In the summer of 2017, a rumored sexual assault on the set of Bachelor in Paradise plunged the popular franchise into controversy and led viewers to reexamine just how guilty they should be feeling about their guilty-pleasure TV.
Part of ABC’s subsequent damage control involved convincing their audience that their reality-TV cast members’ safety came first—they reportedly changed their bar policy from dangerously open to “two drinks per hour,” and even had an on-air conversation about consent. Of course, these gestures, as sane as they are—seriously, none of these attention-starved and just-plain-starved contestants should probably be drinking at all—don’t negate the fact that drunken sex is basically the entire plot of this show. Whether the romantic storylines are explicitly demanded or just implicitly expected, you can bet that every cast member knows what they’re there for. After all, Bachelor in Paradise without dating and/or random hookups would just be a bunch of strangers sitting around on a beach, anxiously checking the time until their next drink.
The alleged sexual assault on Paradise raised some uncomfortable questions—questions that we should have been asking years before Corinne met DeMario. Accusations of unsafe working conditions and complicit networks are nothing new in the world of reality TV; perhaps the only difference is that past incidents were more effectively swept under the rug. On The Challenge, an MTV Real World spinoff that’s currently embarking on its 32nd (!) season, a rape allegation came to light only after a former cast member filed a lawsuit, claiming that producers were aware that she was sexual assaulted while passed out but didn’t even inform her.
In 2011, Tonya Cooley sued her two alleged attackers, Kenneth Santucci and Evan Starkman, as well as MTV and Bunim/Murray productions. The lawsuit states that Cooley previously filed charges with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, “in which she alleged unlawful termination, harassment, failure to prevent discrimination or retaliation, retaliation and sexual assault.” As Jezebel previously reported, “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 the lawsuit, Cooley argued that Bunim/Murray and MTV were in fact her joint employers throughout her Real World stint.
A copy of The Real World’s standard contract, obtained by the Village Voice in 2011, explained everything that contestants sign away to MTV, including their “moral rights” and any control over the way that they’re portrayed on camera (“Producer may depict, portray me and my Life Story either accurately or with such liberties and modifications as Producer determines necessary or desirable”).
The alleged incident occurred during the filming of 2009’s Real World/Road Rules Challenge: The Ruins in Phuket, Thailand. “On multiple days of filming,” the lawsuit alleged, “Corporate Defendants provided unlimited alcoholic beverages while providing limited amounts of food. 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.” In a section titled “Corporate Defendants Encouraged and Condoned Sexual Misconduct and Mistreatment of Females,” the suit claimed that, “Plaintiff began to communicate her concerns about the treatment of female participants during her final season. When Plaintiff discussed these concerns, Corporate Defendants told her that it was part of the game and to ‘just deal with it.’”
The suit further alleged that Cooley’s accused abusers engaged in “highly offensive conduct towards women,” for which they appeared to be rewarded with additional film time “and other benefits and perks.” The lawsuit continued, “Individual Defendants’ behavior placed Corporate Defendants on notice that they were likely to engage in a sexual battery of a female cast member.”
Approximately eight days into the season, Cooley recalled, she and her fellow cast mates were supplied with “large amounts of alcohol” and were filmed spending a day at the pool. “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.”
The suit further alleged that Santucci and Starkman followed Cooley. “Santucci and Starkman continued to harass and torment Plaintiff as she struggled to get into her bed. Plaintiff’s high-level of intoxication was obvious, as she struggled to get into her bed and attempted to fend off Santucci and Starkman…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.”
Cooley subsequently passed out, at which point, according to the suit, “Santucci and Starkman continued to touch Plaintiff, but Plaintiff did not become conscious.”
It continued: “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 labie [sic] 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.”
Cooley believed, based on the fact that the assault allegedly occurred in an area “filled with cameras,” 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.”
They did, however, provide a “new” toothbrush, according to Cooley.
The complaint goes on to allege that Cooley was ultimately terminated from the season after she slapped another cast member during an altercation: “Although the rule against offensive touching was applied against Plaintiff to terminate her employment on the show, Defendants Bunim/Murray and MTV allowed Defendants Santucci and Starkman to remain on the show despite knowledge that Santucci and Starkman had raped Plaintiff.”
“Even after Plaintiff and other cast members formally reported Defendants Santucci and Starkman’s sexual assault of Plaintiff,” the suit continued, “Corporate Defendants 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.”
Bunim/Murray denied the allegations, saying that, “After a thorough investigation, we have found Tonya Cooley’s claims to be completely baseless.” Viacom, MTV’s parent company, reportedly disputed “that any employment relationship existed between it and Cooley.” Viacom further argued that Cooley had failed to take advantage of what they stated to be an “open-door policy with complaint procedures.”
“In addition to failing to avail herself of VMN’s policies and complaint procedures, Plaintiff failed to avoid the injuries of which she complains,” Viacom’s response continued. “For example, while she was a contestant on The Ruins, Plaintiff was frequently intoxicated (to an extent far greater than other contestants), rowdy, combative, flirtatious and on multiple occasions intentionally exposed her bare breasts and genitalia to other contestants.”
In 2012, the lawsuit was settled out of court, and details were not made public. Cooley, Santucci and Starkman never appeared on another episode of The Challenge.
Cooley’s isn’t even the first accusation of its kind in the Real World universe. While filming in 2003 in San Diego, a 22-year-old woman claimed that she was raped by a friend of a cast member who was staying at the Real World house. According to a 2003 E! News report, “She claims she met the suspect, identified in local reports as ‘Justin,’ at a downtown nightclub. The alleged victim told police she downed one drink from the man, an acquaintance of a Real World cast member, and blacked out. Next thing she knew, the woman woke up at 10:30 a.m. fully clothed in a guest bedroom at the Real World house with a camera crew in her face…An unidentified witness told a female cast member that ‘Justin’ had left the house saying, ‘I just hit that.’”
The victim reported her assault to the police, who subsequently searched the Real World property. Bunim/Murray Productions said that they were “cooperating fully” with the San Diego Police. However, a published search warrant application revealed that an attorney representing Real World Productions limited which rooms of the house police officers could search for evidence, and also said that, “they would not turn over any documents or film until she personally reviewed them absent a court order.” The detective stated in the transcript that “digital images and recordings we seek can be easily altered or erased, and I feel it’s important to get those images as soon as possible.” Ultimately, no arrests were made.
Bunim/Murray co-founder Jon Murray addressed the issue of protecting cast members in a Daily Beast interview last year, saying, “For us, on The Real World, we also wanted to capture what it’s like to be a young person, so we don’t want to sanitize it too much…It’s a delicate line and it’s a conversation we’re always having with MTV, because we do want to capture the reality of being 18, 19, 20, 21, but we want everyone to be safe.”