Sunday, August 14, 2022

Winning and failing at the same time

 A community college in Oregon must pay a former student over a million dollars after a jury decided the school was in breach of contract. 

The student who brought the lawsuit was a nursing major who had previously done sex work in the adult film industry. Some of her instructors found out and felt that her past profession meant she could not possibly be a good nurse. She experienced disparate treatment, including lowering of her grades after the fact. 

She brought two claims: breach of contract because the school did not provide her the education she paid for and a Title IX discrimination claim. They dismissed the latter. 

I found this fairly surprising. The stereotype of female sex workers clearly was a factor in how the instructions treated her. The idea that a woman cannot be a professional sex worker and a professional in a "reputable" profession like nursing is based on beliefs about women and sex. One instructor said to her: "It takes a classy woman to be a nurse, and unclassy women shouldn't be nurses." 

I find the plaintiff's response to the situation one also indicates the presence of sex-based discrimination much more so than breach of contract: "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." 

The school clearly did not meet its obligations because members of the institution were engaging in discrimination. They were gatekeeping based on ideas about proper womanhood as embodied by a female nurse. The plaintiff, after she disclosed her past work to a fellow student (who seems to have not kept a secret), found herself being penalized by instructors in ways her peers were not. Some instructors told her it was part of their academic freedom to lower her grade. She was dismissed from the nursing program in the summer of 2018 after one of her passing grades was changed to an F one month after semester's end. 

Additionally, the plaintiff went to the Title IX office and they never registered or investigated her complaint. 

I understand why there will not be a pressing of the issue regarding the dismissal of the Title IX complaint. The jury award was large, the student has moved on and is in law school now and hope to continue to advocate for sex workers and former sex workers. 

Reading the rest of the article though about other sex workers in academia and their treatment demonstrates that this form of discrimination has been deemed acceptable, is rarely challenged, and is based on norms of propriety that are gender-based. 

This is not going away. Sex work is easier to engage in because of the many forms that exist; more people are moving in and out of it; it can be lucrative; and college is expensive. Campuses--especially Title IX offices--need to be prepared for students who engage in sex work and how to protect them from backlash and other forms of violence and aggression.