Sexual Assault Is Already Happening in Meta’s Virtual Reality World
A woman was groped virtually, but Meta creators said she should have used the safeguards — instead of reckoning with the bigger issue.
Meta, formerly known as Facebook, is off to a rough start with its virtual reality ambition. A week since its platform Horizon World was launched, users are already reporting cases of harassment and sexual assault.
“Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behavior which made me feel isolated in the Plaza,” the user wrote in Facebook’s official Horizon group, as quoted by The Verge.
The user was reportedly groped by a stranger in the virtual landscape. In another instance, writer Parmy Olson, who tried out the VR experience, spoke of being surrounded by a “group of male avatars” who started taking pictures of her. It made her feel like a “specimen.” As of now, the metaverse realm has a tool called “Safe Zone”; it is a protective bubble built as a safety feature that can purportedly protect users when they feel threatened. Once the shields of Safe Zone go up, no one can touch, talk, or interact with the user in any way.
On reviewing the groping incident, Vivek Sharma, Meta’s vice president of Horizon, said the user didn’t utilize the safety feature and should have just switched on the Safe Zone. Safety, once again, is framed as the responsibility of the user — online as it is offline.
It begs the question: how can Meta, or Horizon Worlds, foster a culture where users aren’t groped or harassed? Because adjustment to its tools cannot be a sustainable solution. “There is no body that’s plainly responsible for the rights and safety of those who participate anywhere online, let alone in virtual worlds,” as writer Tanya Basu noted in MIT Technology Review.
Harassment and abuse is by no means a novelty of the Metaverse — it has always existed as a byproduct of virtual reality platforms.
Perhaps the biggest hiccup to taking tangible action is the notion that virtual harassment is a digital construct and thus may not impact reality. In 2016, a gamer described being groped on QuiVR, a similar virtual reality platform as follows: “His floating hand approached my body, and he started to virtually rub my chest. ‘Stop!’ I cried … This goaded him on, and even when I turned away from him, he chased me around, making grabbing and pinching motions near my chest. Emboldened, he even shoved his hand toward my virtual crotch and began rubbing.” To this, viewers on the message board debated whether or not she was actually groped, considering her physical body wasn’t touched.
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But VR sexual harassment is sexual harassment in all dimensions; it has real and detrimental effects on the humans behind the avatars. “I think people should keep in mind that sexual harassment has never had to be a physical thing,” Jesse Fox, an associate professor at Ohio State University, told MIT Technology Review. “It can be verbal, and yes, it can be a virtual experience as well.”
In a 2016 article, Fox also noted, “If you highly identify with your avatar and are portraying yourself in an authentic manner, you’re going to feel violated. It wouldn’t be different if someone sent you a harassing email to your work email or harassed you in a chat room.”
The 360-degree immersion in platforms like Horizon Worlds and others makes the toxic behavior feel viscerally real. “Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense,” the user who was groped in Horizon Worlds also wrote. Concurring with this, Katherine Cross, who researches online harassment at the University of Washington, noted that “at the end of the day, the nature of virtual-reality spaces is such that it is designed to trick the user into thinking they are physically in a certain space, that their every bodily action is occurring in a 3D environment.”
“It’s part of the reason why emotional reactions can be stronger in that space, and why VR triggers the same internal nervous system and psychological responses.” Moreover, studies have proven that the psychological response the body experiences in a VR environment is the same as the one experienced in a real environment. This may also be because virtual reality groping or harassment destroys the sense of trust the user placed in the virtual world — adding another layer of despair. The consensus is “at a cognitive level, there is little or no difference between the real and virtual world,” a blog noted.
The gray area here is whose responsibility is to keep digital avatars safe in virtual reality. Creators like Meta will conveniently argue that it has inbuilt tools that users could utilize to protect themselves. “Generally speaking, when companies address online abuse, their solution is to outsource it to the user and say, ‘Here, we give you the power to take care of yourselves,'” Cross added. But that still feels like users get the short end of the stick.
For one, UI tweaks may not necessarily solve the underlying issue of harassment (Facebook in the past has proved ineffective in actually protecting users on its multiple platforms). Secondly, that users don’t know of features and find themselves in these positions is a structural problem at its core.
This feels like a problem that will keep unraveling as the metaverse becomes more sophisticated. For now, instead of sticking to the ‘you should have just been more careful’ response, perhaps Meta creators can place more deterrents and penalize aggressors on the platform. If creators are asking users to suspend their rational and disbelief and enter another realm, perhaps they must shoulder a great responsibility to provide security.
It may also be grimacing to acknowledge the limits of existing sexual harassment laws — which may not be equipped to deal with the metaverse as a reality. Legally speaking, sexual assault or harassment in virtual reality is hard to find justice. “In a virtual environment, it can be argued that assault cannot occur as there is prior knowledge that physical contact that can cause hurt is not possible,” the Law Blog noted, arguing under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code, assault or criminal force to a woman with the intent to outrage her modesty, requires the occurrence of either “assault” or actual “criminal force.” The current definitions thus cannot be utilized to prosecute a virtual reality offense; in other words, there’s no formal legal recourse.
Just like cryptocurrency currently battles regulation, the metaverse opens a whole other can of worms in terms of potentially facilitating things that are outlawed in “real life.” For now, this then leaves the power to arbitrate these interactions solely on the corporations.
In the end, the Horizon Worlds seems like a lovely place to hang out. But if the architecture of this new world replicates the unsafety of the real world — it leaves the users vulnerable on two frontiers.
Saumya Kalia is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her journalism and writing explore issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature, and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.