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We Need to Talk about Virtual Sexual Assault

Harassment and unwanted groping aren’t problems limited to the “real world.”

Two people sit wearing VR headsets.

Author Jordan Belamire provoked public debate on the nature of virtual sexual assault last year when she wrote about an unwelcome experience in virtual reality.

As she marveled at the breathtaking mountain fortress in the zombie-shooting archery game QuiVR, another gamer began to chase her around the map. He made groping motions at where her breasts and crotch would be, until she gave up and yanked off the headset.

Virtual worlds are supposed to be places that open up new possibilities. But as Belamire discovered, the sexual harassment common in the real world also extends into online gaming.

But does what happened to Belamire constitute sexual assault? And should it be criminalized? Legal philosopher John Danaher of the University of Galway, Ireland, takes on these on questions in his paper The Law and Ethics of Virtual Sexual Assault.

What is virtual sexual assault?

In Danaher’s opinion, unwanted sexual acts in the virtual realm can indeed be viewed as assault” and we may need new laws to cover them.

The law lecturer has previously weighed in on similar controversies surrounding new technologies, examining arguments regarding the criminalization of robotic rape and child sex robots. In those cases, too, he suggested we may need to expand our legal framework to keep pace with developments.

In order to grapple with the ethical ramifications of virtual sexual assault, Danaher proposes the following definition for the term: “An unwanted, forced, or nonconsensual sexually explicit behaviour performed by virtual characters, to one another, acting through representations in a virtual environment”.

It’s somewhat vague, but allows room for several variables that aren’t present in the real world. For example, in virtual worlds, the “virtual characters” that act as perpetrators and victims don’t have to be humans; they can also be purely virtual non-player characters.

Another difference is that “virtual environments” can have different modes of immersion. At one end of the spectrum are simple text-based games; at the other are virtual reality experiences that use haptic technologies to send physical sensations over the Internet.

It’s pretty clear that some of these cases aren’t candidates for criminalization. When non-player characters assault each other, for example, no real harm is done. At least for now, non-player characters aren’t thinking or conscious beings.

But what about cases that involve human-controlled avatars and immersive environments?

Criminalization

In Belamire’s account, she described her experience as causing real psychological effects. Even though there was no physical contact, the simulated assault felt all too real.

As Danaher argues, these psychological effects seem to affirm the idea that sexual assault isn’t only a physical act, dependent on brute physical force. It’s also social, involving ascribed meanings such as behavior that communicates non-consent.

Since such acts have real effects, some cases of virtual sexual assault could be considered public wrongs, and therefore suitable candidates for criminalization. This would be especially true in instances that involve haptic technologies, which minimize the psychological distance between our real and virtual bodies.

Yet when it comes to the question of whether existing laws could be used to cover unwanted sex acts, the matter becomes somewhat trickier. In some cases, Danaher speculates, current laws could probably be used to cover certain instances of sexual assault in virtual worlds.

But they might have to be broadened to remove the element of physical contact. On the other hand, given the differences between possible kinds of virtual sexual assault, it might be better to create a new class of offense, one that discriminates between them.

Either way, Danaher concludes, we need to consider reforming existing laws.

A conversation we need to have

Danaher’s latest research paper offers a nuanced foundation for future discussions of virtual sexual assault, and argues convincingly that it’s a conversation we need to have. Augmented and virtual realities are coming, whether we’ve made up our minds about the meaning and effects of virtual acts or not.

In the meantime, it may be up to developers to protect users in their games. After Belamire published her article, the creators of QuiVR added a “personal bubble” option that makes the hands of other users disappear when they get too close. The VR social platform Altspace has done the same.

It seems a shame we need these measures. But they may be an important step forward in making virtual social platforms and games accessible to everyone.

Image sources: blueteak, Guido van Nispen

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