Monday, a couple of Internet pranksters released a couple of videos showing how clever they are. In one, aptly named “Sweeping Girls Off Their Feet,” the guys known as LAHWF (Andrew Hales) and Stuart Edge, do exactly that: They scan the halls of Utah Valley University, approach unsuspecting young women from behind, and whisk them awkwardly into their arms. The women’s reactions range from flattered (“I love this! Can you just take me around classes and stuff?”) to speechless to ultimately self-deprecating (“I think I’ll break your back”).
Then there’s the even sillier “Greeting People With a Kiss,” in which—you guessed it—Hales and Edge walk up to strangers and attempt to kiss them. Pretty much every response features their victims, mostly young women, laughing nervously as they try to avoid a meeting of the lips. It’s awkward, not funny. As a prank, it’s pretty lame. But as an example of male creepiness and some women’s inability to respond forcefully to such invasions of personal space, it succeeds on nearly every level.
A few unsuspecting men found themselves on the end of the guys’ pranks, and there was a noticeable difference in how those guys responded. In “Sweeping Girls Off Their Feet,” for instance, the one guy approached doesn’t comply at all—without missing a beat, he gives Hales a pat on the back and keeps walking, and Hales doesn’t attempt any further sweeping. (While many of the women aren’t so easily swept away either, most of them eventually comply, thanks in no small part to the guys’ persistence.) The men targeted in “Greeting People With a Kiss” react more or less nonchalantly, but they are also considerably bigger than Edge and Hales—they likely felt no threat from them at all.
Gawker has dubbed the pair of videos “rapey” and points to their divided YouTube comments section, where some are arguing over whether they promote sexual assault. Hales, who posted “Sweeping Girls Off Their Feet” on his YouTube channel, seems aware of the inherent ick-factor, calling the video “one of those campus-only ideas that border along assault,” but insists that everyone “responded positively.”
Maybe it’s true that no one lashed out at them or refused to comply with their antics. (Though if someone did, there’s no reason to think Hales and Edge would have included that in the video. Girls standing up for themselves isn’t funny!) Still, nervous laughter in the face of “ideas that border along assault” does not necessarily a positive reaction make—it’s often a sign of discomfort or a response to a loss of control. As one of my colleagues puts it, “the joke only works because women are super well-trained to try to placate creepy dudes while making their escape.”
I wonder, however, if these pranks would have turned out differently had the setting (and demographics) been different. What if the guys had targeted older women? What if they tried to do this at night, or on a less populated street?
My dad insisted that my younger sister and I learn self-defense when we were kids, and with that training came my habit of responding swiftly when I’ve been caught off guard in certain situations. A couple of years ago, while walking alone around midnight down a relatively well-lit but empty avenue in Manhattan, a group of guys passed me on the sidewalk, and one of them grabbed my wrist. Out of instinct I tore it away, and glared at him as I picked up my pace. I put up a brave front because I knew I didn’t want him touching me, but I also resisted cursing at him, because that could have placed me in serious danger. Luckily, nothing worse happened other than them shouting a few expletives at me as they kept walking in the opposite direction.
Had my 18-year-old self been approached by Hales and Edge on UVU’s campus, I hope I wouldn’t have giggled nervously. I know I would have been annoyed. But I also bet I would have felt embarrassed and helpless, and so might have just let them sweep me off my feet. And then ended up on some idiot's YouTube channel, going viral. How sad.