Why We Can’t Ignore What’s Happening to Women in Virtual Reality Today
There was yet another report of sexual assault in the metaverse
Last week, it was reported that British police are investigating a case of sexual assault in the metaverse, the virtual reality (VR) space that allows users to interact with each other.
It was filed by a 16-year-old girl who was left distressed after being sexually attacked by a group of adult men while playing a game. As one senior officer familiar with the case told the Daily Mail:
This child experienced psychological trauma similar to that of someone who has been physically raped. There is an emotional and psychological impact on the victim that is longer term than any physical injuries.
A similar thing happened previously to Nina Jane Patel, a psychotherapist who conducts research on the metaverse. She described the experience of being ‘verbally and sexually harassed’ and then ‘virtually gang raped’ as a ‘surreal nightmare.’ But when Patel came forward with her story at the end of 2021, it was met with a mountain of criticism, including assertions that ‘it wasn’t real’ and she could’ve just ‘taken her headset off.’
The latest incident, unsurprisingly, sparked similar reactions.
But the bad news is, these are not isolated cases. Officers investigating the attack on the 16-year-old pointed out that sexual offending in the virtual sphere is now ‘rife’ and that these spaces are becoming breeding grounds for predators.
Well. This is even more worrying when you consider the entirety of what’s happening to women and girls online today.
Following the news about yet another sexual assault in the metaverse, I’ve also seen some people compare it to being killed in a battle or zombie survival video games. ‘It’s to be expected,’ they claimed.
Only if you start playing a game full of human brain-hungry zombies or that involves having to fight others, you definitely can expect to be virtually killed at some point because that’s the whole premise of the experience. And you have consented to it.
There’s no reason anyone should ‘expect’ to be sexually harassed or assaulted in a virtual space like the metaverse that’s explicitly dedicated to socialising and creating new worlds, though. Even more so since it doesn’t have any age restrictions.
Unfortunately, this is often the same narrative and the same level of dismissiveness we hear when discussing other types of online gender-based violence, like cyber-stalking, doxing, astroturfing, reception of unwanted images or sexually explicit content and non-consensual dissemination of intimate images, including AI-generated deepfakes.
All of which have been well-documented in recent years.
And all of which seem to be getting worse.
According to a global study by The Economist Intelligence Unit, 38% of women have experienced some form of online violence, and 85% have witnessed it happening to other women. The number is even higher among specific demographics, like female journalists — 73% of them have experienced some form of it in the course of their work — and young women and girls — 58% have experienced it.
And although that isn’t to say men don’t experience harassment online — which seems to be particularly prevalent in gaming — most of the abuse that’s sexual in nature and happens because of a person’s gender is indeed directed at women and girls.
When it comes to deepfakes, this is even more clear-cut. A deepfake monitoring firm, Sensity, found that more than 95% of deepfake content circulating online in 2020 was non-consensual and pornographic in nature, and 90% featured women and girls. It likely got worse since then.
A few months ago, I wrote about twenty-eight Spanish teenage girls who received naked photos of themselves after boys in their class used AI-powered ‘nudifying’ apps to make them. But even though the images weren’t ‘real’, the distress at seeing them was. Several of the victims’ parents reported that their daughters felt humiliated, deeply uncomfortable and disturbed.
It doesn’t matter that what we read or see online, whether in virtual reality, on social media or through messaging apps, might not be ‘real.’ It doesn’t matter that you can log off or put away your VR headset or phone. It clearly has some emotional and psychological impact.
But what if one day we can’t even do that? Log off or disconnect?
What if virtual reality becomes a substitute for the material world?
Recent research from experts at The Institution of Engineering and Technology suggests that the next generation of children will spend as much as ten years in VR throughout their lifetime. This amounts to roughly 2 hours 45 minutes per day.
Yet the same report found that most parents of young children — aged 5 to 10 — don’t understand what VR actually entails. When it comes to parents whose children already interact within these spaces, over a quarter admitted they didn’t know what happens there.
And yes, many kids do use it already. According to estimates by the UK’s leading children’s charity, NSPCC, 15% of children aged 5 to 10 use a virtual reality headset and 6% use it daily. On top of that, some estimates also suggest that Gen Alphas — children born after 2010 — spend more of their free time online than in reality.
There’s no denying we’re ushering into an increasingly online, increasingly virtual future.
And what we do today — and, perhaps more importantly, what we do not — about the harmful behaviours prevalent in those spaces is bound to set precedence for what will come.
If we keep dismissing the issue of gender-based online and virtual violence, as some people and tech companies routinely do, and keep using the very same victim-blaming rhetoric real-world sexual violence victims are all too familiar with, it will likely only get worse. And the digital world will become an extension of the abuse, harassment, misogyny, sexism and unwanted hypersexualisation women and girls already experience in the real world. An extension of the patriarchy.
Well, to a certain extent, that’s already happening.
But if the next generations of young boys learn not only that there are no consequences for their actions online but that women’s consent and autonomy are essentially optional, wouldn’t that eventually also start seeping into the real world? And even potentially exacerbate real-world violence?
Then there’s another rarely talked about consequence of all this online abuse: the silencing of female voices and presence.
Over the years, I’ve talked with many fellow writers, journalists, researchers and content creators, as well as victims of AI deepfakes, all of whom have first-hand experience of what it means to be a woman online. And while most continue to publish online today, some chose to opt out of online presence altogether due to how mentally and emotionally draining and, in some cases, even traumatising the experience was for them.
But as our lives become increasingly virtual, which will likely mean that everything else becomes increasingly virtual, too — like politics, business and other parts of public life — this silencing of women and their presence in this Brave New Online World could have devastating repercussions.
Once again, women could become the ‘other.’
Tech critic Tristan Harris once said in an interview that ‘technology feels disempowering because we haven’t built it around an honest view of human nature.’ And I couldn’t agree more.
Technoptimists would have us believe that if we only allow unchecked technological growth, it will solve all of humanity’s problems and create a world of infinite abundance for everyone in no time. (Sounds like something else we’ve heard before, haven’t we? Something that starts with ‘trickle’ and ends with ‘down.’)
However, we do know that the technologies we build, just like our human nature, aren’t free of flaws and biases. If anything, they tend to reflect humanity’s best and worst right back at us, often in distorted or amplified ways.
Understanding that is having an honest view of ourselves. Of our own imperfections. And the technology we create.
But we don’t exactly seem to have reached that point yet.
Or we do and don’t care.
And that’s probably because biases, flaws and limitations in modern technology don’t affect everyone the same way. First and foremost, they affect children, women and other marginalised groups. But if you consider that in organisations currently shaping metaverse standards, 90% of leadership roles are held by men, it sadly makes sense why there is less focus on prioritising safety and keeping pace with the risks these technologies pose than there should be.
Sure, in all fairness, there are already some safeguards. According to a spokesperson for Meta, the metaverse has ‘an automatic protection called personal boundary, which keeps people you don’t know a few feet away from you.’ But clearly, for whatever reason, that didn’t stop the men who recently virtually attacked the 16-year-old girl in the UK.
Whether this case will even end up being prosecuted is yet another thing. The country’s new Online Safety Bill, a year-old set of laws aimed at protecting children and adults online, focuses more on the content users post than their actions. But while regulators, policymakers and tech companies shouldn’t dismiss these incidents and the dark possibilities lurking within those virtual worlds, updating our laws and making these environments safer isn’t enough.
Unless we also address the patriarchal culture of misogyny that so often poisons young boys’ and men’s minds and justifies the mistreatment and abuse of women, whether online or offline, I doubt we’ll get far.
There’s another aspect that people dismissing the abuse women, and particularly younger women and girls, experience online as ‘not real’ seem to miss. If you were born before or around 2000, VR and the Internet, in general, might indeed seem ‘less real.’
I’m an early 90s kid and still remember when the Internet was just in one ‘place,’ which you accessed sometimes, for a short amount of time, and then left behind. It seemed to be contained in an ugly-looking beige box in your parent’s bedroom or school’s computer room or local library.
Today, the online world isn’t a single ‘place’ anymore. It’s almost everywhere, we carry it with us almost all the time on our smart devices, and the lines between physical and digital realities start to blur.
Still, I don’t think any of us truly know how the younger generation, Gen Alphas, perceive this online universe. How ‘real’ it feels to them. And how much more ‘real’ will it get as VR technology will, inevitably, advance and become more accessible and sophisticated.
But I do know that insisting ‘it’s not real’ does no favour to anyone, apart from those who seek to hurt and abuse others under the cover of relative anonymity.
The Noösphere is a reader-supported publication. If you like my work and want to support it, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber, or you can buy me a coffee.