Sexually Assaulting Someone As A "Prank" Is Still Sexual Assault

[Content note: sexual assault, sexist & ableist slurs]

A British YouTube personality named Sam Pepper recently posted a video of a “prank” 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.

I’ll skip over all the tired rehashing of how this sort of thing seems to be Pepper’s M.O. as a YouTuber and as a human being, how Pepper’s boringly regressive ideas about women are easy to glean from the videos, how there’s now a backlash calling his detractors “butthurt little pussies” and “tumblr cunts,” how 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, other women literally said “I don’t like that”). Because all of this happens every single time and it’s a cycle with which many of us are now resignedly familiar. So I’ll jump straight to the analysis.

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 flowers and cards saying “Sorry for your loss” delivered to another friend at work, forcing him to explain to his concerned coworkers 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 r****d,” “a stupid feminist bitch,” etc. 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 r***d,” 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.

I hate to keep trotting out that “intent isn’t magic,” but it really isn’t. When I am being sexually assaulted, I don’t care what the person assaulting me truly deeply believes about this encounter and what it means to them and how they feel about it in their heart of hearts. I am being sexually assaulted. I would like them to stop sexually assaulting me now.

Now, if someone stumbles on the train and accidentally touches my breasts or butt, I might be momentarily startled, but I’m usually okay because I understand that they did not intend to touch me. Sam Pepper 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. Well, unfortunately, you can’t will people’s feelings in or out of existence.

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.” You know, like a baby who discovers the ability to throw toys out of the crib to see what will happen.

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 speaking to a woman.

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?

On Twitter, Laci Green responded to Pepper’s defense of the video:

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 [why?]), but 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!”

Of course, this sort of thing already happens all the time. Rapists say that they were absolutely certain that they had the person’s consent and were totally not raping them on purpose, of course not, what kind of person do you think they are?

But believing that you have someone’s consent and totally not intending to assault them isn’t the same thing as actually having their consent and actually not assaulting them.

And I’m not so sure how many of them actually believe it.

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Related/relevant:

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Addendum: Despite the title of the post I linked to just above, and the views I’ve expressed here in general, I no longer stand by the claim, “sexual assault isn’t funny.” The reason I don’t stand by it is because it’s false. Sexual assault is funny. To certain people. “Sexual assault isn’t funny” is more a statement that I wish were true than one that is actually true at the moment.

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Sexually Assaulting Someone As A "Prank" Is Still Sexual Assault
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11 thoughts on “Sexually Assaulting Someone As A "Prank" Is Still Sexual Assault

  1. 1

    I wonder how funny he would have found it if one of the women had swung round and hit him? Unlikely, I know, given predators go for those they see as vulnerable or unlikely to fight back in any way.

  2. 2

    What police dept can we report this to for investigation into serial assault ? Let him provide the names of the women for confirmation that they consented. I don’t believe it, and if he lied, he has recorded the evidence for the prosecution. If he has recorded himself punching or pickpocketing victims, we would report to the authorities. This is a record of crimes.

  3. 3

    2kittehs – this happened between my siblings once. My brother thought it would be amusing to hide in the bushes beside my sister’s driveway one evening and leap out on her when she came home (in the dark). She, taken by surprise, and assuming she was being attacked, punched him in the head.

  4. 4

    Actually, his third video claimed that he did it as an experiment to see how others would react to his video. He posted the video of him sexually assaulting women, then another of a women sexually assaulting men to see the reactions of people watching. He said in his third video that he was trying to bring attention to sexual assault done to men. I think he’s just trying to cover his ass though.

  5. 6

    2kittehs @1,

    I wonder how funny he would have found it if one of the women had swung round and hit him?

    When Laci tweeted about Pepper a few days ago, I checked out some of the videos she mentioned. The groping one wasn’t the only dismal “prank”.

    One of the videos had Pepper and various accomplices sneaking up behind strangers and “licking” their ears with a fake tongue, then hiding the fake tongue and sticking out their real one. This made the surprised person think they were licked by the real tongue. They mostly did this to women, but there was one large, angry man who reacted quite aggressively to one of the accomplices.

    Then there was the video where Pepper and another pal lassoed women with a rope. The video opens with them lassoing a young African-American woman who was walking with some friends. The friends knock the assailant to the ground and start beating him up, until they have the camera pointed out to them. This is so wrong on so many levels, (I mean, capturing a black woman? How stupid do you have to be to not understand the symbolism there?) but I was surprised that Pepper not only kept it in the finished video, but opened with that scene.

    By the way, some of the other women who were lassoed were let go one condition of giving the assailant their phone number or kissing him. The other guy in the lasso video did this a lot, so remember that Pepper is not the only person who perpetrated these assaults for his channel. Unfortunately, I do not know their names or if they were also regular YouTubers.

    1. 6.1

      “Then there was the video where Pepper and another pal lassoed women with a rope. The video opens with them lassoing a young African-American woman who was walking with some friends. The friends knock the assailant to the ground and start beating him up, until they have the camera pointed out to them. This is so wrong on so many levels, (I mean, capturing a black woman? How stupid do you have to be to not understand the symbolism there?) but I was surprised that Pepper not only kept it in the finished video, but opened with that scene.”

      It’s because the anger of women is fucking hilarious to these creeps. Our feelings are not something to take seriously, as a threat or as something worth caring about; we’re just performers in their sick little show.

  6. 7

    Sorry to ask for violence, but where’s the YT video of a female comedian kicking guys in the crotch repeatedly? And where is the YT video where women punch the guys groping them? I know it means I’m a deeply unwell person, but THAT I’d laugh at!

  7. 8

    “It was just a prank” is the standard excuse of middle school (and elementary school, and high school) bullies when they’ve just tortured someone. Nobody should ever, ever, ever fall for that.

    A good prank is something like Severn Darden did. Or the works of Improv Everywhere. Those are rare.

  8. 9

    I dislike the ‘prank’ defense since I kind of feel that behavior is out of line in adults, unless it’s some minor prank between people who know each other really well where the possibility for damage is extremely low. Maybe this was being raised with the idea that ‘pranks’ were rude, reckless and juvenile, to the point where I didn’t even do them as a kid.

    “Social experiment.” Guess what, if you want to do a social experiment you have to get things past the Institutional Review Board. There are rules governing the use of human subjects. “Experiment?” Totally, let’s check out his meticulous notes on the design of these experiments which he worked out in advance and then ask who approved them?

    On funny, if you want to abuse consenting adults on camera for laughs, go ahead, but strangers who have not consented should be pretty well off limits for everything.

    Does this jackass realize how traumatic this can be?

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