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‘Repeated rape threats’: Sexual violence and racist abuse in the metaverse

‘Repeated rape threats’: Sexual violence and racist abuse in the metaverse
A spokesperson for Meta claims they had recently introduced a “new personal boundary” that eases the process of dodging “unwanted interactions”, reports Maya Oppenheim

Sexual harassment exists in all walks of life and the metaverse is no exception. However, experts warn the immersive, all-consuming nature of virtual reality means sexual violence has worse repercussions than harassment in other digital landscapes. reports

Nina Jane Patel, a psychotherapist who conducts research on the metaverse, has first-hand experience of sexual violence in the metaverse. The 43-year-old mother-of-four recently revealed her “surreal nightmare” of being “gang raped” in virtual reality.

The metaverse refers to 3D virtual reality that simulates real-life, containing holographic avatars and video. “You are literally stepping into a 360 degree digital environment,” Ms Jane Patel tells The Independent. “It is more than texts on a screen. Because virtual reality has been designed to be as real as possible it is similar to inviting someone into your living room so the violation feels more acute than it would feel on a social media platform.”

Ms Jane Patel, who lives in London, first revealed the sexual violence she suffered in a medium post at the end of December – explaining her response to the incident felt like it had happened in real life due to the technological advances of simulation. She said she was left “shocked” after between three and four avatars attacked her in the metaverse.

“I recently shared my experience of sexual harassment in Facebook/Meta’s Venues,” Ms Jane Patel, who was in Facebook’s metaverse named Horizon Venues when the incident occurred, said. “Within 60 seconds of joining — I was verbally and sexually harassed — 3–4 male avatars, with male voices, essentially, but virtually gang-raped my avatar and took photos — as I tried to get away they yelled — ‘don’t pretend you didn’t love it’ and ‘go rub yourself off to the photo’.”

Reflecting on the ordeal in an interview with The Independent, she said she was greatly anxious incidents similar to what she endured were happening widely. “I continue to share this story because of the impact it will have on future generations who will feel vulnerable in the metaverse,” she added.

She said she was previously asked if she felt justice was served after the incident, which made her realise she had never expected the perpetrators to be held accountable, noting there was “something inherently wrong” with her response.

“Sexual harassment and violence is a big problem in the metaverse in its current state,” Ms Jane Patel reflected. “I’ve had several women get in touch to say they have experienced sexual harassment in the metaverse. One woman said a perpetrator made sexual advances in the metaverse. Only after reading my article did she feel confident to go back but her hands were trembling.”

Ms Jane Patel, who researches the psychological and physiological impact of immersive experiences, said online reviews of Horizon Worlds include many people sharing stories of sexual harassment they have endured. She argued as the internet has evolved, anonymity has been prioritised over accountability. But it is now time to “learn from mistakes”, she added, warning of the damage that would emerge if problems in the metaverse are not addressed. Parents must speak up about issues with the metaverse given it is likely to occupy a key part of their children’s lives, she warned.

“I have talked to many women who since the dawn of the internet are shrugging off sexual advances, harassment, and verbal assaults on a daily basis,” she added. “And accept it as weirdos on the internet. But we are coming to a time we can no longer accept this, because of the embodied, all-immersive, nature of the metaverse, which is a multi-sensory experience.”

She questioned why “hate, misogyny, and violence” is permitted to perpetuate digital realms – adding that this ultimately “validates” the phenomenon. In her view, violent acts in virtual reality would possibly lead to a rise in incidents in the physical realm. “We must have a zero-tolerance approach, as we develop a safer metaverse, for the sake of our children,” she said. “These impressionable and still maturing minds are at risk of mental and emotional degradation if we don’t take safety in the metaverse seriously and make sure the correct safeguards are in place for our children to truly benefit from the tech.”

While the metaverse is still in its early stages, Facebook has created a metaverse, with Mark Zuckerberg changing Facebook parent company’s name to Meta in a bid to hone his energies on constructing the metaverse.

A spokesperson for Meta said they had recently introduced a “new personal boundary” that eases the process of dodging “unwanted interactions” such as this.

“We are sorry this happened,” the representative added. “We want everyone in Horizon Venues to have a positive experience, to easily find the safety tools that can help them – and help us investigate and take action. Horizon Venues should be safe, and we are committed to building it that way. We will continue to make improvements as we learn more about how people interact in these spaces, especially when it comes to helping people report things easily and reliably.”

Ms Jane Patel’s comments come after research into the metaverse carried out by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate discovered 100 potential violations of Meta’s policies for virtual reality in the space of 11 hours and 30 minutes of recordings of people’s conduct in the app – with this translating to once every seven minutes.

The study, conducted in December last year, saw researchers closely analyse VRChat, which is the most popular social app that can be purchased in Meta’s VR app store. The report revealed abusive behaviour included “minors being exposed to graphic sexual content, bullying, harassment and abuse of other users, including minors, minors being groomed to repeat racist and extremist messages, threats of violence, and content mocking the 9/11 terror attacks.”

Researchers at the centre said: “The reporting system wasn’t fit for purpose: we could only lodge reports in the moderation system for 51 of these 100 incidents. None of these 51 reports of abusive behaviour, including sexual harassment of minors, were acknowledged by Meta in any way.”

Callum Hood, who is the organisation’s head of research, and was closely involved in the study, concluded sexual harassment is a problem in the metaverse, with other types of hatred and abuse also prevalent.

“We saw people sexually harassing people who said they were minors,” Mr Hood told The Independent. “Users in one group chat were sending hardcore pornography to the group. Users were bragging about imposing that on other users. They were deliberately moving from one world to another world or one group chat to another to target users with this porn.”

Mr Hood spent a great deal of time exploring the metaverse and observing users’ behaviours for the research as he warned his experience had not filled him “with a compulsion” to return. He described an incident where two male users followed female users around sexually harassing them. In his own words, “crowding them, stalking them, looking at them closely, breathing on them” – adding that the users appeared to have deliberately logged on to do so.

“There were a number of examples where users threaten to rape other users,” Mr Hood said. “In some cases, they would threaten repeatedly. We also had a couple of cases in which users would quite aggressively demand social media contact details for another user – sometimes getting other users protesting saying: ‘You know I’m a minor’. Typically it was men to women.”

He cited another worrying example of an older teenager racially abusing other users as well as successively coercing a younger teen to use the N-word. Some of the behaviour he witnessed made him concerned about the mental health of the user perpetrating it, he added. In his view, all of these issues are compounded by the fact the platform is used by so many young teenagers.

“Meta has deliberately set the minimum age of 13 plus,” he explained. “Young people are a key audience. Some of them appeared to even be below the minimum age. In some cases their voice or tone appeared to be substantially younger than 13. There was a user who appeared to be very young who was abused by lots of other users. There are no effective age controls.”

He said he encountered two users striving to educate younger users why it is wrong for white people to marry black people. If meta refuse to take these issues of harassment and abuse seriously, the problem is “going to get worse and worse”, he concluded, explaining he is worried Meta is only “slowly grindingly” sitting up and paying attention to problems. “There are already people who are grasping the new opportunities posed by the metaverse and VR to abuse and harass people and spread hatred,” he said.

Elena Martellozzo, Associate Professor in Criminology at Middlesex University’s Centre for Child Abuse and Trauma Studies, argued that while benefits of the metaverse include a sense of anonymity and freedom to play, there are downsides due to the metaverse potentially heightening the lack of inhibition people sometimes display in digital spheres.

“The disinhibition process, which is a psychological term, refers to the fact you become less inhibited online when you don’t have that face to face interaction,” Ms Martellozzo said. “Even in emails, people can be a little bit more frank and borderline aggressive. If the conversation was happening face to face, people would be way more cautious. The metaverse enhances this disinhibition process even more greatly. And it makes it feel even more real for whoever is interacting.”