LOS ANGELES (CN) – A longtime cast member of “Real World” claims two cast members raped her with a toothbrush while she was passed out drunk and the show’s producers not only failed to intervene but taped it without telling her what had happened. Later, she says, the show fired her but kept her abusers on the show.
Tonya Cooley sued Bunim/Murray Productions, MTV Network, and her alleged assailants, Kenneth Santucca and Evan Starkman, on 14 causes of action in Superior Court, including assault, battery, sexual battery, wrongful firing and sexual harassment.
Cooley says the corporate defendants hired her for the cast of “Real World” in 2009, after she had appeared on the show in the previous 10 seasons. She says the corporate defendants “created an environment in which degrading and harassing behavior towards female contestants was openly tolerated and even encouraged,” and that they kicked her off the show but retained her attackers.
The 2009 series was filmed in Phuket, Thailand. Eighteen people were housed in a single room, she was not allowed to leave it without permission, and the corporate defendants controlled all the food, clothing and toilet items.
Cooley says Bunim/Murray and MTV “provided unlimited alcoholic beverages while providing limited amounts of food” while filming the cast and recording their conversations around the clock. “This combination was designed to encourage the participants to engage in scandalous behavior that would increase viewer ratings. Participants were encouraged to be more outrageous than others so that they would be filmed more often. Participants who were more often filmed were more regularly called back for subsequent seasons. Being filmed more often also led to further income as the participants were able to market their participation on the show throughout the off season for speaking engagements, other media work and other publicity events. Further, those individuals who engaged in outrageous behavior also were given positions on the show, such as team leader.”
Cooley says the “corporate defendants encouraged and condoned male contestants to mistreat females, usually in a sexually offensive manner.”
This obnoxious behavior included “forcibly removing female cast members’ bathing suits;” “inappropriately touch(ing) female cast members’ bodies, including in intimate areas, despite female cast members expressing that such touchings were unwelcome;” and “require(ing) females and males to share bedrooms and bathroom, shower areas and changing areas”.
According to the complaint: “Approximately eight days into the filming of the ‘Real World: Ruins’ show, on a noncompetition day of filming, defendants provided the cast members with large amounts of alcohol, and cast members spent the day at a pool while continuously being filmed by approximately two to three film crews. The cast members began drinking before noon, including wine and hard alcohol, and were only given a limited amount of food. Plaintiff became very intoxicated.
“Late in the day, a male cast member forcibly removed plaintiff’s bikini top and threw it into a tree plaintiff thereafter left the pool to return to the bunk area.
“When plaintiff left the pool area, defendants Santucci and Starkman followed plaintiff to the bunk area. Santucci and Starkman continued to harass and torment plaintiff as she struggled to get into her bed. Plaintiff’s high left of intoxication was obvious, as she struggled to get into her bed and attempted to fend off Santucci and Starkman.
“Santucci squirted lotion onto plaintiff’s head several times. At the same time, another male cast member threw baby powder all over plaintiff’s face and body so that plaintiff had difficulty seeing. The males blocked plaintiff from getting into the bed. Plaintiff attempted to stop the males, telling Starkman, ‘don’t touch me!,’ and stating, ‘I wanna go to my own bed.’ In response, Starkman attempted to hold plaintiff, which plaintiff attempted to stop. Plaintiff told Starkman she wanted to go to her bed and she did not want him to touch or hug her.
“Soon after this exchange, plaintiff passed out on the floor. Santucci and Starkman slapped plaintiff hard on her face several times, but plaintiff did not stir or respond in any way. Santucci and Starkman continued to touch plaintiff, but plaintiff did not become conscious. Female participants also attempted to revive plaintiff, but were unsuccessful.
“Noting that plaintiff was passed out to the point that she could not be awoken even with aggressive physical contact or cold water, Santucci and Starkman took another male participant’s toothbrush and rubbed the toothbrush around plaintiff’s genitals, including rubbing her labia and inserting the toothbrush into plaintiff’s vagina.
“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, but took note of the unusual nature of the lacerations.
“Throughout the sexual assault, other cast members were present to watch Santucci and Starkman sexually assault plaintiff. In addition, the sexual assault occurred in an area filled with cameras that followed any activities or conversations of the show participants. Given that the cameras were monitored, plaintiff asserts that corporate defendants were aware of the events as they occurred but failed to take action to intervene. Additionally, plaintiff asserts, based on the presence of cameras and monitors as well as multiple cast members, that corporate defendants were aware of the battery, but failed to inform plaintiff that it had occurred and failed to take any remedial or disciplinary action against individual defendants.”
Cooley says that after the sexual assault she was “treated differently.”
“Plaintiff also noticed that the producers provided Santucci and Starkman a ‘new’ toothbrush. Plaintiff did not understand the significance of the ‘new’ toothbrush at that time.”
She adds: “Individual defendants’ sexual battery of plaintiff occurred in the presence of multiple cast member, was filmed and viewed by corporate defendants and corporate defendants even replaced the toothbrush, knowing that it had been used to rape plaintiff.”
She says the corporate defendants later fired her for slapping another cast member, but retained Santucci and Starkman, even after she and other case members “formally reported defendants Santucci and Starkman’s sexual assault”. She says the corporate defendant “took no action against Santucci and Starkman, but rather, hired them for further filming and placed them in leadership roles, which allowed them to mistreat many other female cast members. Additionally, defendants did not assist plaintiff in any treatment of her injuries nor did they provide her any information about the sexual assault.”
She adds that “her slap was far less offensive than the sexual battery of plaintiff by Starkman and Santucci. Nevertheless, plaintiff was immediately terminated and sent home to the United States on or about May 15, 2009 for the slapping incident while Starkman and Santucci continue in their roles on the ‘Real World’ on subsequent seasons and their roles have only increased in exposure and benefits.”
Cooley seeks punitive damages. In addition to the charges listed above, she alleges discrimination, retaliation, violation of the fair employment and housing act, violation of California’s Unruh Act, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence.
She is represented by Pamela McKibbin.