Last week, popular YouTube prankster Sam Pepper was justifiably raked over the coals over a video that depicted him forcibly grabbing women's butts and laughing at it like a stoned child after a dental appointment. Days later, news reports raised some serious allegations against Pepper: that he also sexually abused women when cameras weren't rolling, and that he'd been doing so for years.
Pepper is far from the first male YouTube star to exploit his web fame in the pursuit of sex with their adoring fans. Along with a meteoric rise in the popularity of YouTube talking heads has come a disturbing rise in the number of those vlogging heads who use their position to coerce underage girls into sexual relationships, and a corresponding rise in the the number of other prominent YouTubers who have turned a deaf ear to allegations of abuse.
Meet the YouTube Creep: a thirsty male ally in his twenties who presents himself as a kind, caring soul. A friend. A confidant who really gets it. A shoulder to cry on. A wise older mentor. A person who would never in a million years commit statutory rape, because he's not like that.
Except, you know, sometimes he is. One YouTube community watchdog has compiled a master list of famously predatory YouTube personalities with a dizzying number of corroborating links. Have you heard the one about Tom Milsom, a twentysomething musician who allegedly carried on an coercive sexual relationship with a 15-year-old fan he'd take with him to conventions? How about Ed Blann (edplant), who publicly admitted to having an 8-month-long abusive relationship with a fan? Danny Hooper, another popular YouTuber, is also alleged to have bullied underage girls into sex. Outspoken and self-proclaimed 24-year-old feminist ally Josh Macedo allegedly sent photos of himself masturbating to a 15-year-old female fan. Nerd hero YouTube musician (and former associate of Fault in our Stars author John Green and his brother Hank) Mike Lombardo pressured underage fans into sending him explicit photographs of themselves, and is currently serving a 5-year prison sentence on associated child pornography charges. YouTube musician Alex Day was dropped from Hank and John Green's record label earlier this year when several vloggers accused him of creepy, coercive relationships with underage fans. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
The YouTube community, a space for oddballs and outcasts who choose to embrace their quirks and package it as entertainment for other quirky oddballs and outcasts, has begun to mirror the very social dynamics its users are rushing to escape. Now, instead of the trope of the popular jock victimizing his bookish tutor and trusting that her low self-esteem and his high social status will keep her from tattling, victimizers are the nonthreatening non-jocks and drama club geeks in their twenties teens are conditioned to believe are "safe." Gentle boys next door who wouldn't hurt a fly are given a massive dose of fame and cannot help but exhibit the same behavior as the rock stars, athletes, and actors whose behavior they built a reputation decrying. This corner of YouTube is becoming what it hates.
YouTube's evolution from brave nerd outpost to creep hive mirrors that of other outsider communities. A month ago, Sophia Katz wrote an article on Medium about her friendship with a prominent literary figure that began with friendly correspondence, proceeded to him offering his apartment as a place to crash while she visited New York, and culminated with sexual assault. This week, the subject of that piece was outed as Pop Serial editor and alt-lit darling Stephen Tully Dierks. Dierks's doxxer, a former roommate, confessed that when she first read Katz's story, she knew that the perpetrator was Dierks, but that she was too afraid to "start a war" with him to stand up until now.
Slang changes, technology changes, fashion changes, but thirsty male ally creeps are forever.
Unlike other recent controversies in the vlogging community, this time around, popular YouTubers were quick to register their disgust with Sam Pepper's conduct. High-profile community members like Laci Green, Grace Helbig, John Green, Francesca Ramsey, Wil Wheaton, and pretty much everyone else the #teens love signed an open letter condemning Pepper and asking him to knock it off:
We are deeply disturbed by this trend and would like to ask you, from one creator to another, to please stop. Please stop violating women and making them uncomfortable on the street for views. Please stop physically restraining them and pressuring them to be sexual when they are uncomfortable. Please show some respect for women's right to their own bodies. While it may seem like harmless fun, a simple prank, or a "social experiment", these videos encourage millions of young men and women to see this violation as a normal way to interact with women. 1 in 6 young women (real life ones, just like the ones in your video) are sexually assaulted, and sadly, videos like these will only further increase those numbers.
Laci Green, a popular sex vlogger, tells Jezebel that while she's heartened by the resounding and unified response to the latest in a long series of YouTube creep scandals, in the past, it's been an uphill battle to get people to speak up. That a famous adult man would engage in a relationship with a fan in her mid-teens is accepted as "part of the culture," rather than challenged as a damaging and fucked up rite of passage sprung on girls who don't know what they're getting themselves into.
There's a lot of pressure to "maintain your brand" and these are tough conversations to have. Add that to the fact that we all know and work with these people - and it's a tough time. Of course the silence makes things worse. The quiet creators often reach the demographic most likely to confronted with inappropriate or compromising situations. I don't think that those who don't speak out are *bad people*, but I do wish they had more courage and realized how powerful their voices are to make change.
Sadly, much of the top-tier UK YouTube community (where the majority of YouTube abuse has surfaced) has said next to nothing [about Sam Pepper], likely for all the aforementioned reasons.
Laci is optimistic that the community in which she's found a home has the tools necessary to enact positive change from within, and that conferences and meetups can feel safe for its teenage fans again. "I want to know that young women can come together and have a wonderful time at these events without worrying that a predatory creator is going to make them feel special and then violate them because they know they'll get away with it," she says. "I want it to be known that they absolutely will not get away with it."
Images via YouTube.