The XX Factor

The Dangers of the Fake Sexual Assault PSA

On Tuesday, a disturbing video appeared on a site called “Total Frat Move,” and quickly racked up more than 7 million YouTube views. The video, filmed in the style of a “social experiment,” purported to show what happens when a “super drunk young woman” stumbles around Hollywood Boulevard looking for help finding her bus home: Namely, numerous would-be sexual predators drag the stumbling woman around, in broad daylight and within sight of supposedly “hidden” cameras, and try to guide her back to their cars or homes.

“I’ve got a water bed and all that,” one charmer says.

The video was eerily reminiscent of another viral clip that exploded last month, demonstrating the mind-bending (if you’re a dude) levels of street harassment that a woman in New York City experiences in a typical ten-hour period. This new video upped the ante: A woman walking down the street won’t just get incessantly harassed; she might just get sexually assaulted, too. And a number of news organizations, including Gawker, Jezebel, and New York Magazine, reinforced that message by publishing outraged commentary on the behavior of the men in the video. The New York Daily News’ headline typified the coverage: “’You’re coming home with me’: young ‘drunk’ woman records unsuspecting men luring her to their apartment.”

Except that the “unsuspecting men” weren’t actually sexual predators in action; they were just normal dudes recruited on the street by a viral marketing company for the purposes of staging a hoax. The Smoking Gun tracked down several of the men in the video, who said that they were led to believe that they were acting in a comedy sketch. They knew that the drunk girl was an actress, and their “creepy” lines were totally staged. One of the creators of the video, 22-year-old Seth Leach, even Facebook messaged one of these men after the video went viral and warned him not to blow the lid off the story. “The important thing to consider,” Leach wrote, “is that this video is going to get you well known and have a future with us and our company. … We are going to be huge and you are apart of it. Just go with it dude, you are in our team now and we will take care of you.” The “players” in the video were not asked to sign release forms to give their consent for being portrayed as would-be-rapists in a viral hit.

When these falsified depictions are taken seriously and given a mainstream audience, only to be revealed as fake, they offer ammunition to anyone seeking to deny rape culture itself as a myth propagated by “social justice warriors.” A quick look at the #gamergate hashtag on Twitter, or the Men’s Rights Activists forum on Reddit, reveals that the hoax is already being used to try to shut down the very real work that activists are doing to end sexual assault:

These conspiracy theorists have it wrong: The reason that sites publish stories like this without confirmation is that there is often more traffic potential in quickly publishing the hoax story than in waiting to publish the debunking. When Gizmodo published a fake viral “strangers kissing” video with the completely credulous (and misleading) headline “Watching complete strangers kiss for the first time is really beautiful” it got nearly 10 million page views. When we ran a debunking of that story by Amanda Hess under the headline “This Video of Strangers Kissing Is ‘Beautiful’ Because It Stars Models” it did well, but only garnered 665,125 page views.

That’s not to say that Slate is always on the right side of the hoax-traffic equation: This is an internet-wide problem. And while fake videos of kissing strangers or disastrous twerkers may be just annoying, proliferating a fake PSA for sexual assault carries more serious costs. After Jezebel reviewed the film, it declared Hollywood Boulevard—a major tourist and shopping destination in Los Angeles—“a breeding ground for sketchy men. … Hollywood is crawling with aspiring date rapists. Got it.” But while alcohol-assisted sexual assault is a real problem, the vast majority of rapes are committed by acquaintances of the victim, not dudes who hang out on Hollywood Boulevard looking for prey. Videos like this one promote the myth that rapists take the form of strangers walking down a busy, well-lit street—not the victim’s friends, colleagues, spouses, or ex-boyfriends.