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Sexual Assault in the Metaverse

As the first police investigation into the gang-rape of a girl’s VR avatar is launched, Patsy Stevenson asks what is being done to protect women and girls in the virtual world.

Photo: Somchok Kunjaethong/Alamy

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Four men have gang-raped a girl under the age of 16 in the Metaverse, a virtual reality (VR) space where people can use an avatar to interact with other users and computer-generated environments. The comments surrounding the incident have been appalling, ranging from victim blaming to comparing it to ‘real’ rape and saying it isn’t as serious. This is the first VR assault that police have investigated, but it is not the first time it has occurred.

In 2018, a survey from The Extended Mind and social VR platform Pluto VR, asked VR users about their experiences in virtual spaces. In this survey, instances of sexual harassment were reported by 49% of female users.

Some of the other assault incidents in VR spaces that have been spoken about online over the past few years, include Nina Jane Patel, an award-winning technologist and researcher being ‘verbally and sexually harassed by three to four male avatars, with male voices, who essentially, but virtually, gang-raped my avatar and took photos’.

There have been warnings about sexual assault occurring in virtual reality worlds for some time. In response, platforms have called these cases ‘unfortunate’ and put measures in place to try to restrict this behaviour, such as Meta’s ‘Safe Zone’ which is a protective bubble that can be activated by a user if they feel threatened. It allows the user to stop others from touching or talking to them until they remove the bubble, however, this has – unsurprisingly – not been enough to combat sexual harassment or assault and users are faced with a very real issue. A protective bubble that is only activated by the user may not be activated in time, if the user freezes up in fear or confusion, they may not be able to activate it. Even if they are able to use it, the responsibility should not fall on the victim.

This so-called ‘prevention tool’ hasn’t been thought out well enough nor has it taken into account what sexual assault actually entails psychologically. The main problem is that this behaviour isn’t being taken seriously enough and creators of such platforms don’t face enough accountability for allowing it.

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In my recent TEDx talk, I explained how the fact that a high percentage of users and creators of AI and tech are male could be a contributing factor to why sexual assault in the tech world is not seen as a real-world issue and is instead deemed just ‘unfortunate’. Many creators have the skills and staff to put more effective prevention tools in place, but they have so far failed to do so to anything like an adequate level.

Typical of such male ignorance are comments from GB News presenters, saying ‘is this a good use of police time?’ and ‘the idea that any of that can be compared to rape in real life is just madness’. What they are clearly unaware of is that a common reaction to sexual violence is to freeze up, which, like ‘fight or flight’, is one of the body’s instinctive survival responses. This means that if someone experiences a sexual assault in the VR world, they may not be able to ‘simply remove their headset’.

The prevalence of comments about what the girl ‘should’ have done in the circumstances just goes to show yet again that misogyny is rife, and the onus is always put on women when dealing with assault.

Rape and assault don’t just cause physical injuries but almost always cause psychological trauma. Experiencing it in a virtual world, that is designed to fully immerse the user into believing they are actually there, will likely have very similar effects to an ‘in real life’ rape. Some users may have already had real-life experiences with rape and sexual assault, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that one in four American women have experienced ‘completed or attempted rape’. We already know the statistics for sexual assault are high; if one of those women then experiences it again in the metaverse, it is not hard to see how she could be re-traumatised.


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Others have questioned whether it is a waste of police resources or whether they should even be investigating virtual reality cases at all, given that there is already a backlog of real-life rape cases. There are also no current laws to prevent such attacks from happening, but the perpetrators were four men who gang-raped the young girl. Details are being kept private, but these men intended to scare and control this teenager. When acts are committed in a virtual and online space, are the perpetrators more likely to commit those crimes in real life too?

In September of last year, the Online Safety Bill was passed, the Act brings in safety measures for online users that allow for more action to be taken against online harm such as cyberbullying, but this only scratches the surface of online hate.

We are entering an era in which artificial intelligence and platforms such as the metaverse are going to become an everyday tool the same way Facebook did.

Is it now time for there to be legislation in place to prevent rape in the virtual world? I believe so. When the effects are as traumatic as a real-life rape, something needs to change.

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