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Sexual Violence in the Metaverse: Are We Really “There”?

photograph of woman using VR headset

Sexual harassment can take many forms, whether in an office or on social media. However, there might seem to be a barrier separating “us” as the user of a social media account, from “us” as an avatar or visual representation in a game since the latter is “virtual” whereas “we” are “real.” Even though we are prone to experience psychological and social damage to our virtual representations, it seems that we cannot – at least directly – be affected physically. A mean comment may hurt my feelings and change my mood – I  might even get physically ill – but no direct physical damage seemed possible. Until now.

Recently, a beta tester of Horizon Worlds – a VR-based platform of Meta – reported that a stranger “simulated groping and ejaculating onto her avatar.” Even more recently, additional incidents, concerning children, have been reported. A safety campaigner stated that “He has spoken to children who say they were groomed on the platform and forced to take part in virtual sex.” The same article talks about howa “researcher posing as a 13-year-old girl witnessed grooming, sexual material, racist insults and a rape threat in the virtual-reality world.” How should we understand these virtual assaults? While sexual harassment requires no physical presence, when we attempt to consider whether such actions represent a kind of physical violence, things get complicated as the victim has not been violated in the traditional sense.

This problem has been made more pressing by the thinning of the barrier that separates what is virtual from what is physical. Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Meta, has emphasized the concept of “presence” as “one of the basic concepts” of Metaverse. The goal is to make the virtual space as “detailed and convincing” as possible. In the same video, some virtual items are designed to give a “realistic sense of depth and occlusion.” Metaverse attempts to win the tech race by mimicking the physical sense of presence as much as possible.

The imitation of the physical sense of presence is not a new thing. Many video games also develop  a robust sense of  presence. Especially in mmo (massive multiplayer online) games, characters can commonly touch, push, or persistently follow each other, even when it is unwelcomed and has nothing to do with one’s progress in the game. We often accept these actions as natural, as an obvious and basic part of the game’s social interaction. It is personal touches like these that encourage gamers to bond with their avatars. They encourage us to feel two kinds of physical presence: present as a user playing a game in a physical environment, and present as a game character in a virtual environment.

But these two kinds of presence mix very easily, and the difference between a user and the avatar can easily be blurred. Having one’s avatar pushed or touched inappropriately, has very real psychological effects. It seems that at some point, these experiences can no longer be considered as merely “virtual.”

This line is being further blurred by the push toward Augmented Reality (AR) which places “virtual” items in our world, and Virtual Reality (VR) where “this” world remains inaccessible to user during the session. As opposed to classic games’ sense of presence, in AR and VR, we explore the game environment mainly within one sense of presence instead of two, from the perspective of a single body. Contrary to our typical gaming experience, these new environments – like that of the Metaverse – may only work if this dual presence is removed or weakened. This suggests that our experience can no longer be thought of as taking place “somewhere else” but always “here.”

Still, at some level, dual presence remains: When we take our headsets off, “this world” waits for us. And so we return to our main moral question under discussion: Can we identify an action within the embodied online world as physical? Or, more specifically, Is the charge of sexual assault appropriate in the virtual space?

If one’s avatar is taken as nothing but a virtual puppet controlled by the user from “outside,” then it seems impossible to conclude that gamers can be physically threatened in the relevant sense. However, as the barrier separating users from their game characters erodes, the illusion of presence makes the avatar mentally inseparable from the user, experience-wise they become increasingly the same. Since the aim of the Metaverse is to create such a union, one could conclude that sharing the same “space” means sharing the same fate.

These are difficult questions, and the online spaces as well as the concepts which govern them are always in development. However, recent events should be taken as a warning to consider preventive measures, as these new spaces require new definitions, new moral codes, and new precautions.

Sarah Everard and the Politics of Fear

photograph of palm protecting candle at vigil

In early March of this year, 33-year old marketing executive Sarah Everard vanished while walking alone at night through a neighborhood in south London. Days later, her body was found about fifty miles away in Kent. There was an instant outpouring of grief and rage from women around the world, many of whom shared their own stories of being assaulted or victimized while walking alone at night. Their collective rage only grew stronger when the police arrested Wayne Couzens, a London Metropolitan Police officer, for the kidnapping and murder of Everard. Couzens was still an active member of the force when he committed the crime, despite previous allegations of indecent exposure.

However, it isn’t just police corruption or misogynistic violence that make this case so troubling. In an article for The Cut, Angelina Chapin explains her perspective on this case as a Black American woman, and explains that this tragedy should make us question “how white women’s deaths are emphasized and whether fear is a logical response to random acts of violence.” Chapin argues that the media tends to focus on “good victims,” meaning attractive white women who are middle-class, often well-educated or members of the professional class, and not sexually promiscuous. Their deaths are certainly no less tragic,  The but the deaths (and sexual assaults) of women of color tend to receive far less attention in the press. Furthermore, the state often uses collective anxiety as an excuse to increase police presence and resources, a move which always has an overwhelmingly negative impact on people of color.

Chapin also points out that sensationalized cases like these tend to draw our attention away from other arenas where women more commonly experience sexual violence. She writes that

“what’s bothering me in the discourse around [Everard’s] death is the way that some people seem to universalize the feeling of terror women have being out on the street at night . . . While women do get attacked by strangers, it’s relatively uncommon. Women experience more risk in domestic settings than in the streets. So if this hypervigilance is warranted anywhere, it should be in the home.”

Data on sexual assault is notoriously tricky to gather, and conclusions will vary wildly depending on when the study was done, sample size, and demographics, but the existing body of research does seem to support Chapin’s assertion. The Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey, cited by the Rape, Incest, & Abuse National Network, reveals that only 7 percent of assaults committed against children and teens are perpetrated by a stranger. Another study conducted by the NSA claims that about 23 percent of assaults were committed by strangers. While this is not an insubstantial amount, it certainly feels less pressing than the 70 percent of assaults which were committed by people known to the victim. But at the same time, a recent study conducted by UN Women UK shows that a whopping 80% of women from all age groups have experienced street harassment, which can range from catcalling to verbal threats. For women walking home alone at night, verbal harassment (while also being deeply dehumanizing) may very easily become a precursor to physical harassment.

Women have every right to mourn Everard’s senseless death, but it’s also important to treat this less as an act of random violence and more the result of a rotten system. When we view violence as random and unavoidable, our fear increases, but if we acknowledge the well-substantiated link between police officers and violence against women, we have the power to address and eventually end structural violence. As the co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party in Britain, Catherine Mayer, wrote “We can best honour the victims of violence not only by demanding their assailants face justice, but by challenging the systems and cultures that enable violence and pin the blame on victims.” The tension between systems of power and individuals are becoming more and more apparent; at a recent vigil held in Everard’s honor, protesting women were arrested after confrontations with members of the Metropolitan police force, which is especially jarring given that the offender the women were protesting against was himself a cop. Hopefully this tragedy will bring positive rather than negative change, and everyone, regardless of gender or race, will be able to feel safe in their communities.

On Supposed Harm

Image of Sen. Grassley with two people behind him

Editor’s Note: The confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, the allegations against him, and the subsequent congressional hearing interviewing Dr. Blasey Ford have spurred many difficult, complex reactions. This week, we will be publishing varied perspectives on the spectrum of topics brought to the fore by Dr. Blasey’s hearing. This is the fifth article of that series.   

This past week, Brett Kavanaugh claimed his life and family were significantly harmed by Dr. Ford recounting her experiences with him: “My family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed by vicious and false additional accusations.” The possibility that he may not receive the position of Supreme Court Justice has been framed by many as a punishment for behavior he performed as a youth, and therefore too stringent a comeuppance. Further, Kavanaugh “losing out” on this opportunity has been cast as part of the current climate brought about by the #metoo movement where supposedly men must be on their guard and are under unjustified attack.   Continue reading “On Supposed Harm”

Modes of Morality in (De)criminalizing Sex Work

Liberal ideas of women’s rights and conservative perspectives on sexuality and sexual violence have come to a head in India following the infamous 2012 Delhi gang rape case that made international news. On October 12th, India’s Supreme Court ruled on a twenty-year-old case to acquit three men of the rape of a woman who was allegedly engaged in sex work. According to the Times of India, the “vengeful attitude” of the victim to recover money from the suspects after a history of working for the men constituted a compelling reason to forge a fake accusation. Ultimately, the acquittal keeps us asking questions about the nature of sex work as legitimate work, in relation to rape as sexualized violence — mutually exclusive actions with separate motives and disastrous effects on workers and victims.

Continue reading “Modes of Morality in (De)criminalizing Sex Work”

Beyond the Locker Room: Donald Trump and American Misogyny

Only days before the second Presidential debate, a video of Donald Trump making misogynistic comments about women surfaced. The video is an excerpt of a conversation between Access Hollywood reporter Billy Bush and Donald Trump on an Access Hollywood Bus in 2005. Throughout the video, Trump can be heard recounting his attempt to seduce a married woman, and stating that he can “do anything” to “beautiful women” because he’s famous.  Numerous gendered slurs are used by Trump in reference to his sexual advances on women, which also sound a lot like sexual assault. The release of this tape was met with outrage by citizens and politicians alike. Despite this, mere minutes into the second debate Donald Trump brushed off his comments as “locker room talk” and admitted that he was “not proud of it”.

Continue reading “Beyond the Locker Room: Donald Trump and American Misogyny”

Too Late? Teaching Consent Before College

As universities deal with an increasing number of sexual assault allegations, attention is being turned to finding a way to clarify the term “consent.” Many activist groups are unhappy with the current sexual education programs in the United States, arguing that the lackluster curriculum is partly to blame for the high rates of sexual violence on college campuses.

Continue reading “Too Late? Teaching Consent Before College”