(sorry to not be funny or personal today, but I felt this was important)
Sam Pepper, YouTuber and former Big Brother contestant, has been in the news a bit lately, and I’m talking the mainstream news, as opposed to the podcast of a couple of lonely Dan Howell fans. A few days ago, he posted a video to YouTube centred around grabbing the butts of women, which is perverse, invasive and has the false justification of being a ‘prank’ that is usually reserved for rebranding misogyny as ‘lad culture’, and then posted another video claiming it was a ‘social experiment’ to highlight the abuse of men (oblivious to the fact that you don’t make men feel better by shaming women), which made us all think of him as a bit of a prat really.
But then the situation got worse; YouTuber I’m Anonymous has posted a video claiming to have been anally raped by Sam Pepper, with the sort of sickening detail that I don’t really want to repeat on this blog, but please go watch the video to get a sense of the scale of this.
As I hold the rather logical opinion of rape being really not a very nice thing, I’m inclined to side with Anonymous here (I’ll refer to her as that hereafter because ‘The Victim’ is an oversimplified, traumatic and potentially inaccurate title to use), but I’m hesitant to call for Sam’s head on a spike, or instantly believe Anonymous because she cried on the Internet in a monotone video; she herself said that some people may claim she has lied for attention, or to ruin Sam’s career, and while I don’t think this is the case, I’m not going to pick a side until Sam releases a statement, or this is all sorted out in the impartial setting of something like an investigation or trial.
However, this is an important issue to consider, even at this early stage where there has only been one testimony; firstly, it shows us just how much YouTube culture has become identical to broader celebrity culture. I don’t mean in the sense that sexual abuse is a key part of becoming famous, but just as our celebrity culture oversimplifies people into comedic ideals and images, only to shock us when they turned out to be more complex than that – think the revelation that cheery kid’s TV presenter Jimmy Savile was actually so much more – our YouTube culture has created a pantheon of musicians, actors and vloggers that aren’t going to be as one-dimensional as they seem.
Charlie McDonnell has discussed this before, the idea of imagining people – both those on camera and their fans – complexly, as more than just four minutes of LOLs and hashtags, and this works in both a positive and negative sense; your favourite YouTubers may be into more kinds of music or TV shows than you’d expect from their online persona. However, it’s a sad truth that it’s taken two negative events – the Sam Pepper scandal and the Alex Day scandal before him – to highlight this.
Secondly, Anonymous’ video is important because it is one of the most intelligent and informative testimonies of a sexual assault, if it is indeed true. Often, there are criticisms, usually said without intending to upset the victim, or simply out of ignorance, of rape or assault victims that ‘they should have seen it coming’ or that they ‘should have left before they got hurt’, but Anonymous’ video shows us otherwise. Her fear that ‘I didn’t want to be rude’ in front of someone who her friends consider important and worthy of respect because of his celebrity status is a legitimate problem, that our celebrity culture has created a hierarchy where those on top can get away with manipulating those beneath them, just because they’ve been trending on Twitter a couple of times.
Furthermore, her initial inaction in not going to the police after the attack, because ‘I was too scared to file a police report against a celebrity’ shows the deep, almost subconscious, respect and fear we hold towards celebrities, that an ordinary person can suffer as long as we don’t break the images of the funny celebs whose posters cover our walls. And this isn’t anything to do with the judicial process we have for dealing with such allegations, but a problem on a society-wide level, that individual people feel powerless against others, even if there are theoretical means for those individuals to get justice – Anonymous said her ‘insurance would cover a SART (Sexual Assault and Rape Treatment) exam. If Anonymous isn’t alone in her reaction to her attack, an overhaul of the legal systems we have to deal with these problems – namely making people feel like they’re worth engaging with – may be necessary.
On two slightly broader notes, Anonymous ‘was scared [she] could never have a career in this industry’ if she testified against Sam Pepper, a member of the industry she is aiming to work for, which exemplifies the fact that such industries are often based more on who you know than what you can do; she could have the potential to be the next Ben Cook, but it doesn’t matter if Sam doesn’t like her.
And the victim-blaming culture reared its ugly head once more, as she was afraid of ‘backlash’ and being known as ‘that girl, that slut, that whore’ who brought it upon herself. And while it’s important to be skeptical of everyone on the Internet with a webcam and a YouTube account, it’s also important to not turn that skepticism into anger; you don’t have to pick a side immediately and defend it to the death, it would be more helpful to form an initial response based on limited information, and wait for more information before breaking out the online petitions and metaphorical pitchforks.
As I said at the beginning, the detail and emotion of Anonymous’ story makes me inclined to believe her, and if her testimony is accurate I wish her all the best in her recovery, and hope that the armies of hug-offerers and sympathy cake-bakers of the Internet will help provide the moral and social support necessary for such a victim, that would be so much harder without the Internet. Equally, I don’t want Sam Pepper to be publicly disgraced and hated for his actions, if the allegations are true, because the legal process exists to punish criminals, and we don’t need to help it do that. Overall, I want us to learn from these videos and events, so that real change can happen in the way we see each other as people; and I don’t mean a tightening up of the laws regarding sexual assault, but educating and informing individual people of what is appropriate, and how to treat and consider other human beings. And regardless of the outcome of the inevitable investigation, either by the authorities of the law or the bloggers of the Internet, I think those issues are very worth considering.