Harassment in the Metaverse and Real-World Ramifications

The Metaverse has the potential to be our escape. A place we kind of wind down for the evening with friends, maybe play a game or watch a 3D movie. To provide an individual pocket of happiness. Or it has the potential to become a predator’s paradise. Nina Jane Patel wrote in a recent blog post that she was verbally abused and sexually harassed by male avatars in Horizons Metaverse platform. In the post, Patel says the male avatars touched her avatar, which she identified as a replica of herself, inappropriately while they took pictures and made suggestive comments.

My experience of sexual harassment in Facebook/Meta’s Venues. Within 60 seconds of joining, I was verbally and sexually harassed, 3–4 male avatars, with male voices, essentially, but virtually gang raped my avatar and took photos, as I tried to get away they yelled “don’t pretend you didn’t love it” and “go rub yourself off to the photo”

Nina Jane Patel tells Mail On Sunday

So what do we do to prevent such cases? There is little point in creating an alternative reality that replicates and amplifies the real-world problems that exist in society. Perhaps Metaverse users should get a “metaverse panic button” that immediately teleports them from the situation to somewhere safe. The incident is not isolated, last year it was reported that the Metaverse had a groping problem when a tester in beta was sexually harassed. Meta has activated a new personal boundary between avatars to counter such incidents and made the boundary default in response to cases such as Patel’s.

Virtual reality has essentially been designed so the mind and body can’t differentiate virtual/digital experiences from real. In some capacity, my physiological and psychological response was as though it happened in reality.

Nina Jane Patel

In Patel’s case after going public, she received a string of dismissive comments and as the media escalated the story, death threats and hate emails. There is a culture of blame within society for sexual attacks in which victims are blamed for their own misfortune. First observed by Melvin Lerner the just-world hypothesis theorises that people sense the world to be just, and to justify this belief blame is apportioned to innocent victims. The more innocent the victim the more likely their character will be denigrated.

Virtual attacks could have real-world ramifications. The argument of “contributory negligence” or “partial blame” does not stand up in a virtual world as digital avatars can hardly be accused of dressing provocatively. In 2005 Amnesty conducted a study that found that a third of people believe women who flirt are partially responsible for being raped. This is despite law reform in some countries where reasonable consent has to be established as a defence. In 2020 a report by the Centre for Women’s Justice noted that rape had effectively been decriminalised, so low were the prosecution and conviction rates. The report also says that the legal system fosters “manifestations and preemptions of rape myths and stereotypes”. So does the rise in virtual sexual harassment disprove the defence of contributory negligence in real-world rape cases?

The incident infringes on the wider debate of whether sexual attacks are sexually motivated or just a form of violence. The Metaverse has had such problems, even in beta testing, and more needs to be done to protect users on the Metaverse. Cyber rape goes back thirty with the first recorded case on LambdaMOO a text-based virtual world similar to MUD1. In the incident, a hacker using the user name Mr Bungle had taken control of other players’ avatars and programmed them to describe sexual acts. The emotional effect caused uproar in the community at the time and was documented by Julian Dibble in an article called “A Rape in Cyberspace“. The issue raised questions about the governance of the internet, and freedom of speech.

The intent behind extended reality is to make the Metaverse virtual worlds feel as close to reality as possible. What we experience in virtual reality may feel like a real event and so Metaverse harassment may inflict similar psychological damage as a real-life experience.

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