Crossing the line: YouTube community in crisis as sexual assault allegations are made public

Crossing the line: YouTube community in crisis as sexual assault allegations are made public
Screen Shot 2014-03-16 at 10.04.28 pm

Image: Tom Milsom (left) and Alex Day (right) in ‘Mild-Mannered Monster’

The YouTube community has been rocked by allegations of sexual assault, emotional manipulation and inappropriate behaviour made by fans against some of the more popular members of the community.

It all began last week when a former girlfriend of Tom Milsom, Olga, wrote in a Tumblr blog post that during her six-month relationship with the blue-haired musician, Milsom was abusive and coerced her into having sex with him. She wrote:

i’d say it was really painful and i ended up really sore and bruised for like days like literally everything hurt so bad and i told him that and it didn’t really matter i didnt [sic] stop anything

(TechGeek has decided not to publish her full name after Tumblr blog post written by her asked people to “stop posting things with my full name please”)

According to Olga, when Milsom started the relationship, she was just 15 and he was 22. She, however, notes that the physical aspects of the relationship (i.e. the sexual abuse) began when she was 16. Under Missouri law, where the relationship was said to have taken place and where Olga lives, the legal age of consent is 17.

While Milsom has not publicly commented about the allegations, DFTBA Records were quick to remove all of Milsom’s products from their store. A co-founder of DFTBA Records, Alan Latsufka, also made a $1000 donation to the RAINN support group (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network).

Hank Green, one half of the Vlogbrothers channel with his author brother John Green and the other co-founder of DFTBA Records, expressed his disappointment and anger in a blog post.

“I am horrified and extremely disappointed in myself that I was not able to realize that this was happening and put a stop to it…maybe even before it started,” he wrote.

“I won’t comment on the specifics of this relationship because that isn’t my place. But the more fact that it existed infuriates me…sexual relationships need to be equitable and they can’t be when people are in dramatically different life stages or when one person enters the relationship as a fan of another.”

After Olga’s blog post, similar allegations of sexual abuse, emotional manipulation or disrespect of personal boundaries were also made against British musician Alex Day. At first, these allegations came from anonymous accounts. Day denied these allegations in a blog post called On Mistakes, saying that he had not “undertaken any romantic activity, sexual or otherwise, without being sure the other person wanted it.”

However, in a follow-up post titled On Consent posted the next day, Day admitted that he “massively fucked up”. This came after more allegations came out from former friends (now no longer anonymous) and some of his former friends.

Day wrote:

Until yesterday, I thought that I had had only appropriate, though occasionally manipulative relationships with women. However, the model of consent that I followed, not that I specifically thought about it at the time – was that only “no” meant “no.” That is not what consent is.

The result of that belief that ‘only no means no’, is that I spent a long part of my life doing shitty things to good people and barely ever realising or acknowledging that I was doing the shitty things. […]

It’s only in the last 24 hours that I’m realising how much I created situations that put people under enormous pressure. I wasn’t being responsible enough to be aware of it, and that’s my fault entirely. I want to be clear that I’m not blaming this on my lack of awareness or knowledge of consent and boundaries. I’m blaming myself. I’m deeply, deeply ashamed of this.

Like Milsom, Day’s records and merchandise have been removed from DFTBA Records.

However, reception to Day’s apology has been mixed. One YouTuber, Lex Croucher, described the apology “carefully crafted manipulation” and hoped the Internet did not fall for it. Another YouTuber, Lindsay Williams, wrote:

I’m angry that when someone is called out for emotional manipulation, that person gives their point of view in a post on the internet that was obviously crafted to portray that person in the very best light they could be portrayed, and people believe that like it’s not just confirming what has already been said: this person is good at manipulating you until you agree with him.

Charlie McDonell – another YouTuber, a former roommate and friend of Alex Day – also responded to the allegations. “In the time that I knew Alex, I never had any notion that the girls he was with were anything other than happily consenting to being with him,” he wrote in a blog post.

“The idea that anything contrary to that was going on behind closed doors makes me incredibly unhappy, and with that, I just don’t feel able to call Alex a friend of mine anymore. Simply put, I don’t know if I can trust him. I feel this same way about other past-friends of mine who have been accused.”

Not the first

This isn’t the first time that a YouTube star took advantage of their internet celebrity and abused their relationship with their fans.

Last year, Ed Blann – or known online as Eddplant – admitted that he was in an abusive relationship with a fan. Blann was a member of a “Time Lord Rock” band called Chameleon Circuit. Other members of Chameleon Circuit include the aforementioned Alex Day and Charlie McDonald.

In a now-removed Tumblr post, he wrote, “Over the following eight months we engaged in sexual activity on an number of occasions, the last of which was the result of me pressuring her after I had been repeatedly told to stop… I treated her appallingly, manipulated her, and behaved in an extremely misogynistic way towards her.”

“I am deeply sorry to everyone involved, and to those whose trust I have broken or who are disappointed in me.”

Another musician, Michael Lombardo, was arrested by the FBI in July 2012 after he persuaded some of his underage female fans to send sexually explicit photos and videos of themselves to him. The investigation was started after someone informed the authorities that a 15-year-old female fan had arranged with Lombardo for a New Year’s Eve sex liaison. After examining the girl’s phone, they discovered multiple explicit text messages and nude images of Lombardo.

Like Day and Milsom, he had merchandise and records sold through DFTBA Records. However, when it was made public that Lombardo was being investigated, he was swiftly dropped from their store.

“The respect that creators are given by their communities is something we consider sacred. It should never be taken advantage of or violated,” Hank and John Green wrote in a blog post at the time. “Seeing that happen has been very painful for us.”

Lombardo pled guilty last year, and was given a five-year jail sentence.

The court of Tumblr

Allegations of a similar nature have been made against other prominent members of the community – most of the accused have been British YouTubers, but claims have also been made against an Australian and a Canadian.

And that should (and is) great – because these victims are coming out and telling their stories.

However, some of the allegations being made on Tumblr – namely those made against the Tyler Oakley and British comedy duo Dan and Phil – have been proven to be entirely false or revealed to be acts of “trolling” done by those who think that making false accusations are hilarious (no, it’s not).

This is one of the problem of having this disturbing saga play out on Tumblr – people can make up allegations against one person by using a throwaway anonymous account, and make it look like one of the other legitimate allegations being made.

“I want to reiterate that posting false accounts of abuse undermines the legitimate problems we’re facing and mocks the difficulty that victims face in coming forward and it is a terrible thing to do,” Hank Green wrote in response to the false accusations.

That is not to say that we should just ignore the allegations being made on Tumblr. We should take all allegations seriously. However, I believe the allegations should be handled by the police and in a court of law, not on Tumblr.

However, it is also easy to see why many people with serious allegations that choose not to report. Croucher notes in a blog post that victims choose not to report that victims are too traumatised and they might fear retribution for reporting, blame themselves for the abuse, repress what has happened, or took a while to fully process it.

What is also disturbing is that some fans have been rallying to their defence or shaming the victim. For instance, one tweet mentioned that the Alex Day incidents were all “mistakes” (seriously, who thinks sexual assault is a mistake?). Another called the serious allegations made by Olga against Milsom dismissed them as “ridiculous“.

Based on this post, I am assuming there were more posts – on both Tumblr and Twitter – defending Milsom and Day but were likely deleted after receiving a barrage of angry messages.

As a YouTube vlogger Anthony D’Angelo explains, those fans feel that they have a strong connection with the YouTuber. However, they are connecting with a persona – based on 10 minutes of video that has been heavily edited – and are more likely to reject the allegations because it does not conform with said persona.

A community responds

As both fans and online creators are coming to terms with the allegations, there has been an open conversation about how to tackle the issue of sexual abuse and emotional manipulation in the community.

One of the more popular YouTubers, Tom “TomSka” Ridgewell, has called on creators and their audience to work together.

“Sexual abuse has happened in this community, much like any community; and we need to work together as audience and creators to identify this shit, call it out, and cut it out like the fucking cancer that it is,” Ridgewell said.

There have also been discussions about what the community should have done – with reports that some YouTubers may have known about the harassment but then “pretend it [wasn’t] our responsibility.”

“There is a very good reason why famous male Youtubers pursue fans for sexual encounters – they’re the only ones who haven’t heard about their reputation. Many of us in the community hear about these awful tales of harassment and pursuit of underage girls. They’re treated like anecdotes – we bitch about them for a while and then pretend it isn’t our responsibility,” another British YouTuber named Lucy Evenden wrote on Tumblr.

“There are many times I could have done something to stop my friends from being manipulated and coerced into sexual encounters, and from now on I refuse to be idle. In many cases, when we hear accounts of harassment we have the opportunity to comfort a victim or privately confront the perpetrators about their behaviour. Why don’t we take it?”

In a video posted last Friday, the Vlogbrothers have announced initiatives to tackle the problem. This includes creating a “taskforce” within its community that will tackle sexual abuse and assault. The group will include survivors of sexual assault that are in their “Nerdfighters” community.

They also plan to educate both online creators and fans about the issue. They have announced that they will produce a series of videos on sexual abuse and consent – including internet relationships. They are also looking to partner with sexual assault organisations and charities to bring “their work and their resources” into the overall YouTube community.

Introducing education as a solution to this problem is a good start. While we don’t know the full details about the plan, I do hope it does teach online creators to be wary about their influence and recognise what is definitely consent.

Online creators have always been accessible to their fans. They will post their daily lives across social media. They will respond to fan’s tweets, comments on their videos, or even questions posted to them through Tumblr. They regularly attend conventions and meetups. Heck, some people even let you take photos of them if you meet them down the street.

For many fans, this accessibility allows them to generate some sort of connection. It may be platonic, it may be romantic. But this sad saga only confirms that fans are connected to a constructed image of the online creator – all based on what they are allowed to see. They don’t know the real person behind the lens.

And maybe that’s the ultimate question that the YouTube community needs to ask themselves – should they be this accessible to fans, to the point where fans feel like they have some sort of connection (platonic or romantic) to them?

If you are in an abusive relationship, or think that you are in one, please contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732. It is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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