How a Former Porn Performer Sued Her School for Discrimination—and Won

Nicole Gililland’s case could be the first of its kind: a win for sex workers who are discriminated against at school and work.

When Nicole Gililland heard the jury’s decision, as she stood in the federal courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, she started to silently sob.

“My tears were filling up my mask,” she said. “I was worried I was gonna drown myself.” Frozen in the moment, she felt overwhelmed with gratitude. 

Gililland sued Southwestern Oregon Community College (SWOCC) for breach of contract as a student paying tuition, and for violating Title IX, the civil rights law that forbids schools that receive federal funding from discriminating against students based on their sex. The jury found that while Title IX didn’t apply, the breach of contract did—and on July 7, 2022, it awarded Gililland $1.7 million in damages. 

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According to the lawsuit and Gililland’s claims, Melissa Sperry, a nursing instructor and academic advisor, heard about Gililland’s past in the adult industry and singled her out for it, including giving her assignments that other students didn’t have, docking her grades for lateness after being told she’d received accommodation to recover from a serious illness, changing other instructors’ passing grades on her work to failing, and accusing her of plagiarism. 

The decision marks the end of a four-year legal battle between herself and her former college in Coos Bay, where she was pursuing a nursing degree. The college and its instructors, she claimed, discriminated against her because of her history of working as a porn performer 10 years before she enrolled there. 

At one point, Gililland claims, Sperry said to her, “Unclassy women shouldn’t be nurses, Nicole.”

The jury found that the college had breached its contract by violating its non-discrimination policy, education records policy, and its policy on unlawful harassment. 

“Anyone that didn't fit this picturesque role of a sweet, subservient, innocent little nurse—they were out.”

SWOCC’s lawyers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The harassment and gaslighting Gililland endured at the school drove Gililland to attempt suicide in 2018. When she recovered, she resolved to get justice—and now that it’s finally served, she has her sights set on interrogating the entire system that failed her in the first place.

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Gililland told me that SWOCC’s opening statement at trial included the line, “We serve the underserved; we are the gateway,” to the American dream, as she recalls it.

“I'm like, no, you're the gatekeepers,” she said. “You feel like you're God, because you are the only institution 100 miles in any direction. And you are people's only way to that better life and you totally take advantage of that.”

On paper, SWOCC is an average community college in a small coastal town, with a total enrollment just shy of 6,000 in the 2019-2020 school year. The school was a choice of convenience and practicality for Gililland, and she excelled academically, until someone—she suspects an estranged family member—started spreading gossip about her past in porn. 

Gililland isn’t ashamed of her time in the industry, and she enjoyed it. But after a few years doing red carpets and traveling the world, she decided that she wanted to do something different. She retired from performing and was drawn to emergency medicine, and became an EMT. But rather than move on to a paramedic career, nursing seemed more stable: predictable, steady hours that could support herself and her two young daughters. She enrolled her first semester at SWOCC in 2016.

SWOCC denied that her teachers knew about her past at all. But following Sperry’s alleged comment, other instructors seemed to be colluding to tank Gililland’s nursing career, too, Gililland said. The head of the program, Susan Walker, accused Gililland of being “unsafe with her patients.” Walker, too, denied these claims in court filings. Multiple instructors lowered her grades, she said—including one that changed a passing grade to failing. Gililland requested investigations into her situation, which were improperly done, or ignored, by the school and the nursing board, she claims.  

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It all fit a pattern that Gililland said was so innate to the school, and Coos Bay more broadly, that her peers distanced themselves from her, afraid of being targeted by association. “Anyone that didn't fit this picturesque role of a sweet, subservient, innocent little nurse—they were out,” Gililland said. 

“She's just the first person that won a case that is so public, that says you can't discriminate against sex workers. It's going to catch up to you.”

On the edge of her final year in nursing school, Gililland realized that with these manipulated, failing grades, and the whole school seemingly set against her, she wouldn’t pass and couldn’t continue to her final year. No one was taking her seriously. Unable to continue her degree in nursing at SWOCC, she sued.

Gililland’s attorney Brandon Mark told me that he was “absolutely shocked” at the outcome. “It’s enormous,” he said. “I just did not think that they would do it.” 

Gililland was originally represented by attorney Kevin Brague, who brought the Title IX case against SWOCC. Mark took on Gililland’s case around May of 2020, after reading about her story in VICE. “It wasn't a typical case,” Mark said. “I think a lot of people felt uncomfortable with it, and I think she had a hard time finding lawyers who weren’t like, I don't know what to do with this.” 

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The jury’s deliberation and their decision-making process happened behind closed doors, so anyone not in the room can only speculate as to how they arrived at the award on the breach of contract basis. But Mark thinks that while they may have been unsure of whether Gililland was discriminated against based on sex—as she would need to be to qualify for the Title IX ruling—they may have seen the school’s failure to properly carry out an investigation, after Gililland’s repeated requests for them to do so, as unforgivable. 

“It's amazing, because we got way, way, way more money than we could have gotten under Title IX,” Mark said. “Way more.”

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Alex Andrews, co-founder of sex worker advocacy network SWOP Behind Bars, heard this story for the first time when Gililland called the organization’s hotline in the spring of 2019. 

“I had just been illegally evicted and was moving into a homeless shelter,” Gililland said of that call. “I told my friend Heather that I wasn’t sure how I was going to survive much longer in Coos Bay being public enemy number one. I had zero support. She said I should call sex worker advocates, and that’s when I found the hotline and found Alex.” From then onward, she had the support of a real community—including sex worker advocates alongside her in person, every day of the trial.

Andrews told me that the sex working community watched the progress of case very closely. “We knew it would be a landmark for us,” she said. In part, because this kind of discrimination is something so many others deal with constantly. “This happens every day. This is nothing new. She's just the first person that won a case that is so public, that says you can't discriminate against sex workers. It's going to catch up to you.” 

Derek Demeri, co-founder of sex work advocacy group New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance and a lawyer practicing in civil rights and employment discrimination, told me that overwhelmingly, most discrimination cases settle before they go to trial. “The fact that Nicole's case went all the way to that point really goes to show how unwilling the school and the defendants in that case were to look at the reality of the situation,” they said. “[SWOCC] kind of took a gamble, and they clearly lost here. They likely presumed that nobody would, and no jury would, look sympathetically toward a sex worker.” 

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This ignores the class solidarity that can exist between all workers, he said: “I think when an everyday working person hears the struggle of someone who's just trying to get by, and do whatever it is that they decided to do—that felt like it was the right decision—any normal working person would respect that.”

This case also brings into relief the hypocrisy of sex worker exclusionary feminists (and anti-trafficking groups that critics colloquially call “the rescue industry”) that preach the idea that sex workers need only leave behind the sex trade to find a life of stable, socially-acceptable income. “You can't say, ‘Why don't you go get a real job,’ and then not give anybody a ‘real job,’” Andrews said.

It’s rarely as simple as that, even after sex workers leave the industry: For many, society forces them to carry the stigma of their past throughout their lives, and that social stigma can cost them their education, housing, employment and relationships long after they’ve left. More people than ever took on adult content creator jobs during the pandemic in the face of unprecedented financial or personal precarity, and this has only become a more visible problem: from mechanics to teachers, no worker is immune once they’ve been outed as a sex worker.

“Everyone's always telling sex workers that they can have a better life if they apply themselves, and so it was almost like a, ‘damned if you do, damned if you don't’ kind of thing,” Gililland said. “Like, either way, you're just screwed. I was 10 years removed. I had been in medicine for a long time. I was a great student.” She believes the jury had to examine that paradox for themselves. she said. To decide against her, “they would have had to say, regardless of your past, you don't get to rebuild. You don't ever get to leave,” she said. “And so I am glad they weren't willing to say that.”

The outcome of this case could serve as a warning to lawyers and the institutions they represent, Demeri said. “The large sum here is going to be a very strong signal to employers and to schools, to signal that, hey, this is something that we need to be careful about,” they said. “And lawyers that are watching this, they need to advise their clients that if there's discrimination against sex workers, it may be sex discrimination, and it may be violating anti-discrimination law, and they have to be careful there.”

Today, Gililland is in her first year of law school at the University of Massachusetts. After leaving Oregon, she graduated summa cum laude from Southern New Hampshire University, and is getting married soon, to Jon Lyon, her longtime friend turned partner who’s now studying to become her paralegal. “We share the same passion for progress,” she said. Her future goal is to open a legal aid organization by sex workers and for sex workers. “I wanted to pursue law because of how hard it was to find any help,” she said.  

I asked Andrews if she thinks Gililland’s win could empower others in similar situations to pursue their own justice. She paused, and thought about this possibility. “You know, there's so much fear in our community,” she said. “I do hope that it does. This kind of discrimination, it’s in the DNA of our country. So it's going to take a long time to really see expansive change. But this is a good start. And, let's face it, money is the only thing [institutions] really understand. So maybe if they lose a couple of lawsuits, they'll think, hmm, maybe we shouldn't do that anymore.” 

Tagged:

porn, education, lawsuits, discrimination, nursing school

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