I was raped in virtual reality – trust me when I say it’s very real

I was raped in virtual reality
I was raped in virtual reality

I was in the lobby area for less than a minute before I was attacked. Three or four men set upon me at once, verbally harassing then sexually assaulting me. When I tried to get away, they pursued me.

That this crime was committed in the virtual world of the metaverse, rather than the physical world, did not diminish its impact on me as an adult. So I can easily imagine how it might affect a child.

This week, it was reported that British police are investigating a case of rape in the metaverse for the first time. The attack was allegedly carried out against a girl under the age of 16, who is said to have been left distraught. Although it was the child’s avatar – or a digital representation of her – who was allegedly gang-raped, and she herself did not suffer physical injuries, this doesn’t mean it didn’t cause immense trauma and suffering.

As President of Research at Kabuni (a safe metaverse), and a doctoral researcher at the University of Reading, I have been researching the virtual world for the past six years. I am doing a PhD on the psychological and physiological responses of children and young people in virtual reality. So when what was then called Horizon Venues (now Horizon Worlds) launched on the Meta platform in 2021, I was curious to explore it.

The metaverse is essentially a virtual universe combining elements of augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and the internet to create a space where users can interact in a computer-generated environment. The technology has advanced over decades and now offers a deep sense of immersion. In the metaverse, users can engage in a wide range of activities, from gaming and social gatherings to professional meetings using avatars or digital representations of themselves.

As technology advances, the metaverse is becoming more accessible and sophisticated, blurring the lines between physical and digital realities.

Scepticism and misogyny

My attack – and this young girl’s alleged experience may have been similar – happened so fast.

My heart was racing and a sense of panic bubbled up inside, just as it would if the attack had occurred in the physical world. I entered fight-or-flight mode. Even though I was physically in my living room in London, wearing a headset and experiencing this all in virtual reality, my response was similar to if I’d been attacked in the street.

When you put on a headset and enter a virtual world, you’re engaging from the top of your head to the tips of your toes with other avatars in the virtual environment. The technology has developed such that it feels very authentic and natural. It feels and is perceived as very real.

Following my own experience, I felt compelled to share it on my blog as a cautionary tale. My aim was to raise awareness about these risks, understanding that I was likely not the first, nor would I be the last, to encounter such issues. It was important for me to help other parents recognise the possibility of their children facing harm in the virtual world.

But while some readers were supportive, my story met with much scepticism from others. Some told me that what I had been through wasn’t “real”. Others said that it was to be expected; that I should have just removed my headset to put an end to it (which is what I did do after my attempt to get away had failed). There were even lots of misogynistic comments about how I “deserved it”.

It was the same old victim-blaming story that plays out in the real world: the equivalent of “just don’t wear the miniskirt and high heels”.

I knew what I had felt, but I started to question myself: I must have done something wrong; been in the wrong space; clicked the wrong button. I started to blame myself; perhaps this brave young girl who reported the alleged incident to the police did as well.

Don’t dismiss the dangers

But of course, the blame lies elsewhere: with those who enter virtual spaces to behave in ways they might not in the physical world.

It lies with people who feel free to commit acts such as sexual assault in the metaverse, knowing they can get away with it, under the cover of relative anonymity.

A spokesman for Meta has said that “the kind of behaviour described has no place on our platform, which is why for all users we have an automatic protection called personal boundary, which keeps people you don’t know a few feet away from you”. But the platforms themselves need to do more to prioritise safety.

Unlike in the physical world, there’s a lack of clear and enforceable rules in the metaverse. Users aren’t held to account for their actions as they are in real life. Currently, children encounter racism, homophobia, and sexual harassment, either directed at them personally or at others. The potential exposure of children to violent content, the risk of desensitisation, and the fear that this environment could foster online disinhibition, which refers to the tendency of individuals to detach a certain degree of responsibility from their online actions, is a significant concern.

It won’t be easy for police to investigate crimes in these spaces. They would need to find offenders’ IP addresses and track them down. They would also need to find proof the attack took place, which is far harder than when policing text-based offences such as online bullying and harassment. Unless metaverse crime has been recorded, finding evidence will be challenging.

This technology is so new, there is still a lot for law enforcement to learn. But I’ve no doubt this will increasingly become an area of crime that requires their attention.

We’re still grappling with the harms of social media, but it’s time to understand the metaverse our children will increasingly move in. It is no longer science fiction but part of life, and we owe it to young people not to shrug off the dangers and dismiss them as “not real” or “just online”.

It’s difficult to truly comprehend the impact of the kind of “virtual” attack I endured until you’ve experienced it yourself. However, trust me when I say it’s very real. We need to start treating it with the seriousness it deserves.

As told to Rosa Silverman

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