By Danny McCarthy, Staff Writer
Over the weekend, YouTube star Sam Pepper posted a prank video in which he grabbed the butts of female strangers while under the guise of asking them for directions. The video received instant backlash, causing both his fans and the greater YouTube community to call him out. Within the day, YouTube took down the video and Sam was disinvited from VidCon, a major YouTube convention.
Without responding to any of the outraged tweets, Sam put up a second video—this time reversing the gender roles. The video, posted at 6 am U.K. time, only lasted a few hours before it was also taken down. Pepper then tweeted out, “Are you thinking yet?”
In the grand finale, Pepper posted a final video in which he revealed that the first two “prank” videos were a social experiment, and that his intent was to start a conversation about sexual abuse against men. He cites his friend’s abusive marriage and his own dealings with aggressive female fans.
While the intention — if it is legitimate — is to be lauded, I think Pepper was incontrovertibly wrong about how he went about it. To post a video portraying the typical “male predator, female victim” trope under the guise of a prank, even if it is part of a social experiment, only normalizes that behavior and makes it seem okay to replicate. In addition, the backlash from his first video was so severe and miasmic that his second video — which he claims to truly define the point of the social experiment — barely makes a splash.
If Pepper’s intention was to create awareness of sexual assault against men and do this “social experiment,” then the first video’s point is moot. His inclusion of male sexual assault against women doesn’t play any role in furthering the dialogue — in fact, he’s trying to discuss the reverse. And that’s what I find the most difficult to swallow. Sam Pepper does not seem — to me, at least — like someone trying to begin a dialogue about sexual assault. He seems like someone who got caught in an uncomfortable situation and is trying his best to weasel his way out of it.
By creating this social experiment — whether or not it’s actually true, which I will leave up to you to decide — Pepper is taking the movement back several steps. Instead of showing one, highly effective video — which the gender-swapped sexual assault video could’ve been, if it had the proper marketing and message associated with it — Sam relied on the shock factor and played directly into the worst assumptions. He makes a joke of sexual assault and passes it off as a prank.
I am not a woman, but I felt deeply shocked and offended for my female friends. For someone (a YouTube star, a passerby, an acquaintance) to minimize the damaging and scary reality of sexual assault against females when it isn’t really necessary to prove his own point and think that it is okay to commercialize that, I am disgusted.
Sexual abuse and assault against women is not a gimmick for you to garner media attention; it is not a stage to launch your own views. It is not something to be toyed with. And that is where Sam went wrong. He believed that in order to discuss his own agenda, he had to downplay the assault against women.
It makes me angry to realize that the only reason sexual abuse is the topic of a dialogue is because some guy on YouTube stirred up controversy. If we want to begin to make changes in how we deal with sexual assault, against both genders, we can’t continue with media plays and shock value. We need to talk about the issues.