee’s failure to win her case, and suggesting alternate theories under which a similarly situated employee could successfully challenge this type of termination. The Article also probes the reasons behind the vehement, and often misinformed, public reaction to this case. It explores the ways in which the media systematically misrepresents women, particularly in the context of suits involving workplace sex discrimination, and examines the consequences of these errors, arguing that attempts to force women in the public eye into one of two molds—either pure and pristine with muted sexuality, or sexually promiscuous and vilified—has dramatic consequences for other employees in the workplace, for policymakers, and for the public at large.