Rape in the Time of Fandom

Four accusations of abuse, the consequences of which have played out largely online. In the alt-lit personality cult:

This past weekend, two young women came forward with personal stories of rape and abuse perpetrated by a magazine editor, Stephen Tully Dierks, prominent in the hip young “alt-lit” community. But it was only the start for the close-knit and famously gossipy scene.

Now, a young man has accused alt lit’s most famous author, Tao Lin, of statutorily raping him when he was 16. Lin fervently denies the allegations, and has said he is retaining a lawyer to dispute the accusation. Another prominent writer and artist, Stephen Michael McDowell, has said that he considers himself “a rapist, a sex offender, and a predator.”

In the YouTube prank subculture:

The new allegation comes a week after the former U.K. Big Brother contestant sparked outrage with a prank video that features him groping and pinching women on the street. In the video, Pepper approaches women on the street and asks for directions. As the women answer him, Pepper groped them with his hand hidden beneath a large sweatshirt. Pepper said the video was a “social experiment” and the women were in on the stunt.

But soon after the video was published, three women came forward with stories of being inappropriately touched or harassed by Pepper.

And some time ago, in the world of Vine, the internet’s own celebrity complex:

We don’t know what actually happened between Mr. Lepore and Ms. Vazquez that night. Maybe the accusations are legit; maybe not. What we do know is that he took a plea deal on Feb. 21, pleading guilty to felony assault and effectively ridding himself of the rape charge.

The only barrier between truly native internet celebrities and their fans is volume; there are more people who want to interact with them than is possible or practical. Otherwise they’re just right there: nothing insulates them from their fans nor their fans from them. They post and perform in the same shared medium. They create exclusive-feeling spaces within previously open ones.

They also create human power differentials out of thin air, which, for a particular type of person, must be intoxicating. They become famous but remain unknown outside of their subcultures; they are celebrities but they are not rich. Perhaps these subcultures make them feel famous but invisible and therefore invincible. Perhaps they don’t just feel powerful, they feel immune and powerful. Perhaps this leads them to conflate fandom with consent. Perhaps they feel entitled to people they see as theirs.

Perhaps they know that any accuser they might face would have to face an informal jury of peers whose allegiance to the subculture and its celebrities is what qualifies them as peers in the first place (all of the above men have since attempted to discredit their accusers online). Perhaps they know that any accusations in the “real world” would be hindered by the mainstream’s reflexive dismissal of their subculture as young and frivolous and of the internet, of its men as effeminate or strange or nonthreatening, of its composition as too loose or progressive or new to foster something so horrible as rape — this, they might believe, is what makes them different from real famous people, and less accountable. Perhaps they are just older and their fans quite a bit younger.

Perhaps, to a predator, this is all intuitive: Internet celebrity is just another opportunity, like management or teaching or parenthood, to assert power over victims in new and profound ways.

This post has been updated to reflect changes in a post quoted from Gawker regarding accusations against Tao Lin.