Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Sexual Violence in Pop Culture: What Are You Laughing At?

*Trigger warning: This post discusses sexual assault and violation in some depth*

One of the most rapidly growing spaces for influential media is YouTube. You know, that place where 100 hours of video is uploaded every minute and over 6 billion hours of content is consumed each month? For those of us who use the website primarily to watch viral videos or film clips, that may seem like a hell of a lot of time spent laughing at harmless videos of babies or Barack Obama singing popular songs. But with studies showing that YouTube currently reaches the American 18-34 demographic better than many TV networks, it would be foolish to argue that it doesn’t have a profound influence on its users. And like any other powerful medium, this influence isn’t always a good one.

Last week, popular YouTuber and attempted comedian Sam Pepper uploaded a video of himself ‘pranking’ women on the street by pinching their bums. The video sparked immediate outrage from many of Pepper’s 2 million subscribers, thousands of other users and many of his fellow YouTube personalities, who all condemned the way that he sexually harassed and exploited the women in the video in an effort to be humorous. Pepper then uploaded two more videos; one similar to the first, where his female friend was seen pinching men’s bums instead. The third instalment, titled ‘THE REVEAL’, saw Pepper claiming that he created the first two videos as a ‘social experiment’, in which he attempted to observe the public’s reaction to women being sexually harassed in comparison to when the same thing happened to men. Claiming that the first video was scripted and staged and featured women who knew exactly what was happening, he said his actions were an attempt to raise awareness for the social stigma that surrounds male victims of violence and abuse. Which may have been mildly believable if it weren’t for Pepper’s previous tendency to upload videos of himself harassing women on the street. Handcuffing himself to women and refusing to release them until they kiss him, restraining women using a lasso and pressuring unsuspecting women into making out with him are all included in Pepper’s harassment-disguised-as-comedy arsenal.

Just a few Tweets condemning Pepper's actions from people in the YouTube community. 

Unfortunately, he is not the only YouTuber who glorifies street harassment in his videos; he is merely the latest to cause widespread controversy. It must be noted here that although this post is going to focus on sexual violation specific mostly to street harassment, it has been alleged that certain YouTuber's [Sam Pepper included] have sexually abused several women [not on camera, this time] and this is another deeply concerning aspect of the YouTube community. However, I think it would be more appropriate to dedicate an entire discussion solely on this issue in the future.

Lex Croucher: Abuse on YouTube.

Laci Green, a sex education YouTuber and one of the first to publicly acknowledge Pepper’s inappropriate behaviour in an open letter and allegations of sexual assault in a more extensive followup video, identified multiple other popular YouTube channels that create the same kind of exploitative videos in the name of ‘comedy.’ What makes this phenomenon so frightening is that, for the most part, people do in fact find these videos funny and inoffensive. They have thousands of ‘likes’, millions of subscribers and tens of millions of views between them.

But street harassment is a serious issue that deeply impacts victim’s lives and has severe personal and social repercussions. It’s not a ‘joke’ or a ‘prank’, nor can it be justified with the all too common excuses of 'boys will be boys' or 'it's a compliment'; it’s not only a reality that many are faced with every day, it’s a problem that often shapes victims’ realities too. A study by organisation ‘Stop Street Harassment’ showed that 65% of women in the United States said they had experienced street harassment. In comparison, 25% of men reported they had experienced it at some stage in their lives as well, the vast majority of which claimed it was motivated by homophobia or transphobia. Of these women, 47% said they felt the need to constantly assess their surroundings as a result of street harassment, and 31% deliberately chose not to go somewhere alone out of fear of being targeted. We’re talking about a hell of a lot of women who are navigating their lives around people who make public spaces frightening and uncomfortable for them. And yet we still continue to not only condone this behaviour, but also trivialise its seriousness in our everyday discourse.

Even more concerning is a 2008 study showing that the occurrence of street harassment positively influences women objectifying themselves. Objectification has been proven to cause increased rates of depression, anxiety and eating disorders as it reinforces the belief that a woman’s worth is predominately tied up in her sexuality and ability to satisfy a man. This idea is already pervasive and evident throughout our society, particularly and especially in the media. So why is sexual harassment and abuse so easily passed off as ‘comedy’ when it clearly has such horrible consequences for its victims? Or, more importantly, why does something as prominent as gendered violence happen at all?

What do you know, power and objectification seem to be the big motivators here. ‘Stop Street Harassment’ reported that those who are most likely to be sexually harassed are people who identify as homosexual or transgendered, racial minorities, those with a low income and women. Each of these groups of people experience oppression in some way or another, and the existence of street harassment is just another way in which the more privileged groups in our society exert their usually unquestioned power over those considered “less valuable.” It must be noted that a women's experience of oppression is dependent on many different aspects, such as race, religion, income, disability, sexual preference or identity to name a few. It does not just apply to western, white females. 

Males are socialised to believe that putting someone else down or asserting their dominance defines and proves their masculinity, and harassment is a prime example of such an attitude. Despite the [very tired] “but gender inequality doesn’t exist!” argument one is usually met with when discussing the issue, the world we live in still very much asserts this power that straight, white males have above any other group of people. That is why the gendered pay gap in Australia in 2013 stood at 17.3%. It’s also why men unequivocally hold the majority of jobs in most employment fields. It’s why women in Australia are represented in only 3% of chair positions, 3.5% of CEO positions and 9.2% of director positions despite being on average more or better educated than men. And this is why men are overwhelmingly reported to be responsible for the harassment of both women AND men. 70% of females and 48% of males said a lone man has harassed them and 38% of women and 25% of men have been harassed by a group of men, compared to 20% of men who reported being harassed by a lone woman. Furthermore, most men claimed that this was a rare occurrence only happening once or twice in their lifetime, compared to the regular and sometimes daily harassment that women and other minorities experience.

Not only this, but most if not all facets of popular media teach their audience that women are sexual beings that fundamentally belong to the male gaze. TV shows, film, music, magazines- all of these prominent and extremely influential aspects of our society give men and boys permission to violate, harass and disrespect women because the underlying message is that they exist for the male gaze. And this is the epitome of sexism and gender inequality; reducing women to a man’s plaything, a one-dimensional, second-class citizen that is fundamentally worth less than their male counterpart.

One of the most current and horrifying examples of this attitude in popular media is the hacking of over 100 popular female celebrities iCloud accounts, which revealed hundreds of the victims' intimate photos. Unsurprisingly, the event became news and attracted worldwide attention, but not for the reasons it should have. Facebook, Reddit and 4chan pages were created for the purpose of praising the hacker and news entertainment websites were flooded with traffic by people trying to access the photos. Mainstream discourse for the most part said nothing about the abhorrent sexual violation that this hacker committed when he chose to steal and post photographs of these women. Public opinion centred very much on slut shaming and victim blaming, asking why these women would take the photos in the first place and making offensive remarks about their lack of ‘morals’ or ‘integrity.’ Not enough mainstream attention was paid to the fact that none of these women consented to having their private photos released, nor did they consent to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of men staring at their naked body purely for their own enjoyment. This was and continues to be a sexually motivated attack against non-consensual women, making it an example of sexual violation.

Laci Green: 'She Asked For It' [Sex+]

Meanwhile, barely any attention was paid to the fact that these women are highly accomplished in the entertainment industry. Among them are Oscar and Emmy award winners, critically acclaimed actresses, record-breaking musicians, and world-renowned models. Of all the people who viewed and enjoyed the explicit photos of Jennifer Lawrence, I’d be interested and no doubt appalled to see the percentage that also know she is an Academy Award winning actress. But even without any of these successes, even if these women happened to not be celebrities and were instead everyday people, the issue would still remain the same; these women were without a doubt reduced to a means for sexual gratification, another example of how women’s bodies are popularly perceived to be belonging not only to men, but also to the public. This is an example of how our media and our society as a whole places more value on what a woman can offer sexually than it does on her accomplishments, her talents or her personality in general.

What we need is for this behaviour to be called out. We need to unapologetically condemn those who disrespect or commit acts of sexual violation in our society and remove them from positions of influence by not actively supporting them. This means not watching YouTuber's who try and pass off harassment as comedy and not seeking out photos that were obtained illegally and without consent from the victims. Because this is the type of behaviour that reinforces the idea that it is okay to treat women without respect or consideration for their personal space and freedoms.

And if there is one thing that cannot be stressed enough, it is that gender inequality in its entirety is a men's issue. It is something that men have a responsibility to act on and change because it is men who oppress women. If you feel the need to make a suggestive or sexually motivated comment to a woman, ask yourself why you feel entitled to do so. If you witness sexism in any aspect of your reality, call it out as the injustice it is. When you enjoy something that unequally uses women as props or tools as a means for entertainment, ask yourself what you're laughing at. Because the existence of gender inequality isn’t an argument, it is a fact, and it's certainly not funny. It's debilitating and oppressive, and I urge you to stop taking the side of the oppressor.

If you have experienced or struggled with sexual assault of any kind in the past, present or in the future, these resources will be able to provide you with help:

Sexual Assault Crisis Hotline: 1800 806 292 [Free call from Victoria, Australia]

White Ribbon: 1800 737 732 [Australia wide]

List of international sexual assault resources: https://rainn.org/get-help/sexual-assault-and-rape-international-resources


This is only one small corner of an unfathomably pervasive part of our society. Gender inequality is something that is present in all cultures all around the world and inclusive of all women. A crucial point to remember is that the experiences of sexism and sexually motivated crimes changes from the personal situation of women; intersectionality- the idea that women experience oppression in differing forms and intensities- cannot be ignored. Women of colour, disabled women, women with differing religious views, sexual preferences and identities and incomes are all effected by gender inequality in different and incredibly significant ways. This post focused heavily on sexual harassment and the influence of the media as a general facilitator of gendered violence due to recent events but does not is any way signify that this is the only or most important area of gender inequality or feminism. Gender equality is a fight for all women across the whole world that experience oppression daily and in differing ways and intensities.

I also chose not to focus on the allegations of rape and sexual assault that have surfaced in the YouTube community as I feel that is something that needs its own separate discussion at another time.