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Why Sexual Harassment in the Metaverse Matters

Trigger warning: This article discusses sexual violence and rape, which some readers may find distressing.


Ever since Mark Zuckerberg announced the rebranding of Facebook to “Meta” in 2021, the 'metaverse' as a concept was popularised. But what exactly is the metaverse, and why has it been featured in the headlines lately for being a place of sexual violence?


The metaverse has been described as “the next evolution in social connection and the successor to the mobile internet”, and essentially refers to the combination of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality, and other types of technology for people to have various experiences online. The metaverse has numerous applications, but the most common ones are for fitness, gaming, social interaction, and entertainment.

 


Video: Guardian News via Youtube


While the features of the metaverse sound incredibly exciting with the potential to do a lot of good, this has unfortunately not been the case for some young women.

 

In January 2024, reports surfaced of a 16-year-old girl in the UK being virtually raped in the metaverse, which is now being investigated by the police. This attack occurred in an online immersive game, and the girl’s avatar was subject to a violent sexual attack by a group of men. While she did not experience any physical injuries, the nature of this attack left the child distraught, and investigators are concerned that she experienced the same level of emotional trauma as a victim of rape in the real world.  

 

Unfortunately, this is not the only report of sexual violence in the metaverse. In 2021, psychotherapist Nina Jane Patel shared her distressing experience of being sexually harassed in the Meta platform ‘Venues’. She described how, within minutes of joining, she was verbally and sexually harassed by male avatars, who then yelled out obscene things such as “don’t pretend like you didn’t love it”. Another report from 2021 shared the experience of a woman who experienced sexual harassment from a male avatar who simulated groping her and exposing himself as she used the Occulus Quest virtual reality headset.  When she asked the player to stop, he indicated that it was the metaverse, and that gave him the liberty to do whatever he wanted. In another VR based game QuiVR, a female avatar experienced a male avatar’s unwanted sexual advances, as he virtually rubbed her chest, chased her around, and even though she asked him to stop, his advances became more intense, only ending when she removed her headset.

 

As is often the case in cyber harassment, the metaverse offers anonymity to its users, creating a challenge to identify real-world counterparts from their avatars.


What are the effects of metaverse harassment and how have people reacted?


The negative mental health impacts of cyberbullying and online sexual harassment have been widely investigated. Some of them include increased depressive and anxiety symptomology and suicidal ideation. Unfortunately, with the creation of the metaverse, online sexual harassment is likely to increase and take a different form. In fact, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) commissioned a poll among adults about children’s metaverse safety, and found that 75% of people believe that 6-12 year olds are at significant risk of sexual abuse in immersive VR space.

 

One additional problem is that using virtual reality headsets to enter the metaverse can cause people to experience the phantom touch (wherein a person can feel interpersonal touch as a vibration through their headset, without any physical interaction). This immersive nature of the metaverse adds another layer to the impact of online sexual harassment, having severe effects on mental health.




I wanted to understand how the world reacted to this January 2024 attack and had a look at social media platforms to get an idea. While most responses support the victim and call for more regulation, I came across a news channel’s TikTok account, which shared a video of one of their female TV presenters questioning whether this investigation was a ‘good use of police time’.

 

In addition, a 2020 review of comments in response to another report of metaverse harassment found that many were dismissive of the user’s experience, and there was a lot of debate as to whether it was considered groping if there was no physical touch involved.

 

In a recent interview, Dr. Verity McIntosh (Associate Professor of Virtual and Extended Realities), actually helps to answer these questions. She describes the ‘process of embodiment’ which means that online representations of us have connections with our actual selves. When using avatars in VR worlds that look similar to us and using our same voice, this process of embodiment is intensified. Therefore, traumatic experiences using VR can trigger the same emotional and behavioural responses as a real-life experience, elevating the importance of addressing metaverse harassment.

 

Given the evidence of how ‘real’ the metaverse experience is, these dismissive responses to news reports are disappointing and worrying, and only reiterate that safety measures need to be put into place as a matter of urgency. People need to realise that sexual harassment is harassment, be it in a metaverse or the real world.


What are the safety measures that can be implemented?


As the metaverse continues to expand its reach globally, it’s important to understand the safety measures available to remain protected in this virtual world. The ‘Horizon Worlds’ application provides its avatars with a personal boundary function which is turned on by default. This prevents others from invading personal space, and if someone does try to enter, the system prevents them from moving forward (You can learn more about the function here), and is a helpful mechanism for both adults and children to keep themselves safe in the metaverse.




The NSPCC has also shared tips for parents to help maximise their child’s safety in the metaverse. One of these is exploring the games/platforms themselves to understand functionalities and features. This can go a long way in being aware of potentially harmful and unwanted contact from strangers.

 

Related to this, parents should also regularly check with their children about the people they are talking to in the virtual world, to make sure they are safe from online predators.

 

NSPCC also recommends supervising their child and being available if they experience a negative experience, particularly when they are accessing the metaverse. Distressing experiences can come on suddenly and without warning, and having an adult present in the room can mitigate these unwanted stressful disturbances.

 

Last but not in the least, with the rise in metaverse harassment cases, it is imperative to set strict legislations in place specifically for virtual world applications, to protect the rights of victims and ensure that perpetrators do not repeat this offence.

 

If the metaverse is the future of the internet, that means it is here to stay. While it has the potential to make technological leaps for the good of humanity, these reports of sexual harassment are detrimental. If we don’t act on this now and make changes, this is only going to get worse, and we need to realise that it is the mental health of young children that is at stake.

 

 

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