It all started a few years ago. In 2012, popular Youtube vlogger and musician Mike Lombardo was exposed as having solicited and received child pornography from his underage female fans. He was sentenced to five years in prison on child pornography related charges and is currently serving out his sentence in Texas. The Youtube community was shocked and upset, but life soon went back to normal.
Until earlier this year, when all hell started to break loose.
Let’s back up a bit. For those of you unfamiliar with vlogging or the Youtube community, let me give you a brief explanation. Basically, when Youtube first arrived on the scene, young people began posting videos of themselves and their friends doing random stuff. Some vloggers, as they’re called, performed music, some played pranks, and some just talked to the camera. As time went on, these early vloggers became something like celebrities on Youtube, as they accrued viewers, or fans, and millions of views. The community is known for being ‘nerdy’, as many vloggers and their viewers are fans of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Dr. Who, and so on. Members of the community also refer to themselves as nerdfighters and have a slogan- DFTBA, or Don’t Forget to Be Awesome.
This is a very close community. Content creators and fans can meet up in person at the annual VidCon (Video Convention), Summer in the City events held in London, and various other meet-ups and collaborations. This means that although some vloggers are seen as celebrities in the community, they are also very connected to their fans, whether it is in real life or online.
As evidenced by recent events, this easy access to fans is not always a positive thing.
Earlier on this year, accounts of several prominent male youtubers behaving inappropriately began popping up. One account was of Tom Milsom, whose ex-girlfriend, Olga, came forward with her story. At the time of their relationship, he was a legal adult in his 20s and she was a 15-year-old. She wrote about how during the course of their relationship, he manipulated her into physical acts she was not comfortable with. He also emotionally abused her and threatened to hurt himself if she did not do what he asked.
After Milsom, over a dozen young women came forward on Youtube and Tumblr with accounts of how popular vlogger Alex Day aka Nerimon had manipulated them and emotionally abused them. At the time of many of these accounts, Day was dating another woman who was unaware he was serially cheating on her with (sometimes underage) fans.
Other accused youtubers include but are not limited to: Alex Carpenter, Luke Conard, Adam Roach, Danny Hooper, Travis Neumeyer, Harry Gilliatt, and Tom McLean. These are not random, obscure youtubers. These are young men with hundreds and thousands of viewers, most of whom are young teenage girls.
In fact, there is so much information coming out about youtubers that there is now a masterpost where you can find links to all the confessions, blogs, responses, analyses, and information about each accused youtuber. I suggest taking the time to browse through to educate yourself, but trigger warning: there is a lot of discussion about sexual abuse, pedophilia, rape, consent, cheating, and emotional manipulation. Take care of your heart.
Most recently, there have been serious allegations of rape against two youtubers in particular: Jason Sansome aka Veeoneeye and Sam Pepper.
Laci Green, a well-known feminist and sex positive vlogger, was one of the first to bring the allegations about Sam Pepper to light in her video, “Sam Pepper Exposed.” In the video, she explains that many young woman have written to her detailing their sexual assaults or rapes by Sam Pepper. Several young women have released anonymous youtube video or tumblr confessions. Green notes that while several of Pepper’s victims have tried to move forward with pressing charges, so far nothing is official. More information about Pepper and allegations about him can be found in the masterpost linked above.
So what are we to make of all of this?
First, let’s look at the Youtube ‘culture,’ and why it’s so dangerous. Part of creating content on Youtube is the editing process. Vloggers are able to edit out parts of their videos they don’t like and present themselves in a very specific way to their viewers. While fans may feel like watching these videos gets them closer to their Youtube idols, as though they are chatting one-on-one in person, in reality, fans are only seeing what content creators want them to see. This creates a very skewed perception of who these vloggers really are. Although it seems like they are being candid, honest, or unscripted, in reality they have edited out a lot of undesirable content.
The initial crop of youtubers are now well into their twenties. However, their fanbase is increasingly younger as tweenage girls discover the joys of the internet at a younger and younger age. Youtube fandoms are drastically different than say, a 13-year-old having a crush on Brad Pitt. Brad Pitt is probably never going to meet or sexually assault said 13-year-old, because of the way Hollywood works. However, vloggers can and often do meet their fans. Aside from the annual large gatherings, which present numerous security problems in and of themselves, youtubers often organize casual meet-ups in their areas where anyone can come and hang out with them. This provides predators like Alex Day and Sam Pepper ample opportunity to flirt with a young girl, get her number, and seduce her.
When we’re talking about young girls, we are talking about some of the most vulnerable and impressionable individuals in our population. I was 13 once. I remember vividly instances where a boy would flirt with me, and how it flattered, consumed, and excited me. But I was 13! I had no idea what I was doing, how relationships worked, what sex meant, and what was considered healthy interactions. Thank goodness I was fortunate to make it through this perilous time relatively unharmed. Unfortunately, so many young girls aren’t.
All that to say: when a teenage girl meets a ‘famous’ youtuber who she has been watching for a few years, who is much older than her, and physically attractive to her, the dynamics are immediately dangerous. These youtube predators and abusers use their charm, their power, and their influence as famous vloggers to manipulate these young girls. Let me be crystal clear here: a teenage girl, under the age of consent and a fan, cannot legally or emotionally consent to sexual interactions with a man a decade older than her. Many of the girls who came forward with stories of abuse mentioned that they had no clue how to kiss, much less refuse the sexual advances of someone much older than them who they look up to. They admit that they were confused, conflicted, manipulated, and led-on. Although most of them did not cry out, “No! No! Stop!” during sexual interactions (although a few did), they say they did not want to participate and felt guilty afterward. Let me remind you that we’re talking about girls between the ages of 13 and 16, most of whom had never even been kissed before these situations. When you are that young and inexperienced, it is not easy to keep your wits about you when an attractive male who you have crushed on for years is trying to convince you to get in bed with him. However, that is not consent, and these men behaved despicably.
Vlogger Rhiannon McGavin aka thegeekyblonde created an excellent crash course in how to handle the abuse allegations within the Youtube community in her video “Youtube Abuse Recovery.” She gives us four steps on how to move forward: 1) Amputate: remove those accused from the community entirely. Do not give them views, spread their content, or interact with them in anyway. Let them know that this behavior is not tolerated. 2) Vaccinate: educate the community about what is happening and why it’s not okay. Create vlogs, blogs, and tweets to stand against abuse. Be a role model for younger viewers. 3) Elevate: listen to and value the voices of girls/women and victims. Believe the victim above the perpetrator. 4) Exfoliate: scrape out the bad stuff; be an active participant in creating a better community.
Linsdsey Williams aka PotterMoosh, created a video summarizing the abuse situation. As she says in the video,” We can’t just pretend that it didn’t happen and it isn’t still happening right now. We need to talk about it, and not just to cause drama but to educate people.”
Although the information that has come out and is still coming out can be extremely difficult and painful to bear, there are a lot of positives coming from this situation. For one, the Youtube community is becoming increasingly vocal on the issue of consent. Many, many vloggers have posted videos stating that consent is necessary and that they are against abusive behavior in the community. A discussion on these crucial issues is currently taking place, and more and more vloggers are standing with the victims and making their opinions known. This is vital. For the community to rebuild itself after these scandals, the voices of the victims must be taken seriously. This is true not just on Youtube but in our society as a whole. The slow, painful change that is taking place on Youtube is a reflection of the change that could happen on our campuses, in our government, and in our workplaces. We need to work together to bring to light instances of manipulation and abuse in all aspects of society, on- and offline. And we need to let it be known that this behavior is not okay.