Sexual assault in the Metaverse: the beginning of a dark new future?


As a police investigation of a recent sexual assault case in the Metaverse is launched, Heather Gosling (She/her) asks: what is being done to keep VR safe?

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By Heather Gosling

CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses instances of verbal sexual harrassment and physical sexual assault in the Metaverse
Meta has described the metaverse as “the next evolution in social connection and the successor to the mobile internet”, and a place where “virtual reality lets you explore new worlds and shared experiences”. However, recently a 16 year old girl had a very different experience in this VR world. Meta has repeatedly come under fire for its lack of online safety: a recent lawsuit against them suggested Meta caused a “national youth mental health crisis”. However, when this lack of online safety leaks into the metaverse, it puts individuals in even greater danger.
British police are investigating the case of a 16 year old girl who was attacked by several men in the metaverse while playing a VR interactive game. It is the first investigation into virtual rape in the UK, and as such, has prompted much discussion online. Many comments on Instagram have suggested that the girl could have  ‘just taken her headset off’. However, these comments ignore the psychological trauma of the attack. A common response to sexual violence is to ‘freeze up’ which could make the girl unable to remove her headset. Furthermore, the immersive quality of the Metaverse makes it difficult to distinguish between reality and the game – making the effects very real indeed.
Another recent case of sexual assault in the metaverse has been detailed by Nina Jane Patel, award winning technologist and researcher. She recalls being verbally and sexually harassed by three to four male avatars, with male voices, who essentially, but virtually, gang-raped my avatar and took photos’. Patel describes the psychological and physiological effects of this assault as being “as though they happened in real life”.
Many people have commented that if police start investigating cases of sexual assault in the metaverse, there will be fewer resources to investigate rape cases in real life. Whilst the lack of prosecution of rapists in real life is a very important issue that needs tackling, sexual assault cases in the metaverseneed to be criminalised and legislation revised. Current legislation requires physical contact to take place as a prerequisite for sexual assault. However, due to the introduction of suits that simulate physical touch, the lines between reality and VR are blurred. The feeling of being groped in VR can be as impactful as a real life interaction. When users feel able to commit sexual assault in a VR space, they may be likely to be perpetrator in real life too.
The metaverse is a developing world, and without safety regulations, acts of virtual sexual assault will become more common. Meta has implemented a ‘Safe Zone’, a bubble that users can activate if they feel threatened: this prevents other users from touching or interacting with them. However, this ‘preventative measure’ is not well thought out and clearly is not helping to prevent cases of sexual assault. This measure was launched in 2022, and it has failed to prevent cases of sexual assault. The measure is not preventative enough because a user may not be able to activate the bubble in time, or they may freeze up, and even if they did, the onus of responsibility should not fall on the victim.
This recent case of rape in the metaverse will be a test of the UK government’s new ‘Online Safety Bill’. This bill passed through parliament a year ago, and aims to protect children and adults online. However, some argue that this bill does not go far enough, and the companies responsible for creating VR platforms like Meta should introduce more safety regulations to protect users in online spaces. The lack of moderation in these VR worlds has given disturbing behaviours of sexual harassment and verbal abuse a place to thrive. Governments and private companies, like Meta, need to introduce regulations that protect VR from being abused by dangerous individuals. However, trying to create legislation for the metaverse remains a challenge because the virtual world transcends geographical boundaries, making it difficult to prosecute individuals. Whilst it is ultimately Meta’s responsibility to regulate the platform that they created, the government also needs to hold them to account through stronger law enforcement. The metaverse needs to be regulated, or else a dark new future could be on the horizon.
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