Body without organs: Sexual violence and women in the metaverse

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Will women be as vulnerable to assault and attack in the metaverse as they are in real life?

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The Centre of Digital Hate claims that “Facebook’s metaverse is not safe” and children should not be allowed to access it - Photo: Shutterstock
                                

Contents

With data indicating that one in five women in the UK have experienced rape or sexual assault, the idea that the metaverse could become a space where the endemic problems of male violence are not only echoed but potentially become even more extreme, is deeply concerning.

As more metaverse users come forward alleging they have been victims of sexual assault, including virtual groping and virtual rape while using platforms, the question of how safe these spaces are for women and indeed children, requires consideration.

Without a legal framework to protect victims and without recordings being made of what occurs within these spaces, the possibility that the metaverse renders it even easier for perpetrators to invade or exploit other users is deeply worrying.

In addition, with VR technology becoming more and more sophisticated, to provide users with increasingly realistic and affecting experiences, the impact on victims of acts of virtual sexual violence are likely to become increasingly traumatic. One woman, for example, recalled the horrific experience of having her chest groped while wearing a haptic vest. With full sensory body suits a likely possibility in the not-too-distant future, the impact of being sexually assaulted in the metaverse would become only more distressing.

Is it possible for metaverse companies to keep women and vulnerable members of society safe? Whose responsibility is it, should a crime be committed? What are the legal implications of another user assaulting your avatar? Are “you” in the metaverse legally linked to your identity in real life?

Before attempting to answer these questions, let’s examine the cases which have come to light.

Metaverse sexual assault cases

One of the first cases of sexual assault in the metaverse came to light on 26 November when a female beta tester was groped on Horizon Worlds, Meta’s virtual reality platform.

In response to the event, the beta tester said “Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense. Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behaviour which made me feel isolated in the Plaza (the virtual environment’s central gathering space).”

This event is not new to the world of gaming. In 2016, a female user had her chest groped while playing a bow and arrow zombie game called Quivr.

When discussing the event in an open letter on medium, the victim, Jordan Belamire, recalled “In between a wave of zombies and demons to shoot down, I was hanging out next to BigBro442, waiting for our next attack. Suddenly, BigBro442’s disembodied helmet faced me dead-on. 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.”

Nina Jane Patel, a psychotherapist conducting research on the psychological impact of immersive experiences, also says she suffered sexual violence in Horizon Worlds, recalling the event on Medium: “Within 60 seconds of joining I was verbally and sexually harassed. Three or four male avatars, with male voices, essentially, virtually gang-raped my avatar and took photos – as I tried to get away, they yelled: ‘Don’t pretend you didn’t love it’.”

According to Patel, numerous other victims have approached her, having had similar experiences on the platform.

Victim blaming

Vivek Sharma, vice president of Horizon Worlds, in response to these allegations of sexual assault, called them “absolutely unfortunate.”

In response to the beta user being groped, an internal review claimed that the user should have activated a tool called Safe Zone. One of a host of safety features on the platform, the “safe zone” supposedly creates a bubble around the user, meaning no one can interact or talk to them until they have removed the feature.

Some individuals are criticising Meta’s response, suggesting it should not be the responsibility of the victim to have to defend themselves against this treatment. It is the developer who created the world: should the onus be on the platform to take responsibility for claims of assault? Will platforms be forced to set up a way of investigating claims of bad behaviour and punishing the perpetrators? Do they have the resources or remit to do this?

The alternative is that victims must use the safety features in order to protect themselves. If something does happen, is it the victim’s fault for not having used these safety features?

In response to criticism of purported victim blaming Kristina Milian, a spokesperson for Meta, told Technology Review: “We want everyone in Horizon Worlds to have a positive experience with safety tools that are easy to find… We will continue to improve our UI and to better understand how people use our tools so that users are able to report things easily and reliably. Our goal is to make Horizon Worlds safe, and we are committed to doing that work.”

VRChat abuse: dangers of the metaverse

Serious allegations regarding minors being exposed to abusive and pornographic material via VRChat, a widely used social app available on Meta’s app store have also raised huge concerns about metaverse risks.

A study undertaken by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate identified at least 100 violations of Meta’s policies in less than 12 hours. The study said issues included minors being exposed to hard core porn, bullying, racist and extremist messages, and harassment.

In response to the study, Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, said: “When Facebook launched the Metaverse for Oculus just in time for Christmas shopping, its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, pledged that privacy and safety is at the heart of Virtual Reality.

“But our researchers discovered that, contrary to his promises, Metaverse is a haven for hate, pornography and child grooming. In our study, Metaverse connects users not just to each other but to an array of predators, exposing them to potentially harmful content every seven minutes on average. If Metaverse is safe for predators, it’s unsafe for users, especially children.”

Technology and bodily transgression

From the Italian Futurists to post-modern political theorists such as Deleuze and Guattari, countless artists, writers and theorists have examined how emergent technologies bring about new ways for the body to be exploited, invaded and corrupted. Pornographers were quick to exploit the new technologies of photography, of cinema, of video and of the internet. Technology and its relationship with the transgression of a human's physical, spiritual and moral boundaries is not a new phenomenon.

Indeed, technology and human alienation are frequently viewed as interconnected.

Be it the proliferation of images that are freely distributed which encourage the objectification directed at self and others, to the rising accessibility of pornography as a result of the internet, the digital world can have a deeply problematic impact on the way we process and connect with others.

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and his colleague Félix Guattari, attempting to describe the virtual dimension of the body, uses the term “body without organs”, an externalising state whereby the body is liberated from the organisation of the organism. An avatar of someone is arguably a perfect expression of the psychic and bodily fragmentation which this state engenders.

In JG Ballard’s novel Crash, the narrator and a group of alienated former crash victims pursue a perverse fantasy of re-enacting car crashes with celebrities. The novel, written in hyper-explicit language, fuses extreme violence, eroticism and technology, reflecting effectively the way sexuality and bodily understanding can be perversely distorted by technology.

The rise of the metaverse can easily lead to new ways of individuals becoming dehumanised. Individuals are no longer interacting with other human beings, but with avatars in a space which is unpoliced.

Final thoughts

Cryptocurrencies specifically and big tech broadly are viewed by some critics as the ultimate expression of a right-wing, free-market and neo-capitalist ideology.

But the rise of technology, whatever its benefits, has thus far also served to worsen already existing imbalances in global society, from the entrenchment of economic inequalities to child exploitation. These inequalities are not helped by the shockingly celebrated unregulated framework which cryptocurrencies exists in.

The metaverse, as highlighted in the report from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, clearly has the potential to be highly dangerous. Given how few developments there have been by governing bodies so far in relation to controlling the impact of social media platforms, the idea that the metaverse will be properly cracked down upon to ensure safety for all users remains dubious.

Ultimately Meta, and other metaverse platforms, are capital-driven organisations. Their primary function and goal is not the protection of individuals, but maximising shareholder returns, so expecting these companies to consider ethical choices when laying the foundations of their VR platforms is unrealistic.

Simultaneously, expecting national and global authorities, equipped with an entirely inadequate legal framework when attempting to deal with the ballooning power of big tech, to govern and police what occurs in an untethered virtual world, also seems impossible.

With legal boundaries so hazy around whether an avatar amounts to the person behind the avatar, and with big tech as irresponsible as they are, the only option appears to be individuals assuming responsibility for themselves in the virtual world, or for parents to assume responsibility for their children.

Whether this amounts to victim-blaming when things go wrong is up for debate. If the metaverse is an ungovernable wild west which encourages objectification, violence and the transgression of normal boundaries, then the consequences of taking the risk of engaging in the space ultimately falls to the individual. But the fusing of all the issues of gaming combined with all the problems of social media coupled with the issues of transgressive content on the internet seems likely to make for a cocktail of chronic problems.

At Countering Digital Hate, in light of the damning report, Ahmed decisively recommends parents to send back any VR equipment they’ve purchased and forbid children from engaging on these platforms, a clear indication that the metaverse could be miles away from the unadulterated fun and games which these platforms purport to represent.

FAQs

There are countless dangers of the metaverse from a societal perspective. From sexual assault to transgressive violence in gaming, to child grooming, the potential risks are myriad and require investigation. 

The metaverse is a virtual world where individuals, using virtual reality (VR) headsets and sensory gloves can engage with other users, play games or chat. 

It depends. If you are a woman and are keen to go onto the metaverse, you could familiarise yourself with various safety tools, in case anything did happen which made you feel uncomfortable. If you are a parent with a child who wants to use the metaverse, you could look at the potential dangers and how to mitigate these. 

Further reading:

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