“New” Tech, Same Old Mistakes: The Inevitable Emergence of Sexual Harassment in Metaverse
February 23, 2022 4:55 pm ||
Author: Rizka Khairunissa Herdiani
Editor: Amelinda Pandu Kusumaningtyas
Metaverse is a term that has been the talk of the town and normally thrown around with the likes of “blockchain” and “NFT”. The hype around this not-so-new concept of virtual and augmented reality space is skyrocketing day by day with promises of creativity from making virtual avatars and game-like spaces to economic growth from digitized monetization.1 Nevertheless, despite the seemingly exciting prospects, there is one lingering question for those aware of the dangers of digital spaces: what about sexual harassment?
Unfortunately, this inevitable problem is once again something that has yet to cease from existing. Sexual harassment has been a constant problem since the dawn of the internet. However, with recent digital technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual-augmented reality, such issues have become more troubling and intense than ever before. Take the AI technology “deepfakes” for example. What was once used to superimposed face images of world leaders and celebrities in funny scenarios now turned hundreds of thousands of women’s photos into fake nudes.2 The issue here is not just about the exploitation and objectification of women but also the rampant sexual assault and harassment.
It goes the same with metaverse as well. Even with using an avatar, a user’s virtual representation that can be different from their real-life appearance, users still experience sexual harassment. For example, in recent news from Meta, a beta tester reported that a stranger had groped her in their virtual-reality social media platform, Horizon Worlds.3 Although this news caused a stir amongst the digital society, such an incident was not the first of its kind. In 2016, a gamer named Jordan Belamire wrote an open letter that describes her experience being sexually harassed in a virtual reality game called QuiVR.4 While developers of the game have responded with complete sympathy and concern along with providing an in-game fix as a preventive measure, an identical incident then arises years later in a platform that is currently hyped around the world.
What makes metaverse much more dangerous compared to other digital platforms?
The phenomena of online misogyny have immensely developed a plethora of repercussions against women and girls. Not only does it make the internet a less equal, less safe, or less inclusive space for them, technology-facilitated violence and harassment can also result in lasting effects experienced offline.5 For example, a 2017 Amnesty International poll found that 41 percent of women who had experienced online abuse or harassment have, at least on one occasion, felt that their physical safety was threatened.6
These reactions are also parallel to those who experienced them in virtual reality spaces such as metaverse. Katherine Cross, a researcher from the University of Washington, highlighted that when a person is immersed in a virtual reality interface that appears to be real, the toxic behavior in that environment is also real. She also added that “it is part of the reason why emotional reactions can be stronger in that space, and why VR triggers the same internal nervous system and psychological response.”7
Despite these warnings of how severe the effects can be, what makes it harrowing is that many are still dismissive of the real-life similarities of sexual harassment in virtual reality spaces. A journal published by the Digital Games Research Association noted that the act of groping in such spaces is “grappled with understanding [that] this act given the virtual and playful context it occurred in.” Some of these comments—gathered from Reddit responses—even expressed their disgust and skepticism as if stating the act of groping as a sexual assault or harassment is invoking “political correctness”.8
Furthermore, the rising number of sexual harassments in these spaces also begs the question of accountability and the extent of the jurisdiction. In essence, when it comes to such cases, platforms tend to be held accountable for moderating the interactions. However, when it comes to the notion of virtual reality, it might be tricky. Users’ anonymity and flexibility to roam around in a vast space can take some time for users to identify and report the perpetrators to the platform. In addition, the concept of “virtual groping” under the current law is still not considered an assault unless it is carried out in the physical world which can result in injury or attempted violence.9 In other words, the authorities might give little to no notice in responding to a report of sexual harassment that is coming from a virtual reality world.
In response to sexual harassment: current measures and suggestions
On a positive note, preventive measures to ensure the safety of users in virtual reality spaces have been implemented on various platforms by giving the users a sort of discretion to protect themselves. For instance, both sexual harassment cases experienced by Jordan Belamire in QuiVR and Meta’s Horizon Worlds beta tester have been responded to by the developers of each respective platform.10 With QuiVR, the developers inserted an in-game fix. By using it, users can stretch their arms into a V gesture (also known as a “power gesture”) to automatically push any offenders away. As for the latter, Horizon Worlds has a built-in safety tool called “Safe Zone”, which allows users to activate a protective bubble. While using it, other users cannot touch, talk, or interact in any way until it is deactivated.
Implementing these measures does give the users a sense of power in securing their own safety. However, the underlying issue of aggressors still roaming freely and possibly taking away that power still lingers. One way that developers can do to address this is by placing moderators. While doing so is the closest approach to observing and reporting sexual aggression, it is also crucial to implement real-time deterrents such as finding the perpetrator, which follows reporting and banning.
Another concern that needs to be addressed is the users’ well-being after experiencing sexual harassment. While disciplining the perpetrators are the first way to tackle the issue, keeping in touch with users who might be going through the after-effects of online sexual harassment is crucial. As such, Meta and other platforms that dwell with virtual reality could implement a built-in “help button” that provides psychological assistance for users. Although such measure has been done on other platforms such as dating apps11, it is a step in the right direction for developers to acknowledge that the problem is much more extensive than merely banning the perpetrators.
Going forward, as forms of interaction are becoming more digitally immersed with the emergence of the metaverse, the age-old problem of persistent misogyny and sexual harassment is not minimized but rather intensified. While preventive measures have been implemented, it is still not enough to counter the misogynistic culture that is heavily embedded in digital spaces—especially if discretion is given to the user. With that being said, it is not just up to the platforms to create safe spaces for fellow VR enthusiasts but also the communities within.
1. Vasilisin, R., 2021. Metaverse promises a boon for the global economy. Medium. Available at: https://medium.datadriveninvestor.com/metaverse-promises-a-boon-for-the-global-economy-700f0d7074a5 [Accessed January 18, 2022].
2. Harwell, D., 2021. A shadowy AI service has transformed thousands of women’s photos into fake nudes: ‘make fantasy a reality’. The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/10/20/deep-fake-nudes/ [Accessed January 18, 2022].
6. Amnesty International, 2021. Amnesty reveals alarming impact of online abuse against women. Amnesty International. Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/11/amnesty-reveals-alarming-impact-of-online-abuse-against-women-2/ [Accessed January 18, 2022].
7. Basu, T., 2021. The metaverse has a groping problem already. MIT Technology Review. Available at: https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/12/16/1042516/the-metaverse-has-a-groping-problem/ [Accessed January 18, 2022].