Sexual Harassment

Prominent Pornography Researcher Frames Defamation Claims As Sexual Harassment, Prompting a Defamation Suit by Her Target

Nicole Prause and Donald Hilton, longtime opponents on the subject of pornography, are now facing off in court.

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For years neurosurgeon Donald Hilton and neuroscientist Nicole Prause have been clashing on the pros and cons of pornography. Hilton, author of the 2009 book He Restoreth My Soul: Understanding and Breaking the Chemical and Spiritual Chains of Pornography Addiction Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, warns that pornography is highly addictive and constitutes a "public health crisis," while Prause, a former UCLA researcher who founded and heads the sexual biotechnology company Liberos, tends to take a more sanguine view. Now the two intellectual combatants are facing off in a bizarre defamation case featuring dueling claims that each is trying to destroy the other's reputation.

On April 16, Prause emailed the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA), where Hilton is an adjunct associate professor, to complain that she was "being openly sexually harassed by your faculty member Dr. Donald Hilton." Specifically, she said, Hilton "publicly claims that I personally appear in pornographic films, attend the Adult Video Network awards, and molest children in my laboratory, because I trained at The Kinsey Institute." She added that all those claims were "demonstrably false."

The next day, Prause asked UTHSCSA to "please confirm that this sexual harassment complaint is being directed to the appropriate office for investigation." Two weeks later she emailed UTHSCA's Legal Affairs Office to say she'd been told that Hilton "was not an employee, but had a 'courtesy' title due to volunteering to do something." She added, "If you are giving these titles to people, and they use them to defame and sexually harass scientists, it seems their title should be rescinded."

A U.T. spokesperson told the San Antonio Express News the university has no authority to investigate the matter, since neither Hilton nor Prause is an employee. Nor was that the only puzzling aspect of Prause's complaint, which framed what are essentially defamation claims as sexual harassment.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as harassment of an applicant, employee, or co-worker "because of that person's sex." The EEOC says such harassment may include "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature," although it "does not have to be of a sexual nature" and "can include offensive remarks about a person's sex." For example, "it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general." But sexual harassment is illegal only "when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision."

Prause's complaint about Hilton does not readily fit this understanding of sexual harassment. Since she is "a female scientist," she argued in her initial email to UTHSCSA, Hilton is "uniquely attacking my gender with these false claims about my sexuality." By that reasoning, it would be sexual harassment to allege that a woman had appeared in pornographic films, but it would not be sexual harassment to allege that a man had done so.

"Involvement in pornography is widely viewed as a strength for men and a problem for women, reliably demonstrated by science," Prause said in an email to me. "Claiming a woman is in the pornography industry is demonstrably, differentiably [more] harmful than claiming a man is." She argues that Hilton's statements about her "clearly constituted repetitive, extreme, and false statements about my personal sexuality over at least six years in national and international contexts [in] an attempt to prevent me from doing my job."

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment specialist, questions Prause's "novel and pretty dangerous" definition of sexual harassment. "She's trying to redefine the term, with all its understandably negative connotations, to cover public criticisms (and not of coworkers or fellow students or the like) that involve 'attacking [a person's] gender with…false claims about [her] sexuality,'" he writes in an email. "She seems to be deliberately framing the claim not as one of libel by Hilton, perhaps because libel law is well known to be sharply limited by the First Amendment, and something that is generally left to the civil justice system. Instead, she's framing it as a sexual harassment claim, perhaps because sexual harassment law is seen by some (wrongly, I think) as largely immune from First Amendment constraints, and because universities and other employers are the ones that are enforcing sexual harassment rules."

In the defamation lawsuit that Hilton filed last week in response to Prause's complaint, he says he has met her in person only once, at a 2009 conference where "nothing inappropriate was said or done." Since then, he says, he and Prause "have not had any personal communications or interactions." Hilton says he "has never flirted with Defendant Prause, made any sexual advancements towards her, or committed any other type of sexual misconduct towards her" or anyone else. He argues that her complaint against him is an attempt to discredit an intellectual opponent by making baseless charges—a tactic he says she has used against other critics of pornography.

Furthermore, Hilton denies claiming that Prause has appeared in pornographic films or that she is implicated in child molestation. He says she has attended the Adult Video Network awards, citing a Twitter post in which she said, "I think Jeanne's story I heard at AVN was amazing."

Prause said that post referred to a speech that porn star Jeanne Silver gave in 2015, when she was inducted into the Adult Industry Hall of Fame, which was not part of the AVN awards ceremony. Prause sent me a July 3, 2019, email from Silver confirming that point, along with a February 22, 2019, email from another adult film actress, Melissa Hill, who says, "I know for a fact that Dr. Prause has never attended any AVN awards."

In a 2019 talk to the Catholic Medical Association, Hilton said "someone" had "recently" told him that Prause "didn't go to AVN." He added, "Well, maybe she didn't, but what do I do with that?"—referring to the Twitter post.

"I have never attended the AVN awards ceremony, [and] Hilton was aware that I never attended at the time the lawsuit was filed," Prause said. "I have no relationship with the pornography industry."

As for the other claims Prause attributes to Hilton, she said "many written, spoken and audio records exist." In a 2016 talk to the Northwest Coalition for Healthy Intimacy, for example, Hilton noted that Prause had trained at the Kinsey Institute, then proceeded to fault Alfred Kinsey for studying "child sexuality" and pedophiles as part of the research discussed in his 1948 book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. While Hilton clearly was trying to taint researchers like Prause with what he considers to be Kinsey's morally abhorrent legacy, that's not quite the same as saying that she "molest[s] children in [her] laboratory"—the claim that Prause attributed to Hilton in her April 16 email.

During the 2009 conference that Prause and Hilton attended, she says, he claimed "I personally molested children." Idaho State psychologist Cameron Staley, who was also present, tells me, "I remember Hilton stating researchers at [the] Kinsey Institute were molesting children, but I don't recall if he named Prause specifically or just researchers in general at Kinsey."

Dan Packard, Hilton's lawyer, says his client did criticize Alfred Kinsey's work on that occasion but did not implicate Prause herself in molesting children. "Dr. Hilton categorically denies that he ever accused Dr. Prause of sexually molesting children—in her lab or anywhere else," Packard writes in an email.

Prause did not point me to any examples of comments in which Hilton claimed she had appeared in pornographic films. But she cited a post on anti-porn author Gary Wilson's website that says, "Prause appears to have become quite cozy with the pornography industry, as can be seen from this image of her (far right) on the red carpet of the X-Rated Critics Organization (XRCO) awards." Citing Wikipedia, the post adds that the XRCO event "is the only adult industry awards show reserved exclusively for industry members," which does seem to imply that Prause is a member of the industry (although not necessarily as a performer) but is not a statement by Hilton.

In her sexual harassment complaint, Prause said Hilton had encouraged a newspaper reporter to "print that I was in pornography with no evidence" and that the reporter "was able to determine Donald Hilton's claims were fabricated." She sent me a 2019 email exchange with Spokane Spokesman-Review reporter Chad Sokol in which he refers to "mud-slinging" and mentions the claim that she had attended the AVN awards.

Hilton says Prause is trying to discredit his work through false personal attacks, and in her response to me Prause says the same thing about Hilton:

Many people are uncomfortable with science. However, facts matter. The facts that your readers should know are simple: I study sexual science based on neuroscience and physiology. I was trained in addictions at Harvard University, won numerous academic awards, and believe in open and honest debate and discussion.

I have never received support from, or been involved in, the pornography industry, including attending the AVN awards. I have never made any false reports regarding Dr. Hilton or anyone else, nor have I made false reports about my research or company. The facts and results of my peer-reviewed research speak for themselves; they are not intended to address any system of morality, activism, or religious beliefs.

Dr. Hilton's lawsuit has no merit nor do his libelous and unfounded assertions regarding me, my character, or my sexuality. He is entitled to his opinions, however he is not entitled to spread complete falsehoods about me.

Hilton's lawsuit, which was initially filed in the District Court of Bexar County, Texas, but has been moved to federal court because he and Prause live in different states, seeks up to $10 million in actual and punitive damages. It also asks for "a preliminary and permanent injunction preventing Defendant Prause from making additional false statements." As Volokh notes, such injunctions against future statements are barred as an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech under Texas law, which will continue to apply as the case proceeds in federal court.

[This article has been updated with additional responses from Prause and Hilton.]

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  1. If porn is so great, why would it defamatory to say you were in one?

    1. I could see how “She Attends the AVN awards!” is libelous, but I’m a little befuddled at considering it sexual harassment.

        1. If she’s claimed to attend and did not attend, it’s a publicly stated falsehood. If (say her employer thinks she’s at a conference and instead discovers she’s at AVN and…) it causes her harm, it meets a broad definition of libel. If the falsehood was advanced with knowledge and intent to harm, it pretty squarely fits the legal definition of libel.

          Attending the AVN, however, isn’t itself a sex or gender-specific act any more than going to a movie or surfing the internet is a sex or gender-specific act. I’m sure there are cases where blithe comments like “How do you like your eggs?” constituted sexual harassment and, by that standard “She attends the AVN awards!” could count but, more broadly and realistically, he’s not sexually harassing her with that specific comment and she’s (or her lawyer is) deliberately trying to blur the distinction to her advantage.

          1. The fact of the matter is that both of them should be prosecuted and jailed for defamation. As Eugene Volokh has demonstrated on this site, criminal libel laws are constitutional. (He is right, incidentally, to avoid discussing the outrageous claims of various “international human rights” organizations that there is some kind of a “free speech” problem with jailing people for libel.) There should be unity in our legal system; it follows that criminal libel laws should be reenacted in all American states. For the same reason, it should, further, be openly recognized that criminal “parody” is a form of libel. Where courts are reluctant to point this out, there are still plenty of available pretexts to get these people behind bars. See, for example, the documentation of our nation’s leading criminal “satire” case at:

            https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

            1. The Golb case did not involve a criminal action for defamation. It involved “criminal impersonation.” Apparently, the defendant sent a series of emails that falsely claimed to be written by another person. Allow me to lift a quote from the article you linked to:
              Upholding criminal convictions for Raphael Golb’s deadpan mimicry of this single complainant, the Second Circuit left intact the previous ruling of the New York Court of Appeals that the government has the right to criminalize mimicry of academic public figures “deceitfully” engaged in with the intent to “damage reputations.”

              “That intent, according to the Second Circuit’s decision, is different from the mere intent to convey an ‘idea,’ which cannot be criminalized. Furthermore, impersonations that are merely ‘puerile’ also cannot be criminalized. The panel, however, refused to extend constitutional protection to parodies that are not ‘recognized’ as such. Thus, authors of parody emails are now advised to make sure that their writings are easily recognizable as parodies, that they are sufficiently ‘puerile,’ and/or that they only express ‘ideas’ that cannot harm a reputation; otherwise, they risk prosecution and incarceration.”

              1. Well, those are some very interesting distinctions you’re drawing there. If I read this correctly, it says (1) that a written act of impersonation, no matter how “deceitful,” that conveys an “idea” is not a crime because it’s somehow protected by the “first amendment,” but (2) that an impersonation that aims to “damage a reputation” rather than convey an “idea,” is indeed a crime, as long as it is “deceitful” enough to fool a number of very gullible readers.

                So the fundamental distinction here is between “speech” content that conveys an “idea,” which is considered worthy of protection, and speech content that “damages a reputation,” which is not worthy of protection and can be grounds for a jail sentence. I would assume, in fact, that the same words, in different contexts, can alternatively either “convey an idea” or “damage a reputation.”

                But it seems to me that to theatrically portray someone as “confessing” to bad things basically has the same effect as saying “so-and-so confessed to bad things,” which looks a lot like an act of libel, and Eugene Volokh has demonstrated that there is no “free speech” objection to punishing libel with jail. Naturally, in the civil context there has to be a showing of “actual malice” under that there “Sullivan” standard some of these “free speech” people sometimes talk about, but in the criminal context there’s no need for this at all, it’s enough simply to intend some kind of “damage to a reputation,” even if it’s perfectly truthful.

                1. So to finish what I was saying above, all of this seems to confirm that these people should be prosecuted and jailed for libel, just like the “parodists” who deceitfully go around damaging reputations with inappropriately deadpan “impersonations.” There are some pretty subtle distinctions here that lawyers will certainly understand, but I think we can all agree that the great American criminal court system is perfectly capable of drawing the proper lines wherever they need to be drawn.

          2. A statement can be incorrect or inaccurate without being defamatory. Should Prause file an action for defamation against him, he could argue that he misinterpreted her comment.

  2. She added that all those claims were “demonstrably false.”

    I’m not sure how she would demonstrate that she hasn’t starred in pornography, but I’m willing to find out.

    1. Clearly more research is necessary.

    2. ha “Ex.A: *All* the porn. Please note I am in none of it.”

      1. Your honor, in large portions of Ex. A most notably; Pleasureville, Scooby Doo Me 2, Girls Gone Wild’s: Girls of UTHSCSA, While The Cat’s Away, Dominatrix Divas 1-3, Convent Confessions 6, and Masked Masochistic Muff Munchers 1-7 among others there are a number of actresses who cannot be positively identified as *not* being the defendant based strictly on their facial features.

        Unfortunately, without further evidence the notion that the defendant is definitively *not* present anywhere in Ex. A is strictly speculation.

  3. Hilton, author of the 2009 book He Restoreth My Soul: Understanding and Breaking the Chemical and Spiritual Chains of Pornography Addiction Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, warns that pornography is highly addictive [to himself] and constitutes a “publicpersonal health crisis,”

    There, FTFY.

    For most people, neither porn nor drugs are particularly addictive.

    And it sounds to me like Hilton has just replaced one creepy addiction with another one.

    1. What is it with neurosurgeons having wacky religious ideas? First we had Ben Carson talking about how the pyramids were built by Joseph for storing grain. Now this guy talking about how pornography is “highly addictive” and a “public health crisis” that requires “the atonement of Jesus Christ”. He may know how nerves physically connect up in the body, but I don’t think he knows that much about the subjective experiences they generate.

      1. The preliminary portion is objectively true based on fairly good neuroscience, but the secondary claim is subjective, as the tertiary claim. Porn is addictive as much as many things out there are addictive, like video games, or social media to name two. Whether it constitutes a public health crisis is a matter of subjective opinion as to whether people aren’t breeding enough. The help of Jesus Christ to overcome the addiction should one succumb to it, is entirely optional.

        1. “addictive, like video games, or social media”

          Nonsense, I could quit any time, I just don’t want to.

        2. Depends on how one defines “addiction.” The definition has changed over the last 70 or so years.

      2. The idea that the Pyramids of Giza were “Joseph’s granaries” was apparently popularized among Jerusalem-bound pilgrims, and appeared in travel guides for them, as far back as the 4th century AD. There’s a whole Wikipedia page on the subject.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph%27s_Granaries
        I’m not sure whether the idea has been formally adopted by any fundamentalist/creationist Christian sects. It’s not as if believing them to be funerary monuments/tombs would be in conflict with their doctrine, though. In any event, the granary idea is certainly wrong, but it’s not just Ben Carson’s isolated hallucination.

        Amusingly, there was an homage to this bit of folklore in the early versions of the Civilization computer game — constructing the Pyramids gave you the benefit of a granary in all your cities. I’d be highly amused if it turned out that was the origin of Carson’s idea.

  4. Ugh, a public spat. My favorite kind of spat.

      1. and arrow collars.

  5. According to Prof. Volokh, “she’s framing it as a sexual harassment claim, perhaps because sexual harassment law is seen by some (wrongly, I think) as largely immune from First Amendment constraints, and because universities and other employers are the ones that are enforcing sexual harassment rules.”

    Let me suggest a more prosaic reason. In defamation claims, each side has to pay its own attorney. But because sexual harassment constitutes discrimination under Title VII and similar state laws, a successful plaintiff can force the defendant to pay the plaintiff’s attorneys fees, frequently far in excess of any damages the plaintiff receives.

    Also, to prove defamation, you have to prove that other people believed what was said about you.

    1. Also, to prove defamation, you have to prove that other people believed what was said about you.

      No, you don’t.

      A defense against a defamation claim is that a person familiar with the context would not believe the claim (or understand that its satire or hyperbole) but the plaintiff doesn’t have to prove that anyone believed the claim. That would basically either be impossible or trivially easy to do.

  6. Sp I guess maybe it’s true. Frequent exposure to pornographic images does warp one’s brain.

  7. “The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as harassment of an applicant, employee, or co-worker “because of that person’s sex.” The EEOC says such harassment may include “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature,” although it “does not have to be of a sexual nature” and “can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex.”

    There’s the problem.

    We’ll never get to the truth of this situation if we let ourselves get distracted by definitions, facts, logic, and reason.

  8. Not sure exactly why I’m supposed to care. Is there a free minds free markets angle I’m missing here?

    1. I figure the figure the free minds angle is that this guy thinks pornography enslaves people’s minds and wants to stamp it out. While the researcher lady thinks more or less the opposite.

    2. Neither one is free, and nobody else minds?

  9. neurosurgeon Donald Hilton

    That may in fact, be true. But it has absolutely nothing to do with his opinion regarding salvation through JC.

    This is a perfect example of hating what one side stands for but despising the tactics of the person who ostensibly is on the same side.

    I can’t stand the anti-porn bible thumpers. And this guy Hilton is one of the top puritans. But, I honestly can’t see that he lied about her, or harassed her in any way. Which just makes her look like a fragile snowflake, and certainly doesn’t help the case that porn, and sex work for that matter, aren’t the great menace that the prudes think they are.
    Seriously, a pox on both their houses!

    1. Regarding your statement that you don’t think that Hilton lied about Prause, I agree. He may have been incorrect when he stated that she “attended” the award ceremony, but he can argue that this was because he misinterpreted her social media post.
      I think that false allegations of sexual harassment should be punished. I think Hilton is justified in filing the defamation case against her.

  10. Sexual harassment is what ever a woman (or other life form claiming womanhood) says it is. No defense, no appeal, no silly facts getting in the way. Accusation equates to guilt, and banishment from the world is automatic.
    Welcome to the revolution.

    1. Well you’re wrong (again).

      “But in actual courts, such cases filed by workers against their employers are very often dismissed by judges. The standard for harassment under the law is high, and only an estimated 3 percent to 6 percent of the cases ever make it to trial.”

      https://www.npr.org/2017/11/28/565743374/sexual-harassment-cases-often-rejected-by-courts

  11. Classic sexual harassment would be if the boss keeps saying crap like “you’re so hot you should be in porn,” and “you should dress sluttier.”

    The boss can’t mount a defense of truth: “I intend to show that plaintiff is, in fact, hot enough to star in porn.” It’s a question of employer harassment, not falsehood. Even if your employee is hot, mentioning that hotness so as to create a hostile work environment is *not* recommended.

    But as I understand it, this is a different situation – apparently neither party is the boss of the other, it doesn’t look like a case of employment discrimination, so one might think the case turns on whether one of them defamed the other, not on employment harassment issues.

    And beyond that I don’t know who defamed whom, but I guess it’s in the court’s hands.

  12. Thought there would be at least one Volokh Conspiracy reader against pornography. Guess not. But I’ll chime in. Anti-porn Bible thumper right here!
    Funny watching this comment section. Can’t put your chips in with Prauce, because of her ridiculous claim of libel being sexual harassment. But can’t go in with Hilton, because porn is so amazing and couldn’t possibly be harmful large scale for any imaginable reason, because hey, “If I wanted to quit video games, I could at any time. So therefore, must not be any credible evidence that porn could be a problem, socially, for sexual relations between men and women, or biologically.” Cue “show me exhibit A” comments galore.

    Still going back to JBP on this one–To what degree is it in women’s interest to allow the cost of sex to fall to zero, because pornography certainly does that, and it just seems to me that’s not a very great long-term strategy for relationships between men and women. Because whatever the cost of sex is, zero is the wrong price.

    Addiction aside, it is a moral issue. And you don’t have to be religious to think about moral issues…or so I thought.

  13. Did you see the link in this sentence: “But she cited a post on anti-porn author Gary Wilson’s website that says”….
    Check it out. It leads to a huge page documenting all the crazy stuff that’s been going on: “Nicole Prause’s Unethical Harassment and Defamation of Gary Wilson & Others”.

    And that page links to all these pages (what a circus):
    – “Nicole Prause’s Unethical Harassment and Defamation of Gary Wilson & Others (page 2)”
    – “Is Nicole Prause Influenced by the Porn Industry?”
    – “Nicole Prause & David Ley libelous claim that Gary Wilson was fired from Southern Oregon University”
    – “Prause’s efforts to have Behavioral Sciences review paper (Park et al., 2016) retracted”
    – “Article by University of Wisconsin student newspaper (The Racquet) posts false police report by Nicole Prause (March, 2019)”
    – “Aggressive Trademark Infringement Waged by Porn Addiction Deniers (www.realyourbrainonporn)”

    1. It looks like Prause would win this defamation suit hands down. He is quoted claiming she is in porn, then he comes to the comments section to spread even more defamation? I hope she gets rich off these people.

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