MTV has reached an out-of-court settlement on a lawsuit brought by Tonya Cooley, who alleged that she was raped by her Real World/Road Rules Challenge: The Ruins castmates while producers watched and kept the cameras rolling. Details of the settlement have not been made public, but earlier this year MTV's parent company, Viacom, responded to Cooley's complaint by saying, "[Cooley] failed to avoid the injuries of which she complains. [She] was frequently intoxicated, rowdy, combative, flirtatious and on multiple occasions intentionally exposed her bare breasts and genitalia to other contestants." So they don't deny that a sexual assault happened; rather, she had it coming.
Cooley was originally a castmate on The Real World: Chicago, which aired in 2002. Before being cast on the show, she had been a foster child who had never found a permanent home before eventually aging out of the system. Having appeared on over a dozen different reality shows between 2002 and 2009, Cooley was one of the first people to create a career out of reality television, which has effectively ended after her stint on The Ruins, where the alleged rape occurred.
In the complaint filed on October 27, 2011—which names MTV, Bunim-Murray Productions, and The Challenge castmates Kenneth Santucci and Evan Starkman—Cooley alleged she was a victim of sexual harassment, discrimination, wrongful termination, and sexual battery. According to the complaint, Santucci and Starkman "took another male participant's toothbrush and rubbed the toothbrush around [Cooley]'s genitals, including rubbing her labia and inserting the toothbrush into plaintiff's vagina" while she was passed out drunk. She says that producers were aware of what happened and more than likely watched it on monitors while it was going on. But they did not stop it, nor did they reprimand Santucci or Starkman. They did, however, replace the toothbrush. They never informed Cooley of what happened. She reportedly learned about the incident after the fact from other female cast members.
The complaint says that production "condoned, encouraged, and ratified" inappropriate behavior of the male cast members toward female cast members and provided copious amounts of alcohol and little food to get "participants to engage in scandalous behavior that would increase viewer ratings."
And Cooley definitely took advantage of the free booze. Her heavy drinking was a plot point during the show. She was often shown disheveled and falling down drunk. But Cooley was very open about her problem with alcohol and her own emotional instability, saying, "Drinking for me is just to disappear and to forget that all these people are out to get me and they don't like me."
One scene from the show is clearly part of the incident mentioned in the sexual battery complaint. According to the legal document, the cast members had all been drinking by the pool when one of the male cast members removed Cooley's bikini top and threw it in a tree. Cooley left the pool area to return to her bedroom, where she alleges that Santucci and Starkman continued to "harass and torment" her, squirting lotion onto her head and throwing baby powder in her face as she was telling them not to touch her. All of this was filmed and can be seen in the video to the left.
According to Cooley, just after this, she passed out on the floor. She later learned that Santucci and Starkman slapped her in the face several times to try and wake her up. When they could not, they inserted a toothbrush into her vagina. From the complaint:
The following morning, unaware of the sexual assault, Plaintiff noticed that she was sore in her vagina and had lacerations/rash like abrasions on her labia. Plaintiff assumed the lacerations/abrasions were some sort of rash caused by her participation in various physical challenges.
Subsequent episodes focused on Cooley's emotional instability, culminating in a physical altercation with a female cast member that got Cooley kicked off the show. (Cooley believes that part of her termination had to do with the complaints that she made about how the male cast members were treating the females.)
That episode aired two years before Cooley filed her lawsuit, however, at the time, I noted how sympathetic her castmates were (including Starkman) in the "After Show" that appeared on MTV.com, saying how they felt Cooley had finally snapped over a highly offensive, unaired remark. In the clip below, the cast members are talking about the "low blow" comment, and at the :45 second mark a female cast member says "Yeah, about the rape…"
There were other cast members who voiced their concern for Cooley's mental health and remarked on Santucci's and Starkman's cruelty.
"Evan and Kenny truly get off on being a dick. They're obnoxious, they're annoying, and they're bad," said one female castmate in an interview.
Another said, "Kenny and Evan are making this challenge hell for me," after she discovered (on camera) that they had put a toilet plunger in her bed. (This incident is mentioned in Cooley's lawsuit.)
"There's a line that keeps getting crossed that shouldn't be crossed," said yet another female cast member.
Although it appeared that Cooley waited two years before making rape allegations, she actually had tried pursuing other avenues to resolve the issue without suing. On May 7, 2010, Cooley filed a formal complaint with California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing "alleg[ing] unlawful termination, harassment, failure to prevent discrimination or retailiation, retaliation and sexual assault." The statue of limitations for filing a lawsuit was October 28, 2011, which explains why she ended up doing that on October 27, 2011 when she hadn't yet reach an agreement with MTV.
The main legal issue for Cooley was that she was suing for sexual harassment and wrongful termination, but the
extensive waiver she signed with the production company not only says that cast members are not official employees, but that they might have to deal with "non-consensual physical contact, of which MTV is not responsible," which means that they could get raped on camera and MTV wouldn't be at fault.
In Cooley's case, Viacom did not deny the allegations of sexual battery, and instead attributed some of the blame to her for getting "intoxicated" and "flirtatious."
By the way, this is not the first time a person was allegedly raped on camera while filming The Real World. During the filming of the 2004 season in San Diego, a 22-year-old woman claimed she was raped in the house, by a guest of one of the roommates, after being roofied. Apparently, the production staff found the woman lying naked on the bathroom floor.
One cast member said she heard the accused rapist of walking out of the bathroom saying, "I just hit that." The cameras were rolling when the woman woke up, and one of the female roommates in the house informed her that she may have been sexually assaulted. The police were called, but a lawyer for Bunim/Murray stepped in and refused to let the cops search the bedrooms. The police returned with a search warrant and seized all bedding, editing equipment, and tapes from the time of the alleged crime. The result was that nearly a month of footage ended up on the cutting room floor because it wasn't returned in time, including the cast's Mexican vacation footage. No arrests were ever made.
MTV Settles Rape Lawsuit With Real World Alum After Implying She Asked for It