Punished, Then Vindicated for Her Past

A former porn performer won $1.7 million after suing Southwestern Oregon Community College for discriminating against her because of her past work.

July 13, 2022
icole Gililland in a graduation cap and gown poses with family after she graduated with her bachelor's degree.
Nicole Gililland and family after she graduated with her bachelor's degree.
(Nicole Gililland)

A former nursing student who previously worked as an adult film actress and model won $1.7 million in a lawsuit against Southwestern Oregon Community College last week. The suit claimed that college administrators and instructors discriminated against the student because of her past employment and ultimately pushed her out of the competitive nursing program.

Nicole Gililland, who was accepted to the nursing program in fall 2017, sued the college for breach of contract and a violation of Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs that receive federal funds. The lawsuit, filed in February 2019, says instructors changed her grades, gave her extra assignments, subjected her to “unduly harsh discipline inconsistent with SWOCC policy” and harassed her after her former career came to light. She said the treatment she received caused her to feel depressed and led her to attempt suicide.

A jury ultimately rejected her Title IX claim but upheld that the college had breached its contract to provide her with a nursing education in exchange for tuition and awarded her the damages on July 7.

“I feel traumatized,” Gililland said Tuesday. “I feel exhausted. I feel overwhelmed. Obviously, there are no words to say how much gratitude I have for the jury and their decision, but I’ll never get over how much it took just to get a little bit of accountability or just to get somewhere.”

Southwestern Oregon Community College declined to make an administrator or spokesperson available for an interview. However, Anne Farrell-Matthews, a spokesperson for the institution, said in an email that “the college is disappointed with the outcome of the trial” and “is exploring options.”

Mustafa T. Kasubhai, federal magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the district of Oregon, issued an opinion siding with Gililland in December 2021.

According to court documents, Gililland confided in another student that she once worked as an adult film actress and model, but she later worried the classmate might tell others. She disclosed to an instructor, Melissa Sperry, in an email during the spring 2018 semester that she had some history she was “not proud of” from when she was a teenager and feared the other student would say something to “embarrass” her, but Gililland did not spell out that she previously worked in the porn industry. Sperry forwarded the email to Susan Walker, director of nursing and allied health at the college, ​on two separate occasions, said Brandon J. Mark, Gililland’s lawyer.

That’s when Gililland claims instructors’ and administrators’ behavior toward her shifted. She said Sperry gave her an assignment and then claimed she had given Gililland a different assignment and gave her a failing grade on it as a result. Sperry also docked Gililland’s grade on a make-up exam as a penalty for completing it late, despite Gililland’s request to take it early because of a doctor’s appointment, according to court documents. Gililland said in the lawsuit that she was recovering from a kidney infection and sepsis at the time.

When Gililland asked the instructor why these decisions were made, Sperry allegedly told her, “It takes a classy woman to be a nurse, and unclassy women shouldn’t be nurses.”

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Gililland felt like this was confirmation that Sperry had in fact learned about her prior work and was penalizing her for her past.

Gililland’s lawsuit also alleged that Robin Finney, another instructor, consulted Sperry about plagiarism concerns about one of Gililland’s assignments. Gililland received a failing grade on the assignment, though she claims the same practices for citing outside sources on assignments were rampant among her classmates. She confronted Pamela Wick, another instructor, about not awarding her points for correct answers on an exam, and Wick allegedly told her, “Nursing instructors had academic freedom to lower grades,” according to the lawsuit.

Gililland said she felt a “general attitude of disgust that resonated through a lot of the environment pretty quickly,” among instructors and administrators.

“Why would anyone be so disgusted and hateful all the sudden? What changed? It’s definitely not that I’m a lesser student.”

The lawsuit said she was then put on academic probation at a hearing that semester and was told by administrators that this was because of an incorrect citation on one of her assignments. Walker also reportedly threatened to call the nursing board to tell them Gililland was “unsafe with patients.” Walker then spoke with Gililland’s instructor at her clinical placement at a local hospital, who vouched for the quality of care Gililland provided patients, Mark said.

Gililland said she repeatedly reported her treatment and concerns about her grades to administrators. She said she also had a frank conversation with the college’s Title IX coordinator about her past sex work and asked that it be treated as a formal complaint. She said their responses were unsatisfactory and her claims were not investigated.

She ultimately received two failing grades and a C on her transcript that semester. She noticed a passing grade was changed to an F one month into the summer. She said she would have had passing grades had her missing exam and assignment points been restored. She was dismissed from the program in the summer of 2018, according to the suit.

Heather Tillewein, an assistant professor of public health at Southern Illinois University who conducted interviews with student sex workers as part of her research, said it’s “ironic” that campuses tout “safe sex and sexual empowerment,” but “when we have students actually participating in sex work for income … the academic institution provides no support at all.”

“A lot of staff, faculty have no training when it comes to offering support to student sex workers,” she said.

She said student sex workers described fears that their sex work would be discovered by professors and affect their grades. They also struggled to build friendships on campus because they felt they couldn’t talk about much of their day-to-day lives.

“There are a lot of barriers for our student sex workers,” she said. They struggle with “secrecy, stigma and discrimination against it.”

This wouldn’t be the first time a higher ed institution penalized someone for participating in the adult film industry—a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Manchester in the U.K. resigned in 2016 after a student discovered his second job as a porn star.

Administrators have also penalized students for posting photos they deemed inappropriate on social media. A doctoral student at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Pharmacy sued her institution in 2021 after she was allegedly told to write a letter of reflection about her “crude” and “vulgar” posts and the university ultimately expelled her for breaching “professional standards.”

An academic who studies sex work as a research fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles, and who is a sex worker herself, said academia has a problem with “whoreaphobia.” The academic did not want to be identified and uses the pseudonym Olivia Snow because of past threats and harassment from colleagues online. She also does not want colleagues at another college where she works as an adjunct to know about her sex work.

“Institutions do often take a very principled stance in terms of marginalized students and marginalized faculty,” she said. “Being a sex worker is one of very few identity categories that it’s still openly accepted for anyone to just … openly hate sex workers or to despise sex workers or to be disgusted by sex workers.”

Like Gililland, Snow told her graduate school mentor in 2019 that she did sex work and suffered negative ramifications. Snow’s mentor “flipped out” and withdrew all of her letters of recommendation from Interfolio, the digital platform where the letters were stored, as Snow searched for a tenure-track position.

After that experience, “I was like, well, we’re not telling anyone ever again,” she said, and her advice to other current and former sex workers on campus is to do the same.

“Honestly, after the experiences that I’ve had, I’d say unless you plan on researching sex work, then your best bet is to just keep it private,” she said. “And I hate having to say that because that’s entirely in conflict with my values.”

But she found the outcome of Gililland’s case “heartening.”

The stigma against sex work is “this, like, peculiar amalgamation of classism and misogyny and often racism, often homophobia,” she said. “There’s no way that that’s been made legible to policy makers as a distinct category that needs protection in ways that other marginalized demographics might not, so the fact that they ruled in her favor, I thought, was really heartening and I hope sets a precedent.”

Gililland, now starting her second year of law school at the University of Massachusetts, believes her lawsuit can help other students formerly or currently involved in sex work fight for fair treatment.

“In the past several years, I’ve definitely become very active as an advocate for sex workers, and that was kind of making lemonade for me,” she said. “There’s nothing that’s going to make what they did OK … but if I could do this to make as much positive change as possible, then that’s what I really want to exemplify for my daughters … I want to make the world a little bit better for us women, for sex workers and for anyone else suffering from the perils of stigma.”

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