Since Sam Pepper's "ass pinch" video went viral, female YouTubers have sought to expose the misogynistic underbelly of vlogging.
If you’re fortunate enough, you may never have heard of Sam Pepper. Once a contestant on Big Brother UK, he's now a full-time YouTube vlogger and lives in Los Angeles.
Pepper, who's British, is known for his prank videos. With over two million subscribers to his YouTube channel, his platform and reach are undeniable.
Last week, he uploaded a video that marked a turning point in the YouTube community. Called ‘Fake Hand Ass Pinch Prank’, the footage saw Pepper roam the streets of LA dressed in an oversized hoodie. Hiding one of his arms under the material, he stopped women on the street to ask for directions. He then repeatedly reached out from underneath the hoodie to grab their bums, before trying to shift the blame onto passers-by.
Some of the women laughed nervously as Pepper revealed his hidden hand and approached them for a conciliatory hug. Others stated their opposition more firmly, with one woman exclaiming, "I don’t like that!". All looked uncomfortable.
The video has since been removed from the website. Response was rapid. The hashtag '#ReportSamPepper' started on Twitter, with many arguing that the video made light of sexual assault, rather than being a 'bit of fun'. Feminist YouTuber Laci Green capitalised on the mood by writing an open letter to Pepper, co-signed by some of the biggest and most influential vloggers on the site. "We are deeply disturbed by this trend and would like to ask you, from one creator to another, to please stop," she wrote. "Please stop violating women and making them uncomfortable on the street for views."
YouTube culture is often associated with youth, and its audience is largely female. Fifty-three per cent of viewers are women, and it’s thought that the majority of subscribers are teenage girls. Global measurement company Nielsen asserts that YouTube reaches more American 18 to 34-year-olds than any other cable network - and those numbers don’t take into account that the overwhelming majority of YouTube users are from outside the US.
Pepper’s prank was not his first questionable upload. In the past, he has posted videos in which he attempted to lasso women on the street and handcuffed himself to them until they agreed to kiss him. Now, his female viewers have decided that enough is enough. At the time of writing, Green’s open letter had more than 100,000 reblogs. That kind of pressure meant Pepper had no choice but to respond. And so, he did.
But not with the remorse, humility or compassion that his viewers were demanding. Instead, Pepper uploaded two more videos. The first was the same prank, with the gender roles reversed. The second was entitled ‘The Big Reveal’, in which he asserted that, actually, he was trying to raise awareness of the seriousness of sexual harassment. Both have since been removed from his YouTube channel.
Of course, it can be argued that this is just an old phenomenon with new technology. The cult of the famous YouTuber still holds the basic tenets of the cult of celebrity. The script of a powerful man using his position to coerce young fans seems to be as old as time. No organisation is immune. The whole episode has shone a spotlight on the dark side of YouTube vlogging. But, more than that, it’s shown just how much power ‘fangirls’ now wield.
Since 'Peppergate', young female YouTubers have sought to expose the seedy, misogynistic underbelly of vlogging. A number of girls have uploaded their own videos to YouTube, with responses ranging from anger at everyday sexual harassment to broader critiques of lad culture. There have been extensive allegations of sexual harassment, assault, coercion and rape, with high-profile, adult male YouTubers accused of soliciting sexual images from underage girls. This flurry of testimonials has sent shock waves through the community. It's not clear if any of the girls have contacted the police, and thus far none of the accused have been arrested. But now, for the first time, these fangirls are taking control and forcing vloggers to consider the consequences of their actions. They are saying stop. It’s the first step in demanding accountability.
Pepper’s 'Fake Hand Ass Pinch Prank' seems to be costing him dearly. Right now, his career hangs in the balance. Since the video went live, he’s been dropped by his YouTube network and Hank Green, co-organiser of one of the biggest YouTube events in the industry, has publicly stated that Pepper will no longer be welcome at fan conferences. It’s a huge blow.
YouTube vloggers make money via a number of different sources. With a big enough following, they can apply to be a YouTube partner and take a cut on the pre-roll adverts that appear on their videos. When even more followers come, some sign up to networks that work like media agencies. The larger the audience, the more likely that PR professionals and big brands will seek to work with them, offering sponsorship deals in exchange for endorsements. YouTubers are online brands. But the backlash against Pepper has created a level of toxicity that means PR people may never seek to work with him again. High-profile friends and collaborators of the YouTuber have publicly distanced themselves, while his fans – particularly girls – are deserting in droves. But they won’t go quietly. And that's the real power of YouTube.
- Telegraph UK