Sex in the Metaverse: A New Space with Old Problems
Will virtual social platforms help or hinder sexual expression?
Whether their developers were ready for it or not, sex has already come to the metaverse.
It may not look like the sex we're used to, especially as many avatars currently lack lower extremities. But this lack of genitals hasn't prevented people from finding unique ways to erotically interact with one another.
Unfortunately, this includes non-consensual sex.
What does this mean to virtual social platforms, and how might the companies behind them react as the metaverse evolves?
To each their own metaverse
Coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, a metaverse is another take on William Gibson's cyberspace. It’s a virtual representation of the Internet people jack into to do business, play games, socialize, and have sex.
Meta, formerly known as Facebook, is one of several companies aiming to do the same. In the process, they've garnered good and bad press, such as the United States government ordering a metaverse casino to cease selling NFTs for failing to disclose its connection to the Russian government.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is working on its own version. Though for them, it is less trying to design an entire metaverse from scratch and more expanding on their already well-known Mesh collaboration platform.
“Don't pretend you didn't love it”
Last year, an arguably more disturbing incident took place in Meta. After logging on, Nina Jane Patel said she was almost immediately sexually assaulted by a group of male-voiced avatars.
Patel writes, “As I tried to get away, they yelled, ‘Don't pretend you didn't love it and ‘Go rub yourself off to the photo.'”
Vice also reported a beta tester of Horizon Worlds, Meta’s first metaverse attempt, was similarly accosted. About her experience, she wrote, “Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense.”
When Meta finally responded to the incident, they claimed it was due to the beta tester's failing to use the platform's interaction-blocking feature. A statement Vice pointed out as textbook victim-blaming.
Virtually new sex
It's possible Meta and other social media companies' inability to deal with inappropriate sexual activity stems from their failure to grasp how imaginative people can be when it comes to sex.
Not that the industry's track record was good to begin with, though. Looking at Meta, their unwillingness or inability to prevent the spread of misinformation, hate speech, and criminal activity while blocking access to LGBTQIA support groups and sexual health resources is well known.
But companies have at least tried to address the issue. TechTarget noted that Meta has implemented a system to keep avatars from getting too close to one another. While Microsoft has disabled their AltspaceVR hub to attempt to curb sexual harassment.
The metaverse needs new policies
To paraphrase that line from Jurassic Park, sex, virtual or otherwise, will always find a way.
Instead of consistently trying and failing to police their sites, metaverse companies should be encouraged to understand the difference between consensual and non-consensual sex.
Rather than relying on searches for sexual words or phrases and automatically blocking whoever uses them, companies could instead set up a system that considers the context. For example, when used in conjunction with violent language versus when using them is mutually agreed upon.
Regrettably, social media companies aren't exactly eager to reinvent their moderation policies. Or at least not without outside pressure, that is.
If companies continue to be thoughtless, their metaverses will likely collapse into chaotic and frustrating messes—virtual environments where healthy sexual behavior is suppressed while toxic behavior is allowed to thrive.
The most effective way to prevent this is to make them accept real and not virtual reality: Sex is here to stay and they have a responsibility to make sure it's safe and consensual.
Image sources: Barbara Zandoval