With Toby “Tobuscus” Turner being met with a string of allegations of sexual abuse this weekend, a lot of his audience might be stunned and furious at the idea of one of their favourite YouTubers being accused of something so awful. For thousands of others in the YouTube world, however, this has just become par for the course.
In July 2012, the YouTube community was truly shaken for the first time when musician Mike Lombardo was arrested for possession of child pornography. The then 24 year-old YouTuber had been soliciting underage fans for pictures and videos of a sexual nature – and eventually became the target of the FBI, after they were informed he had arranged a “sexual liaison” with a 15 year-old fan in December of 2011. Lombardo is currently serving out a five-year prison sentence in New Jersey.
Sadly, this wasn’t the last time that influential creators would allegedly use their platform to take advantage of young women. A year later, British musician Ed “eddplant” Blann admitted to a long-term affair with a fan, after she posted a statement accusing him of pressuring her into a sexual relationship and rape. Although she withdrew her police statement after stress, Blann was excommunicated from the YouTube community. After this, the list of allegations grew longer, and in some cases, much more severe – Alex Day, Tom Milsom, Luke Conard, Alex Carpenter, Sam Pepper and VeeOneEye were just a few prolific names added to an ever-growing masterpost on Tumblr, curated diligently by members of the community.
Now, with another huge hitter like Tobuscus about to be added to that list, many will be wondering: “When will this end?”, or “Who will be next?” – or most importantly “Why does this keep happening?”
As someone indirectly but severely affected by many of these allegations (full disclosure: I was a friend and frequent collaborator of at least three of the creators accused), it is very difficult to remain impartial, when having to revisit a lot of the events that have left an enormous scar on the face of the YouTube community. Even just typing some of these names invokes a strong feeling of betrayal and shame, that has been hard to shake off – and that isn’t even half of what the people they directly affected probably feel. But it also provides me with at least a bit of insight into why allegations of abuse at the hands of YouTube creators are, if not at the very least true, so prevalent amongst our community.
First thing to address is the obvious: YouTube is not the only art/media community to have its own share of scumbags. The film, music and TV industries are all full of their own abusive influencers that have taken advantage of, hurt, and raped people that adored them. We’re currently witnessing multiple backdated allegations against long-time entertainers such as Bill Cosby and Jimmy Savile. Watch a musical biopic set in the mid-20th century like Walk The Line and you’ll no doubt see some sketchy reference to a teenage girl in Johnny Cash’s dressing room. And while this should in no way be accepted as “just a part of the industry”, it’s important to acknowledge these parallels in order to point out the differences. Because the most important difference between those instances and the allegations of today, is that we actually hear about them; straight from the source, in real time (give or take a couple of years).
The internet has provided a voice to thousands of young people (primarily women) who, in the past, would have had their suffering silenced by an overarching industry of people that idolise their abuser. Instead of quietly depending on a justice system built to fail them, survivors are given an equally built platform to air out the dirty laundry of the person who caused them harm; for all of their audience, friends and family, and professional contacts to see. While the internet’s role as judge, jury and executioner is a discussion to be had another time, there is one thing to be said about this generation: If you hurt them, they can and will speak up. And with an ever-growing community that understands the basics of consent, sex positivity and healthy relationships, they know they have a support system.
But while this explains why we are able to see so many allegations made against creators, it doesn’t really explain why those allegations had to be made in the first place. To explore this, we have to begin to make some generalisations.
One primary pattern has emerged in the list of YouTubers accused of everything from cheating, to drug abuse, to rape: With just a few exceptions, almost all of them are male, white, and in some form, awkward and nerdy (Sorry if you don’t like it, but there is a type at play). These are the guys who, before discovering YouTube, may not have been a really big deal in their own right; but found a platform that could springboard them into the hearts of thousands of young fans.
With so many of their channels branded as quirky, non-threatening young-ish guys who like playing pranks and singing about Doctor Who, their reach rapidly increased in size; and suddenly, they had access to an army of young people who idolised them, hanging on their every word and wearing their face on a t-shirt. For many, just that sort of validation might be enough – but for the names at hand, it seemingly gave them a sense that they could have anything – and anyone – they wanted. Finally, the universe had dealt them their fair share. And if anyone tries to take that away from them, they still have an army of fans to protect them. Which, I suppose, is why they call it an abuse of power, as well as an abuse of a person.
These ‘fans’ rather put down a victim of rape, abuse, etc… bc they refuse to believe that their previous youtuber/viner is capable
— Artsy Trash (@MollyDarlene) April 10, 2016
I might be naive in hoping that, with the exception of genuine convicted sex offender Mike Lombardo, none of the alleged abusers started their channels with the end goal to manipulate fans and colleagues alike, or force themselves physically onto them. But given some of the lies and twisted stories I was privy to during my involvement with some of these people, I’m inclined to admit that to them, it may have just started to feel like second nature to take “no” as a suggestion. And with regards to someone like Toby Turner, whose audience is shouting down anyone who speaks out against him in this case while he remains silent, having that level of validation 24/7 must feel akin to invincibility. Not acting on that would almost seem irresponsible, really.
As depressing as this breakdown has been, both in exploring what might make an abuser tick and revisiting a lot of experiences that have left my own relationship with YouTube somewhat rocky, we can acknowledge it may not be forever. While the allegations against all these creators have spanned over at least six years, few are actually that current; even April Efff’s recent account of her relationship with Toby Turner dates between 2011 and 2014. And given that Turner is the first big name in about 18 months to have been brought forward, we may actually be seeing a shift in the YouTube community towards a safer, abuse-free environment.
So far, frankly, not enough charges have been pressed, and out of the multitudes of allegations only one person is actually serving a prison sentence. But if our community remains supportive of the voices brave enough to speak up, and vigilant against those exhibiting the behaviours we are coming to recognise, we may actually be able to create a complete subversion in the dynamic between influential creators and their audiences, the likes of which no other medium has seen before.