Trigger Warning: This article discusses incidences of sexual assault and harassment in the offline and online space. Readers may use their discretion with regard to reading, and opening links included in the piece.
In ‘A rape in Cyberspace‘,a widely quoted 1993 article from Village Voice, Julian Dibbell discussed what could be considered the world’s first incident of ‘virtual rape’. The incident in question happened on LambdaMOO, a MUD (multiplayer real-time virtual world), that was designed to provide users with a “vivid impression” of being and moving in a physical setting through the descriptive scripts that scroll on their screen and to enable them to interact with other users through texts. Dibbell’s article, which captured the incident and its impact on the victims of the cyber assault, sparked debates and discussions about the ‘real’ versus ‘virtual’ nature of sexual violence, and the need to reconsider rules that were shaping participation on the internet.
Years later, the debate has seen little satisfactory resolution. Meanwhile, an increase in various forms of online gender-based abuse, particularly on social media platforms, continues to make the internet a deeply unsafe, hostile space for women, reflecting and perpetuating many of the inequalities and prejudices of the offline world.
With the advent of immersive technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR), MUDs such as LambdaMoo have received a significant facelift. These technologies “immerse the users in an imaginary or a distant world” embodied in their avatars which move according to their commands, and allow them to feel the presence of other users and hear their voices, as if from close quarters. The heightened sense of corporeal presence they enable makes them far more tactile.
Consequently, it also renders any experience of cyber assault more visceral. When Jordan Belamire, a woman gamer, was groped by the avatar of another player just three minutes into the VR game, Quiver, she felt “the virtual groping just as real” and found it “scary as hell”. In another horrific incident, the digital avatar of a seven-year-old girl was gang-raped by two male avatars in Roblox, another VR gaming platform. Instances of unwanted kissing and passing of sexual comments have also been reported on different gaming and social VR platforms. These incidents show that immersive technologies enable newer forms of online behavior and abuse against women, closely resembling offline acts, which are not possible in the purely text/image/video-based online space.
Contrary to what one may think, these can no longer be dismissed as one-off incidents that could happen only in gaming spaces or highly sophisticated digital platforms. Immersive technologies are employed to build the next iteration of the Web – the Metaverse. The Metaverse is poised to be an enduring, shared, 3D virtual environment where digital avatars of people can meet, play, and interact in real time. Once a space predominantly occupied by gamers, today live concerts, sports matches, and weddings that boast of an immersive, interactive, and hyper-realistic user experience are hosted on Metaverse platforms.
When Jordan Belamire, a woman gamer, was groped by the avatar of another player just three minutes into the VR game, Quiver, she felt “the virtual groping just as real” and found it “scary as hell”.
The near-corporeal internet experience that the Metaverse offers complicates its already virulent problem of online gender-based violence. In their limited time of existence, Metaverse platforms have been the theatre of multiple incidents of sexual harassment, sexual assault, groping, stalking, etc., against female avatars, with the victims of these acts describing their experience as “horrible, shocking and disorienting”.
As the Metaverse promises to replicate real-world experiences, one needs to be conscious of the values that get embedded in the next iteration of the internet. Early indications of sexism in the Metaverse space were seen when the VR headsets sold by a major platform were found to be not designed for a comfortable viewing experience for women, and when the appearance of female avatars conformed to the stereotypical and sexualized depiction of female bodies. Equally concerning is to note the willingness of certain platforms to employ haptic vests that can transmit physical sensations of what is done to one’s avatar, without instituting safeguards against its impact on women from inappropriate touching and sexual assault. As more users are projected to spend a significant portion of their daily life on the Metaverse in the near future, and as companies develop products and services catered towards this new paradigm, we are staring at the future of digital space where the current tendencies of online misogyny and exclusion will be exacerbated and have new dimensions.
Understanding the Metaverse and its Affordances
The Metaverse envisions a future internet that is immersive and three-dimensional. Though there is no universally accepted definition of the Metaverse yet, a definition that is widely quoted as encapsulating its essence is provided by Matthew Ball:
“…a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.”
This definition alludes to a future version of the internet which is not really here yet. What we experience today as the Metaverse via “consumer-facing, interactive and immersive virtual platforms”, like Meta’s Horizon Worlds or Fortnite are only snippets of that future. These platforms create their own virtual worlds or spaces, where users represented by their digital avatars can engage in persistent communications that are synchronized in precise real-time to other users. But currently, these platforms are incapable of massive scale, and not interoperable.
Most major Metaverse platforms like Horizon World, Fortnite, Niantic Labs, etc., employ VR and AR to create 3D virtual social spaces where users can engage in a variety of person-to-person (or avatar-to-avatar) interactions like shopping, trading, attending events, partying etc. The mode of these interactions is not limited to texts or speech, and users can make their avatars engage in physical acts like running, dancing, and hitting. Some platforms also support the use of haptic vests that transmit tactile sensations to users. Fortnite users, used some of these affordances, to experience Marshmello’s concert from the comfort of their homes as their avatars danced and cheered using in-game emotes.
A user’s account of his experience on Meta’s Horizon World recants being transposed to a virtual hang-out room where he could speak with other floating avatars, watch their physical and emotional reactions, play games with them, barge into groups, or even potentially chase an avatar.
Three main features that distinguish the Metaverse experience from the current version of the internet are: immersion, active presence, and embodiment. Immersion might make the user feel as if they were in another environment, say, inside a rainforest, within range of the distant howling of an animal or the close chirping of birds. Active presence or “the illusion of non-mediation”, gives users the feeling of interacting with other users and objects as if they were physically with them. Embodiment, i.e., the feeling of one’s digital avatar as their physical body, allows anything that happens to the digital avatar to be processed as real bodily experience.
The combination of immersion, active presence, and embodiment enables users to perceive that they are in an alternative reality, where what they do and what is being done to them evokes the same bodily response and psychological stimuli produced from real experiences. This sense of embodiment has many use-benefits, such as “increased human connection, augmented empathy, and new opportunities for education”. But, it can also intensify the online violence, abuse, and harassment that has come to characterize the internet experience of many, by making their experience more visceral.
The combination of immersion, active presence, and embodiment enables users to perceive that they are in an alternative reality, where what they do and what is being done to them evokes the same bodily response and psychological stimuli produced from real experiences.
Situating the Metaverse as a Gendered Space
Many believed that the internet heralded the creation of an egalitarian experience, one devoid of the discrimination and violence found in the offline world and liberated from earthly constraints on self-expression – “a space where one can be or become anyone”. Central to these cyberutopian claims was the idea that the internet provided a disembodied space, i.e., a space where individuals could shed their bodies and associated gender, sexuality, ethnic, racial, religious, and other identities, and be “judged solely on their online presence, which they are able to carefully construct”. This meant an opportunity for women to escape the physical and social constraints of their gender identity and engage in gender subversions.
But a hole was pricked in this dream by a section of cyber-feminists who astutely observed that the principle of disembodiment, rather than erasing the inequalities and social norms from which an individual is expected to be removed from in the online space, will potentially essentialize them.
The internet space is neither a replacement for, nor is disentangled from the situated and lived experience of individuals. This is evident from the observed tendencies of users to put a lot of effort during online interactions to glean the age, sex, and location of other users.
But when it comes to the Metaverse, embodiment rather than disembodiment is the very promise. As Boellstorff has observed, in graphical virtual worlds “embodiment (has) become central to online selfhood”. Nevertheless, claims of disembodiment may still be raised. The Metaverse allows a person to take on an avatar that is quite different from their real personality; they may choose to look younger or older or a different gender or race. But as in the non-graphical virtual worlds, users tend to gender other users through their online interactions.
In fact, the Metaverse offers more scope for gendering as its technological infrastructure is designed for enabling real experiences and can give away identity signals that are more powerful and difficult to mask than on social media platforms. For instance, in a VR-powered Metaverse space, the voice and height of the avatar are often cited as key identity cues that give away the real gender of an avatar. As a result, it is found that women are more prone to harassment in VR spaces than others, as it is an identity that is easier to discern from available cues. Even if gendering is made difficult with technological advancements, if users feel compelled to hide their gender for a safe experience on the Metaverse, that speaks something about the inequalities and exclusions encoded in that space. Since the roots of immersive technologies that are used to build the Metaverse were first laid in the gaming space, the influence of the misogynistic and hypermasculinity culture of those spaces in today’s Metaverse platforms cannot be ignored. The rising reports of sexual assault and harassment against female avatars in many Metaverse platforms undoubtedly point to this influence.
Gender-based abuse on the Metaverse happens in unique and unexpected ways. They also take forms that may not be possible in the traditional online space such as groping, rape, and unwanted sexual advances against female-looking or female-sounding avatars. Female avatars also face verbal harassment in the form of threats and sexually lewd or suggestive comments. Environmental harassment such as masturbatory gestures by avatars or display of graphic content create an uncomfortable and obnoxious atmosphere for women on immersive platforms. It is anticipated that future forms of harassment could include hacking into another user’s account and using their avatar or creating an avatar resembling them and then performing acts of defilement or violence against the same. Researchers also warn about abuse such as revenge porn assuming a dangerous dimension on the Metaverse “through the potential for sharing 3D models based on real people”.
Any form of harassment on the Metaverse will feel more real and corporeal for the targeted user. For instance, verbal abuse on the Metaverse is relayed via a live audio feed, is synchronous, and is actually heard by the targeted user, and the effect is quite different from reading the same abusive message as a text. Further, the embodiment of users as digital avatars that move according to their bodily movements or instructions, can make them feel as if the avatar is an extension of their body. Due to this illusion of ownership of the virtual body, any touching, being crowded upon, or sexual advances can feel corporeal and an intrusion into one’s personal space. This experience is amplified also by the unique sensation of presence that the Metaverse environment creates through a combination of factors such as social richness, realism, and transportation that causes perceptual and psychological immersion of the user.
Even if gendering is made difficult with technological advancements, if users feel compelled to hide their gender for a safe experience on the Metaverse, that speaks something about the inequalities and exclusions encoded in that space.
Thus, we are witnessing the rise of another internet space that is already proving to be unsafe and capable of magnifying the harm from online violence. This points to the need for conscious value choices to be made by tech developers, designers, businesses, and governments to realize the potential of the next generation of the internet to be a liberating space for the disadvantaged and marginalized, not outside of their situated offline world and societal norms and structures, but despite it.
Platform Responses to Gender-based Abuse on the Metaverse
So far, responses of Metaverse developers to incidents of gender-based abuse on their platform have been largely unsatisfactory. Like in the case of social media networks, the burden to take safety measures and safeguard against such incidents is disproportionately put on women. The safety features introduced by major Metaverse platforms have been found to be ineffective, inaccessible, and difficult to use in time. For instance, Meta’s Horizon Worlds introduced a safety bubble feature that a user could activate when feeling threatened, within which no one can touch or interact with them unless the user lifts the bubble. However, when a female Meta tester was groped while playing a VR game in the Horizon Worlds, she, unfortunately, did not use this feature despite being aware of it as it was not “easy and findable”. That precisely is the problem when developers try to outsource the burden of safety to the users rather than address the structural issues that facilitate such abuses on their platform in the first place. Other purported safety features such as the option to turn off the video or audio of abusive users also follow the same logic. Further, many of these safety features that users can activate provide only post-facto relief and do very little to make the platforms a safe and inclusive space by default.
The groping incident led Meta to add a personal boundary feature in the Horizon Worlds that will create a four-foot distance between avatars by default. It is hoped that default measures like these will reduce the incidents of harassment without burdening the users to ensure their safety. But the effectiveness of this feature to reduce instances of sexual harassment on the Horizon Worlds is unclear due to lack of data.
Another set of responses by Metaverse platforms focuses on giving users more choice and control over their experiences, such as how they want their avatars to appear, and how they want to interact with other avatars and with the virtual environment. Additionally, as the author’s interview with an upcoming Indian Metaverse platform, Tiluf, informs, platforms are also developing a system whereby users can first chat with a person before deciding whether to engage with their avatars through video and audio.* Though this seems like a preventive measure that gives more agency to the users, in fact, this agency could be subverted to blame the victim for her harassment as something she invited, and exonerate the platform from any responsibility.
Yet another crucial area for platform response is reporting mechanisms and content moderation. Unlike social media platforms, reporting incidents of harassment on Metaverse platforms is difficult due to the ephemeral nature of the experience. As interactions happen in real-time, it is difficult to record or document evidence of bad behavior, which in turn makes reporting difficult. While in Meta’s Horizon Worlds, users’ most recent experiences are recorded in their VR device, recordings are sent to Meta only if a user reports abuse. This means that in contrast to what happens on Facebook or Instagram, proactive content moderation systems are not yet effective on Metaverse platforms. Andrew Bosworth, Meta’s Chief Tech Officer, is reported to have admitted in an internal memo that moderation in the Metaverse “at any meaningful scale is practically impossible”. Some Indian Metaverse platforms such as LOKA and Tiluf, also noted that it was not technically feasible for them at present to employ automated moderation techniques to detect bad behavior. **
Factors that are presented as difficulties for moderation on the Metaverse include (i) the wide range of content to be moderated such as digital media, virtual environment, and verbal and non-verbal communications between avatars, etc.; (ii) the different contexts or use cases for which the platform may be used such as socializing, gaming, professional meetings, etc., and the different norms of behavior applicable to these scenarios; and (iii) the level of immersion experienced by the user depending on whether they used fully immersive head-mounted displays, or 2D computer or mobile screens to access the platform.
In the absence of automated tools for moderation, many Metaverse platforms are seen to experiment with live moderators who go around the platform to enforce community guidelines and intervene if any untoward incident happens. However, the deployment of such moderators has been reported to have proved ineffective in meaningful moderation. The users of Horizon Worlds reported that there was an insufficient number of moderators, and those present were mostly seen in the main plaza giving information rather than monitoring user behavior. Further, the deployment of moderators tended to end up like “the hall monitor in middle school, meaning misbehavior resumed or increased once the monitor was out of sight”.
Moderating is a difficult task and moderators struggle to decide whether an avatar’s movement in virtual reality is meant to be a greeting or a form of sexual harassment. It requires, as a Metaverse bouncer described, “a delicate dance of guessing at motivations and making quick judgment calls”. What this also points to is a lack of guidance from platforms, both for users and moderators, on what counts as harassment and what acts are acceptable.
This indicates that in their uncritical focus on values such as entertainment, verisimilitude, and communicative potential, Metaverse platforms have failed to anticipate potential harmful behaviors that their platform affordances may encourage.
In sum, content moderation efforts by Metaverse platforms have so far proved to be rudimentary and unsatisfactory. This is not surprising given the terrible job that social media platforms have been doing on moderation of harmful content. The Metaverse adds complexity by necessitating the moderation of not just content, but behavior.
But claims of difficulty in developing moderation tools for the Metaverse should be critically assessed to ascertain whether these difficulties are due to technical impossibilities or lack of adequate investment and efforts by platforms. In fact, researchers indicate the potential of AI and ML tools to estimate and recognize posture and actions of avatars and to detect and classify cyberattacks in immersive environments. Platforms’ self-declared inability to moderate should also be seen in juxtaposition to news about a series of patents being granted to Meta for technologies to track users’ biometric data such as pupil movement, real-life facial and bodily movements, and poses in real-time, which could be used to make their virtual experiences more realistic, but which would also enable the company to monetize the platform through virtual advertising and product placement. Indeed, it would seem deep tech R&D into profit enhancing functions could be complemented with similar efforts to work towards harassment-free experience. But as with social media platforms, there is insufficient investment and initiative towards these areas. If anything, this is a coded statement about whose experience is prioritized over others, whose interests are enriched, and whose gets minimized or disregarded.
The Metaverse: A Wrongly Conceived Dream and the Way Forward
Societal experience with social media harms has made it amply clear that internet technologies and platforms are not value-neutral. Their responsibility cannot be argued away on the pretext that they did not architect for prejudice, especially when they do little to combat it. As documented cases demonstrate, Metaverse platforms also did not design to counter violence against women while it employed and developed technologies that would allow users to “do almost anything you can imagine”, including emulate real-life sexual acts and behavior. Even when harms manifest, platforms see them as acts of a few bad actors or risks that need to be somehow managed with reactive measures. Unfortunately, such measures also follow a sexist logic, rather than empowering women users to stake claim to the Metaverse space as equal participants. Further, as this discussion would indicate, monitoring user activities on the Metaverse is bound to be challenging, and requires nuanced, contextual, and culturally sensitive moderation tools and practices to be developed by platforms. But the current trajectory of development of Metaverse platforms does not look encouraging in terms of their motivation to engage with issues of equity and safety of women, and other marginalized and vulnerable groups.
Metaverse technologies are today at a stage when they are least regulated, resembling the idealized past of the internet represented by maximum freedom for the industry, and no accountability to the government or to the public. Simultaneously, we see the race of Big Tech companies to capitalize on this opportune moment of “limitless potential and lack of constraint” by making huge investments into the space, even at the cost of revenue loss. The race is explained by a desire to control the development of the infrastructure at the core of the Metaverse, and thereby control the future of the internet as well as innovate at break-neck speed when the space still remains unregulated.
If the history of the internet is any lesson, values such as equity, justice, and fairness will take a backseat in such a drive. To borrow Lisa Nakamura’s words, the “enticing promise” of the Metaverse is also “disturbing” for the exclusions, inequities, and violence it can engender as they operate on a logic of “futurity rather than sustainability”. Further, the fact that currently, the majority of the Metaverse platform users constitute males rather than females will likely determine whose interests get prioritized in innovations.
We need to be wary of an approach to the development of the Metaverse that centers the “celebration of chaos and perennial license” or one that puts Big Tech profit first. If the next generation of the internet is to be a truly inclusive space and promote democratic values, the development of the Metaverse should put women and marginalized communities at the center from the get go and consciously avoid perpetuating existing structural inequalities.
This can be ensured by instituting mechanisms for public scrutiny and public accountability through appropriate government regulation and oversight. Some jurisdictions such as the EU and India are reportedly thinking about regulating the Metaverse space, and these regulatory efforts need to be keenly watched for the values through which they seek to hold Metaverse platforms accountable.
*Interview with Yash Agarwal, Founder of Tiluf, on 10 September 2022.
**Interview with Krishnan Sunderarajan, Founder of LOKA, on 29 August 2022; and interview with Yash Agarwal, Founder of Tiluf, on 10 September 2022.