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There’s no ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for sexual assault
Dear Sam Pepper, do not pass “Go” and do not collect $200.
A British YouTube personality named Sam Pepper recently posted a video of a “prank,” one in which he walks around grabbing random women’s butts as a joke and films their reactions. Or, to rephrase: A British YouTube personality named Sam Pepper recently made a video of himself sexually assaulting multiple women and then posted that video online, presumably without the permission of the women being assaulted in it.
To its credit, YouTube has taken the video down after a large outcry from (former) fans, various well-known YouTubers, and many Tumblr and Twitter users. In its place is now an odd notice: “This video has been removed as a violation of YouTube’s policy on nudity or sexual content.” As though the problem were “sexual content,” rather than sexual assault.
As Laci Green pointed out in a video about Pepper, this sort of thing seems to be his M.O. as a YouTuber and as a human being. Quite a few of his previous videos put his regressive views of women on full display, as he referred to them using demeaning language, harassed them, or touched them without consent.
Predictably, there’s also now a backlash by Pepper’s fans, who are calling his detractors “butthurt little pussies” and “Tumblr cunts” in comments on his YouTube channel. Folks are claiming, as they always do, that this is somehow okay because some of the women laughed or smiled (because that’s what we’re taught to do to survive, and besides, some women said “I don’t like that”). All of this happens every single time an incident like this occurs and it’s a cycle with which many of us are now resignedly familiar.
Sexual assault is not (just) a prank. A prank is putting rubber insects or plastic poop in your friend’s bed. A prank is coming home from school with a fake note from the principal to your mom. A prank is, in one slightly extreme case that I heard of, a bunch of friends getting together and having tons of flowers and cards saying “Sorry for your loss” delivered to another friend at work, forcing him to explain to his concerned co-workers who he “lost.”
Pranks can run the gamut from wonderfully hilarious for everyone involved to scary, spiteful, and cruel. Pranks can cross the line. Even if we are to believe that Pepper did this because he thought it would be “funny” rather than because he wanted to make women feel violated and creeped out, then this is a very unambiguous example of a prank that crosses the line. Specifically, it crosses the line into sexual violence and criminal activity.
Of course, this isn’t uncommon. Daniel Tosh made a video about touching women’s stomachs (specifically, their belly fat) and also encouraged his fans to make their own (which they did). YouTubers LAHWF and Stuart Edge made videos of themselves kissing random women on the lips without their consent and of themselves picking women up off the ground and trying to carry them away. All of this is assault. Not a joke. Not a prank. Assault against women.
Sam Pepper and Daniel Tosh and their sympathizers appear to believe that there are two mutually exclusive categories of human speech and behavior: “just a joke” and “not a joke.” Moreover, these categories are so painfully clear and obvious that anyone who mischaracterizes “just a joke” as “not a joke” is “an idiot,” “a retard,” “a stupid feminist bitch,” and so forth. The only dimension on which items in the “just a joke” category can be judged is funniness. They cannot be judged on, for instance, ethics. So if you try to judge those items based on how ethically acceptable they are, then you’ve clearly placed them into the “not a joke” category and are therefore “an idiot,” “a retard,” and so on.
Obviously, a joke can be funny or not funny to a given person. But it can also be experienced by a given person as not a joke at all, especially since many types of humor seem to rely on “saying a commonly believed/endorsed thing and then acting like you don’t really believe/endorse that thing” as their main mechanism. A joke can also be hurtful or unethical, even if everyone understands that it is a joke.
Whether you are sexually assaulting someone as a “prank” or not, it’s still sexual assault. It makes no sense to stipulate that your intent in assaulting someone must not include your own entertainment in order for it to “count,” as no other crimes are defined in this way. If you punch someone in the face and then laugh, you’ve still assaulted them, and no police officer would accept “But it was just a joke!” as an excuse.
Of course, certain types of non-consensual touch can happen by accident. Someone may stumble on the train and accidentally touch someone’s breasts or butt. But Sam Pepper clearly intended to grab the asses of the women whose asses he grabbed; he just didn’t intend—or pretends he didn’t intend—for them to feel uncomfortable or disgusted by this. Unfortunately, you can’t will someone’s feelings in or out of existence.
It seems difficult for some people to understand that sexual assault is defined by an action (touching someone sexually without their consent), not by the intent of that action. This is understandable on some level—we all have significantly more knowledge of our own mental states than those of others. You may know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are a good person who just wants to have some fun and make a funny video for others to watch. You may believe that people who commit sexual assault are disgusting, awful people who jump out of alleys. Therefore, you, or some person you like and respect, could not possibly commit sexual assault.
But sexual assault is not about intent, and it’s not about how good (or bad) a person you may be. If you touch someone’s buttocks, breasts, or genitals without their consent, you are sexually assaulting them.
Pepper later claimed that the video was a “social experiment”—the last resort of those who can no longer even claim a botched attempt at humor. If you unpack this a little bit, “social experiment” usually just means “doing something wrong/weird/unusual/inappropriate to see how people will respond.” There is no need to conduct an experiment to see how women will respond to being sexually assaulted by a stranger. It happens all the time and has been happening all the time for centuries. If you’re curious, you could try talking to a woman about it.
This also seems to be contradicted by another of Pepper’s claims, which is that everyone in the video gave “prior consent.” If the women knew exactly what was going to happen, how is it an “experiment” or a “prank”? And even if they did, how are viewers—some of whom may be survivors of sexual assault—meant to understand the original video?
I have a hard time believing, that had there not been such incredible backlash, that a “big reveal” would have been made at all. @SamPepper
— Laci Green (@gogreen18) September 23, 2014
(PS: @SamPepper has made MANY videos violating women over the years, so this video isn’t the only point of concern. Kthxluvyabye.)
— Laci Green (@gogreen18) September 23, 2014
Nevertheless, it is entirely possible—and I am even willing to briefly entertain the idea—that Sam Pepper absolutely got the consent of everyone involved (for the touching and for the placement of the video online for the perusal of 2 million fans), that nobody was uncomfortable, that everybody involved had a great time (and the women who appeared uncomfortable in the video were just acting). However, what concerns me is, as always, that others will see in Pepper’s defenses a get-out-of-assault-free card: “It was just a joke!” “She’s only pretending to be creeped out as part of a social experiment!”
This post originally appeared on Brute Reason and was reprinted with permission.
Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY S.A.-2.0)
Miri Mogilevsky is a social work graduate student who writes about feminism and politics. She has a B.A. in psychology and writes a blog called Brute Reason.