How Video ‘Pranksters’ are Cashing in on Abuse and Harassment of Women

The Guardian by 

Their laddish pranks become internet sensations, but these self-styled jokers can often leave women feeling scared, intimidated or violated.

YouTube ‘prankster’ Jack Jones
YouTube ‘prankster’ Jack Jones: not really that funny. Photograph: Neil Mockford/Alex Huckle/GC Images
Jones looking for victims in central London
Jones looking for victims in central London. Photograph: Jack Jones TV

Jones is just one of a host of online “pranksters”, mostly young men, whose videos often show them approaching, scaring or harassing unsuspecting women in public spaces under the guise of “banter”.

Often euphemistically described as “social experiments”, recent examples to hit the headlines have included YouTuber Sam Pepper’s compilation of grabbing women’s bottoms in the street and Brad Holmes’s video showing his partner Jenny Davies in pain after using a tampon he had rubbed chilli on as part of a “prank”. Though several sites removed the chilli video after campaigners pointed out it normalised relationship abuse, many mainstream media outlets continue to host it.

More and more vloggers are making money and enjoying notoriety built on the harassment or abuse of women. Regardless of whether or not some of the “pranks” are staged, you only have to look at the thousands of comments on the videos to see that they are playing a part in perpetuating misogynistic and abusive attitudes towards women and normalising harassment. With titles such as “How to pick up girls” and “How to get any girl’s number”, the videos often encouraged viewers, implicitly or explicitly, to replicate the same tactics themselves. It is not uncommon for sexism and racism to intermingle in the harassment depicted.

Where the videos centre on a female partner, they veer uncomfortably close to the controlling and coercive norms that often mark an abusive relationship. One Brad Holmes video, for example, shows him slashing a piece of clothing he had bought for his partner with a knife in front of her and stamping on a brand new set of hair straighteners while she begs him not to, because she fails to answer questions about history and football correctly. In another, with 10m views, he cuts her hair without consent while she sleeps.

Soraya Chemaly, director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, says:

Pranks and jokes say a lot about what society thinks is acceptable and, unfortunately for girls and women, what’s acceptable is high levels of physical aggression, denigrating humour and non-consent. You see that trifecta not only in the actions of harassers, who are socially supported, for example, by views and likes, but in the institutionalised policies of social media companies, whose policies tend to reflect mainstream norms.”

In many cases the women involved can be left, like Paulina Drėgvaitė, feeling frustrated and helpless. She reported the video to Facebook and asked for it to be taken down, but received a message in response saying that it did not contravene community guidelines. A spokesperson for Facebook has since said they were investigating both the “national kiss day” and the chilli tampon videos.

While each of these videos is subtly different, as a whole there is something very troubling about the triumphant rise of internet stars who are dealing in the currency of female harassment and humiliation, with sexual success positioned as the ultimate goal. To legions of online fans, the message is clear: any woman is fair game; their presence in public space is an invitation for harassment and you don’t need to take no for an answer.