The metaverse is a shared space for virtual interaction, where people can interact through realistic avatars representing alter egos. Yet as with many types of virtual venues, the potential for interaction comes with opportunities for abuse.
Image by Riki32 from Pixabay
The New York Post [i] reported on the problem of sexual assault in the metaverse, discussing how within Meta, the controversial rebrand of Facebook, women were reporting sexual abuse including everything from verbal to sexual abuse. One female researcher, Nina Jane Patel, shared her experience of being “verbally and sexually harassed” within 60 seconds of logging onto the platform “Horizon Worlds.” She reported that “three to four male avatars ‘virtually gang raped’ her and took photos shouting crude remarks.”
How did they get so close? According to a Meta spokesperson, the researcher who was sexually assaulted had turned off the platform’s Personal Boundary feature—a safety tool that is automatically on by default to prevent “non-friends” from coming within four feet of a user’s avatar. Other Meta representatives have described other safety tools designed to protect users in virtual reality environments, including what they describe as the Safe Zone button, allowing users to block and report users who are abusive or engaging in inappropriate conduct.
Although this case and others like it were not pursued criminally, virtual abuse can lead to significant mental health challenges and trauma. One of the ways this occurs is through the concept of embodiment.
Embodiment: Virtual Presence
Virtual reality is designed to transport our brains into a virtual body, to trick us into experiencing an alternate existence in real-time. Accordingly, experiencing sexual assault or harassment online can create some of the same mental and emotional responses as in real life.
Guo Freeman et al. (2022) explored the concept of harassment in virtual reality. [ii] They note that virtual reality “offers a more immersive and embodied multi-user virtual environment with a heightened sense of presence.” Distinguishing the experience from merely observing avatars on a computer screen, virtuality reality involves adopting what they describe as “full-body tracking avatars,” meaning that a person’s avatar movements correspond to body movements in real-time. Freeman et al. note that these realistic and novel characteristics may create a heightened opportunity for harassment and more damaging consequences as compared to traditional 3D virtual worlds or single-user virtuality reality games.
In their research, they found that characteristics of online harassment can significantly impact user experiences. These characteristics include physical behaviors, forced attention through voice chat, and space invasion during embodied interactions.
Significantly, Freeman et al. explain that virtual reality’s focus on creating a simulated immersive experience may cause harassing behaviors to feel more realistic, and therefore potentially more traumatic. They distinguish between physical proximity between avatars on a computer screen, which may not be viewed as harassment, versus real-time uninvited spatial proximity due to the direct link between a person’s physical body and avatar body.
Online Assault Has Offline Consequences
Trauma resulting from virtual sexual assault does not dissipate once a user removes his or her goggles. Thankfully, the more we understand the dynamics of virtual abuse, the more resources can be created to address prevention and treatment—as there are already programs designed to use virtual reality to assist survivors with symptoms of trauma. [iii] As this field continues to develop, so will our efforts to regulate usage and protect users.
[ii] Guo Freeman, Samaneh Zamanifard, Divine Maloney, and Dane Acena. 2022. Disturbing the Peace: Experiencing and Mitigating Emerging Harassment in Social Virtual Reality. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 6, CSCW1, Article 85 (April 2022). https://doi.org/10.1145/3512932
[iii] See, e.g., Lee, Mi‐ran, and Chiyoung Cha. 2021. “A Mobile Healing Program Using Virtual Reality for Sexual Violence Survivors: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Study.” Worldviews on Evidence-Based Nursing 18 (1): 50–59. doi:10.1111/wvn.12478.