Earlier this month, YouTuber and British prankster Sam Pepper released a video, “Fake Hand A– Pinch Prank,” that featured him groping women on the street. Pepper, posing as a confused pedestrian with his hands tucked into his sweatshirt pockets, dissolved into giggles when the women discovered his arm reaching out from behind to touch them inappropriately. With a following of more than 2 million subscribers, Pepper incited heated controversy for his “prank.” Outraged followers called the YouTube star’s actions grossly inappropriate and uncomfortable. There are myriad methods out there to address aspects of sexual victimization, but a video of a YouTuber committing these acts isn’t one of them.
But Pepper, in a three-part series, insists his videos were merely part of a social experiment to raise awareness for sexual abuse. According to the Independent, Pepper claimed that “the clips were designed as a ‘social experiment’ to shed light on society’s flippant attitude to sexual abuse, which affects men and women equally.” The second upload consisted of a woman doing the same actions Pepper did, but to men. Pepper, alongside the release of the video, tweeted, “Are you thinking yet?” to highlight the different reactions to women and men being sexually assaulted. YouTube subsequently banned the two videos on grounds that they had violated certain terms. The last served as an explanatory platform that panned out as little more than an excuse for his actions.
Pepper’s convoluted way of leveling gender inequality demonstrates that his message to curb sexual assault had gotten lost in his grotesque, butt-pinching actions.
Sexual assault is a serious and prevalent issue in today’s society. Pepper addressed this wholeheartedly. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, some form of sexual assault happens once every two minutes in the U.S. Nine out of 10 rape victims are women, but that doesn’t mean the men who endure this horrific abuse should be forgotten either, another point to which Pepper attempted to call attention. He shared personal stories about his struggles with sexual abuse and his friend’s experience of being stuck in a marriage in which the wife was physically abusive.
Though Pepper’s words were poignant, his video stigmatized sexual assault all the more by making light of issues in a joking manner. We all know that sexual assault consists of disgusting actions that need to be stopped, and it is scarring for both men and women. But Pepper’s need to point out the difference between men and women in these cases is superfluous. He focuses too much on the reaction to sexual assault incidents rather than the very action of sexual attacks. Pepper fails to convey the gravity of committing sexual assault by demonstrating those very acts of offense in his video. Even though Pepper proclaimed he received consent from the paid “actors” in his video, they were still recipients of a gesture that invaded their private space. In many cases, this offense is punishable by law and could cause trauma and psychological damage.
Pepper, in missing the point completely, also doesn’t seem to understand his responsibility to his 2 million viewers. YouTube is a video powerhouse that streams around 6 billion hours of viewing per month, according to the Los Angeles Times. Every YouTube user holds the responsiblity to create content for a certain audience who will take in and, sometimes, internalize the images and audio that dance across the screen.
There is a responsible way to educate viewers, and Pepper has done that before. “Homeless — Tell me Your Story” is one of his past videos I personally connected with. In the video, Pepper engaged in intimate conversations with homeless people. Among the individuals he encountered, one homeless man shared his wish to lead a simple life and the obstacles such as self-identity and drug addiction that have kept him from achieving his dream. With this project, Pepper tactfully brought up the need to reach out to people living on the streets instead of just walking past them. It was an incredibly touching experience that taught through example, not through uncivilized pranking that would leave people furious.
In his past videos, Pepper has shown his ability to highlight a subject effectively, so I’d like to see him cover sensitive issues in a sensitive manner again. Works like “Fake Hand A–Pinch Prank” simply put that potential to waste.
Danni Wang is a sophomore majoring in psychology. Her column, “Pop Fiction,” runs Mondays.