Updated 30 April 2015

Big Brother does it again – encouraging and rewarding sexual misconduct

CyberShrink, who has a lot of experience with Big Brother Africa and its problems, reflects on how Reality TV cares more about ratings than people.


During this time of horrible xenophobic violence it seems comparatively trivial to be writing about the Big Brethren, but they’re linked to the important issue of what brings about violence and how it should be managed and discouraged.

Sexual assault!

Once again there’s a scandal within the show!

Big Brother contestants are surrounded with TV cameras and one-way mirrors 24/7, and the show boasts that Big Brother knows and sees everything – but they claim they don’t know what actually happened.  

Once again people claim that they saw a sexual assault. Again the producers and M-Net dilly dallied for a while – then reluctantly admitted that something had indeed happened, and removed two contestants from the show.

Read: Binge drinking by women tied to sexual assault

Despite lots of PR fluff praising all programming, actual frank communication with the public and the media was deplorably limited and unsatisfying. I say “yet again” because similar problems have arisen and were badly handled before. 

What happened?

During another night of drunken brawling, allegedly a contestant was “raped” by a fellow housemate while passed out. Whether anyone involved has exaggerated or minimised what actually happened is not yet clear. The relevant activities must have been be recorded and should be easily viewable, so the investigation shouldn’t take long – unless, of course, the broadcaster hopes that by dragging out the process, the fuss will die down. Either there have been unjust accusations, needlessly harming the individuals involved, or serious misconduct or even a crime.

The first requirement is to establish clearly what occurred. A genuinely independent enquiry would need people with the relevant expertise, like a psychologist/psychiatrist/behaviourist and perhaps someone with forensic experience of analysing security camera footage.

Hiring a law firm is a curious decision. A law firm may have someone familiar with the law on sexual violence and the legal responsibilities of the producers and directors of such a show, but not much else. One wonders if the broadcaster isn’t more concerned with public concern and avoiding legal liability than the wellbeing of the people involved.

Read: 1 in 3 women worldwide abused

If rape or sexual assault occurred, criminal charges should be laid; otherwise it will make a mockery of all the current public campaigns against violence towards women. All the fine speeches in the land are pointless if in such high profile situations abuse against women is tolerated or swept under the carpet.

Why did it happen?

The Big Brother series is very profitable, unashamedly aiming towards the lowest common denominator and attracting a young, unthinking and uncritical audience. (The first series was more interesting and aimed at a wider audience.) 

Anyone who would volunteer to take part in such a series must naturally be somewhat of an exhibitionist and enjoy being put on display. But the early producers chose interesting and eccentric characters whose natural interactions in this highly unnatural setting were genuinely interesting. There were 12 contestants at a time, allowing for a reasonable duration, and enabling the viewer to keep track of the individuals involved. 

Gradually the show has deteriorated, with absurdly large numbers of contestants – all clones of each other and hard to tell apart. Rather than a variety of originals, we now have hordes of “wannabes”, convinced the show will give them a shortcut to fame and stardom. They expect to become actors, pop stars, and models, despite having failed to achieve success by their own unaided efforts. Very few are ever heard of again, except where the production and broadcasting companies choose to promote them.

Gimmicks are used, labelled as “twists” to simulate something actually stimulating. Though from the beginning occasional provision of alcohol was used to stir things up, with the profoundly boring people now inhabiting the show, excessive amounts of alcohol are poured into the house in the hopes that something interesting might result. 

Read: Co-existing alcohol abuse seldom treated

After one of these incidents, it’s alleged that the accused male contestant bragged the following day of having had sex with the woman involved, saying to his cronies, “I dipped her, but don’t think she remembers because she passed out.”  She, in turn, told her female pals that she never consented to having sex with him.

The woman had said previously that she wanted to use the show to break into the local entertainment industry. The man had said he hoped viewers would “love seeing me serenade the ladies”.

Bad publicity badly handled

The publicity has been badly handled. Media enquiries were reportedly ignored, both general questions and more specific ones about social responsibility issues and how the broadcaster considers its duties towards women. A lack of clear and reliable information inevitably leads to rumour and chatter, especially online and on Twitter. 

Mzansi Magic eventually gave a vague response, saying that the man was “expelled for misconduct” and the woman “removed for her own well-being”, with both receiving counselling. Later they poured fog on the situation, saying, “At this stage it is not exactly clear what transpired... Having suspected that there may have been an incident of sexual misconduct, (we) acted by removing both individuals from the house.” Later they added, "Both (are) in the care of professionals and have been given the opportunity to contact family and friends." The most recent comment was, “He was removed from the house on suspicion of possible misconduct.”

A history of not learning from experience

There have been controversies before about voting irregularities in BB. In the last season of BB, a male contestant hit a woman, in what M-Net called “an isolated incident”. There have been other concerns, such a bullying, and what some considered to be indecent acts between some contestants. Last year in a drunken brawl, one participant became furious and broke a bottle; another drunken argument led to one person slapping another and being ejected from the show.  

Read: Bullying linked to suicidal thoughts

There have also been problems in BB productions in other countries. In 2006 in Australia, two housemates were suspended, having held a woman down and rubbed their genitals in her face. The Prime Minister suggested that the series be ended. It wasn’t.

In 2012, one of the Brazilian contestants was investigated by police after being accused of allegedly raping a woman who had passed out. In 2001, an American participant was expelled for threatening another with a knife to the throat. I read that in 2005, a heavy-drinking woman in the British show, was found lying in the garden, legs apart, pleasuring herself with a wine bottle. She later claimed she had been coerced into doing this by the show’s producers.

In the early series there was a large room with screens showing what every camera saw, and a team watching all of these to decide which view to broadcast at any given time. There was even a guy dealing with product placement, watching and making notes every time the broadcast scene showed one of a sponsor’s products. Logs were kept.

In any emergency it should be easy for the staff on duty to spot the problem promptly, send in people to intervene if needed, and keep records of exactly what happened. In this case it really should not be difficult to find and review the relevant video and determine what exactly transpired.

Read: No-sponsor websites give best info

When the victim is unconscious or so impaired by alcohol or drugs that they are unable to consent or prevent a sexual act, it constitutes rape.

It's all about viewers 

Though the producers claim that they take very seriously the health and well-being of contestants, and respond rapidly and appropriately when these are at risk, it is not always clear that this is the case. In fact, the producers seem only interested in the number of viewers attracted.

Let your fingers do the walking . . .

Something similar happened in the 2007 series of Big Brother Africa. A contestant, who later won the contest, was accused of sexually assaulting a very drunk woman on camera by penetrating her with his fingers, while triumphantly chortling and gazing proudly at the cameras. Footage of the incident is now available on YouTube. This elegant young man was reportedly seen afterwards, sniffing his fingers and muttering, “Well, this is Africa”. He had been boasting of his endowment, and boasting that he would “bump” the women with his huge “machinegun”. More graphic details are available on the web. 

A British publication, The Week, wrote about "the sight of a blind-drunk young woman being manhandled by a Big Brother housemate in what may be the most public rape ever". Again there was a public outcry, and concern about both the excessive alcohol the performers has been provided with, and the limited intervention shown. BB ignored the sexual assault but sent in first aid people when another girl, sharing the same bed and in a deep alcoholic stupor, vomited. 

Read: Alcohol abuse and dependence – the difference

At that time, a small group of journalists were asked to view tapes of the incident and comment. Our suggestions were not taken seriously, and the matter was rapidly swept under the carpet while the fuss died down. The accused man went on to win the grand prize of $100,000, with no further reference made to the event. We noticed a distinct chill in the air when we published critical accounts of the event and reduced our co-operation in covering such series. 

What should be done?

Stop pretending such a long investigation is needed! Complete the investigation as soon as possible, and issue a public report! Consult the appropriate experts! Have genuinely independent experts advise not only how to deal with this particular incident but how to prevent further problems, including sexual abuses, in the future!

Read: What is a psychologist?

If the series is to continue (and it undoubtedly will, so as long as it’s profitable), the production team needs to be far less complacent and more pro-active in recognizing and intervening in such bad behaviours. There needs to be major limitations on the provision of alcohol to bored and boring housemates, and more imagination in selecting contestants with more substance. 

Much is made of the presence of a psychologist in the production, but the identity of this person is not usually revealed. I met the guy used in the early series, a pleasant but very young and inexperienced youth. The methods used in screening and selection are not disclosed, but as described in a little-known book written by a participant in one of the first South African series of BB, they are naïve and unproven. 

Perhaps a more realistic appraisal of BB and reality TV in general is this that it is a modern version of the gladiatorial games in Roman amphitheatres, aimed primarily at providing crowd-pleasing commercial success, with casualties regarded as an inevitable part of the spectacle.  

Read more:

Is social media healthy?

Big Brother star dying on camera

Rape: starting young

Image: Big Brother's watching from Shutterstock

Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
1 comment
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Exercise benefits for seniors »

Working out in the concrete jungle Even a little exercise may help prevent dementia Here’s an unexpected way to boost your memory: running

Seniors who exercise recover more quickly from injury or illness

When sedentary older adults got into an exercise routine, it curbed their risk of suffering a disabling injury or illness and helped them recover if anything did happen to them.