May 11, 2022
The metaverse is billed as a fully realized digital world that exists beyond the one in which we live. But, like the real world, it has a sexual harassment problem already.
Imagine being in a room socializing with family when a stranger approaches and gropes you for sexual gratification.
Now imagine that in the virtual world.
That is what happened to gamer Jordan Belamire in 2016 as she played on Quivr, a multiplayer VR game in which she was shooting down zombies alongside her husband and brother-in-law.
In a penned open letter published on the Medium online platform, Belamire said when she played the game, she was at first blown away by the experience, saying: “Never had I experienced virtual reality that felt so real.”
But the reality of the game made an unwanted encounter in the VR game more frightening when she was interacting with another player called BigBro442.
Suddenly … 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.
“Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense.”
Belamire’s experience was brought to the forefront earlier this year amid a growing hype around the metaverse when Microsoft cited the metaverse as a reason for acquiring the game developer Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion and Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, renamed his social networking company Meta.
In January, Meta even opened up access to its virtual-reality social media platform, Horizon Worlds, where up to 20 avatars can get together at a time to explore the virtual space.
But what seemed a fun, playful experience was tinged when a beta tester reported that she too had been groped by a stranger.
Vivek Sharma, the vice president of Horizon, called the incident “absolutely unfortunate,” saying it highlighted a need for the blocking feature Safe Zone” – part of a suite of safety features built into Horizon Worlds in which a protective bubble users can activate when feeling threatened – to be more easily accessible.
More recently, a 43-year-old mother in the UK has alleged that she was “virtually gang-raped” in Facebook’s metaverse, just seconds after she stepped into the new virtual world.
“Within 60 seconds of joining, I was verbally and sexually harassed by three to four male avatars, with male voices, who essentially, but virtually, gang-raped my avatar and took photos,” Nina Jane Patel wrote in a December Medium post. “As I tried to get away, they yelled, ‘Don’t pretend you didn’t love it’ and ‘Go rub yourself off to the photo.’”
“It was surreal. It was a nightmare.”
It led to Meta rolling out a minimum distance between users’ avatars in its virtual reality Horizon. The “personal boundary” function in the immersive platform, where people can socialize virtually, puts a ring of space around users’ digital proxies.” A personal boundary prevents anyone from invading your avatar’s personal space,” Horizon vice president Vivek Sharma wrote. “If someone tries to enter your personal boundary, the system will halt their forward movement as they reach the boundary,” Sharma added. But the incidents have highlighted the grey area of sexual assault and harassment in the virtual world, with experts warning that the metaverse – described as a gigantic multiplayer platform built in virtual reality where people can socially interact with each other – can also be a space where sexual abuse runs rampant.
Maida Kajevic, a clinical psychologist at Dubai’s German Neuroscience Center, told The Media Line that sexual harassment in the metaverse “poses a major threat due to unlimited possibilities of communication, concealment of identity, gender, age, and looks, as well as real intentions of establishing relationships and communication.”
“Violence via virtual worlds, social networks, and others is a growing problem that we need to recognize and respond to it,” she warned.
Kajevic said what concerns her about the metaverse is that sexual abuse and violence become a “constant threat” in VR.
“It is important to remember that in the online world the same rules of conduct apply as in the offline world,” she said. “Unacceptable behavior is always unacceptable. It is wrong to conceptualize violence against women and girls online as a separate phenomenon in relation to violence in the ‘real world’; it is more correct to look at them as a unit.”
Kajevic said, when it comes to virtual violence, there are several main characteristics that distinguish it from traditional, offline forms of violence.
Firstly, anonymity, given that “anyone can present themselves as they wish” (fake names, nicknames, years).
Virtual violence also has ubiquity, given that online violence can happen anywhere, such as at school, in the workplace, and in the home, at any time – and has a wide audience. This means information is spread quickly and easily, which gives the perpetrator a greater sense of control and power, says Kajevic.
Sneha John, a clinical psychologist at Dubai’s Medcare Camali Mental Health Clinic, said as a metaverse – a network of 3D virtual worlds – where the emphasis is on social connection, it is unrealistic to expect a world in which real-life issues such as sexual abuse do not exist.
“Harassment, assaults, and bullying run excessively in virtual reality games, which are part of the metaverse,” she said. “There are few mechanisms to easily report the misbehavior. “Inappropriate behavior in the metaverse can be more severe than today’s online harassment and bullying. Virtual reality plunges people into an all-encompassing digital environment where unwanted touches in the digital world can be made to feel real and the sensory experience is heightened.”
John said any acts of sexual abuse – physical or online – can have lasting effects on a survivor.
“Online sexual harassment can make a person feel threatened, exploited, coerced, humiliated, upset, sexualized, or discriminated against.
“There are many emotional and psychological reactions that victims can experience. One of the most common of these is depression. Another consequence would be flashbacks.
“During a flashback, it can be difficult to connect with reality. It may even feel like the perpetrator is physically present.”
Victims may also experience deliberate self-harm and a detachment from reality “which may make it difficult for an individual to function in the real world,” said John.
The psychologist said it is likely that many people spend more time blending offline and virtual interactions, moving towards a mixed reality. That increased usage makes it hard to monitor rising risks.
One person who knows all too well the impact of virtual sexual abuse is former Dubai-based model Merhan Keller.
The Egyptian made international headlines for sharing lewd comments that were sent to her by star footballer Amr Warda during the Africa Cup of Nations – for which Warda publicly apologized.
Keller, whose full name is Merhan Hisham Abdel Qader, was subject to a vicious social media hate campaign and a deluge of threats of sexual violence after sharing her experience. They included comments from television presenter Tamer Amin who was later jailed for insults deemed slanderous, insulting, and of a sexual nature for the derogatory comments he made on his show Akher Al Nahar on the entertainment channel Al Nahar.
She told The Media Line that virtual violence can leave a lasting psychological impact as real as physical sexual abuse.
“I think the virtual violence is pretty much as damaging as harder [than physical sexual violence],” she said. “It is harder to prove because this person can just disappear.
“This person can deactivate their account and sadly the authorities everywhere do not take it seriously.
“Often, they are convinced somehow that there is another authority who should be responsible for the internet or whatever happens in the virtual world. They feel it is someone else’s responsibility, so as a victim when you go report it, you don’t really know where to go.”
In Egypt, where Keller – now a campaigner for women’s rights – grew up, she says there are now agencies where you can report acts of virtual violence.
However, she feels like such cases are not treated with adequate severity.
“They don’t take you seriously,” she said. “Because, to them, if no one touched you then you should be good. But the problem is someone like me had their whole world shattered and my family was left destroyed.
“You try and explain that to people but you get mocked because, again, you were not physically touched by that person.
“So, it is harder to prove, it is harder for you to reach a resolution.”
She said women worldwide get sexually abused at home, in the street, and in the workplace – so why not the virtual world?
Companies, therefore, have to be held accountable to make sure it is a safe space for women.
“There has to be a direct line to these companies [for victims]. They need to be accountable. It is their responsibility as a service provider that exists in that virtual space. It is their job to make it a safe space.”
Dr. Hassan Elhais, a legal consultant at the Dubai-based Al Rowaad Advocates & Legal Consultants, said it is unrealistic to believe that concerns of sexual assault and harassment in virtual worlds will go away any time soon.
“They will continue to happen as long as people are willing to hide behind computers in order to avoid moral responsibility,” he cautioned.
Despite the virtual – and playful – context it occurred in, an act of online sexual abuse in the virtual world should still be considered sexual harassment, said Dr. Elhais.
“Even though there is no physical contact, sexual harassment of an avatar in a virtual world may be considered sexual assault. Because the virtual avatar hanging out is an extension of the user, this may be considered another type of sexual harassment.
“Essentially and technically, the avatar is the user in a virtual reality setting, in whatever animation or avatar they’ve chosen. In virtual reality, if someone tries to harass you or touch you improperly, it is being directed at you.
“It’s also illegal to perpetrate sexual harassment using any other type of electronic communication or information technology.
“The perpetrator of an act of sexual harassment in the virtual world could be someone who knows the user or is a complete stranger just as in real life. Even if virtual reality doesn’t have legalese for such an act, an instance like this could be considered sexual harassment.”
He said UAE laws aim to protect victims of sexual assault. For example, the Federal Decree-Law No. 31/2021, the Issuance of the Crimes and Penalties Law, states under Article 41 that any person who commits a sexual harassment crime shall be liable to a jail sentence for a period not less than one year or a fine not less than 10,000 dirhams or both of these two penalties.
However, Dr. Elhais said companies that provide virtual reality platforms should become more robust about how they will keep track of offenders and what actions they would take to ban users who pose a danger to others. “Regulators are needed to govern virtual worlds,” he said. “We must be prepared to cope with the potential security flaws that VR environments may introduce.”
Until then, it is up to users to keep themselves safe – and away from sexual predators.