TW: Sexual assault
It’s been a rough few weeks on YouTube, with two of the platform’s most successful creators coming under scrutiny for abusing their power and influence.
James Charles, the most-subscribed to beauty YouTuber on the website, posted a video admitting to having sent sexually explicit messages to underage fans.
These revelations come on the heels of a Business Insider report documenting sexual-assault allegations by a woman against YouTuber Dom Zeglaitis (aka Durte Dom), a former member of David Dobrik’s Vlog Squad.
Dobrik recorded the incident for a now-deleted vlog titled “SHE SHOULD NOT HAVE PLAYED WITH FIRE!!” and framed the night as fun and consensual—despite the woman and several witnesses alleging she was too drunk to consent.
Charles and Dobrik have since addressed their respective situations. Zeglaitis, in a post on his Instagram, stated he has apologized to the woman and denied the allegations against him.
In Dobrik’s apology video, he admits to having fostered the environment that enabled harmful behaviour, and acknowledges that he had not previously taken consent seriously in the way he created his content.
Both controversies have sparked a conversation around YouTuber power imbalances with their often young and impressionable fanbases.
Over the past several years, we’ve seen YouTubers having to contend with the reality of their influence, with several allegations of misconduct coming out against high-profile creators.
Boasting 25.6 and 18.5 million subscribers respectively, Charles and Dobrik are on the top of this list.
Fan culture and idolization
Like any version of fame and celebrity, part of fan culture involves a level of idolization and romanticization of your “fave” alongside a belief they can do nothing wrong.
It’s hard to explain the level of idealization and passion that consumes you when you’re in a fandom to anyone outside that space.
Easily, fans spend hours upon hours watching content, live streams, editing photos, creating compilation videos and making fan art. They interact with their favourite YouTubers endlessly on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat—just hoping to be noticed.
It may be easy to look at “stans” and write them off as irrational or obsessive. But this connection between YouTubers and their fans makes this level of obsession so much more personal—and so much more dangerous.
It allows YouTubers to prey on their otherwise naive and genuine fans. Whether to sell products, change public perception after a scandal, or indeed to use their fans adoration as a way to exert sexual entitlement.
YouTubers, fans, and unethical power dynamics
The crux of both of these distinct controversies exists in this uncomfortable territory. Each of these YouTubers misused their influence to either prey on their fans, or ultimately capitalize on and condone that predatory behaviour.
While the anonymous woman in the Insider report states she herself wasn’t a fan of the Vlog Squad, it has been noted that her friends were. She says their fame, influence and power created the circumstances where she could not fully exercise her autonomy and voice.
Many have called into question Dobrik’s decision to still upload the video, knowing fully well the girls involved were fans of him and the Vlog Squad, and clearly under the influence. Despite Dobrik’s knowledge that his fame and celebrity may have influenced his fan’s ability to refuse consent to post the vlog, he chose to post the video anyway.
“What I understand now, that I didn’t understand before, is that she sent that text [giving her consent to post the video] because she felt she had to, not because she wanted to,” Dobrik said in his apology video.
Just because “YouTuber” is still a relatively new phenomenon, doesn’t mean they should be exempt from the same responsibilities of any other celebrity that wields immense power. From Onision, to Shane Dawson, the harm of YouTubers abusing their power through preying on the adoration of their fans is all-too evident.
Contextualizing in a post-MeToo world
It is crucial to consider that both of these incidents occured after the watershed #MeToo movement exploded in Hollywood in 2017.
James Charles had been repeatedly called out for his pattern of misusing his position of influence, after a related allegation exploded into a massive controversy in 2019.
Charles stated that while he acknowledges and takes accountability for messaging minors inappropriately, he justified his behaviour as being desperate for a relationship. But the mere fact he was still willing to use “desperation” as a defense speaks volumes about how little he understands the severity of his actions.
No amount of desperation ever justifies sexual misconduct.
Charles, as the adult in the situation, should not have been using his fans as a means of achieving sexual or romantic gratification—irrespective of the fan’s age, it was a clear abuse of power.
Dobrik did admit to complicity during the alleged assault, stated he believes the survivor, and promised to hold himself responsible and do better in the future.
But some Twitter users pointed out that Dobrik only addressed the situation in detail on his main channel when companies started to distance themselves from him and he began to lose sponsorships, not when he was initially made aware of allegations against Zeglaitis.
Consent has always been part of the public conversation. But after the MeToo movement it feels inexcusable to be famous and affluent yet not understand the power you hold over your young fanbase.
Frankly, both Charles and Dobrik’s sudden commitment to understanding consent and power now–after flagrantly ignoring it for so long–is three years too late.
About the author: Anusha Kav (she/her) is a writer and journalist from Edmonton, Alberta, currently completing a Master of Journalism at UBC. She holds a B.A. (Hons) in Political Science from the University of Alberta. She loves writing about the politics of popular culture, particularly on issues of identity, gender and representation.