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The recent groping incident has also raised questions about whether and how Meta will be keeping a log of such offenders, and what measures will the company take to ban users that are a threat to others. Pic: Pixabay

Why 'groping' someone in virtual reality is counted as ‘sexual’ assault

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A beta user for the virtual reality platform “Horizon Worlds” on Meta — the company formerly known as Facebook — claims she was groped by a complete stranger in the virtual environment earlier this month. “Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense,” she wrote on the official Horizon group on Facebook, describing her ordeal. “Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behavior which made me feel isolated in the Plaza.”

Meta — or the Metaverse — can be described as a gigantic multiplayer platform built-in virtual reality, where people can interact with each other. Horizon Worlds — a “social experience where you can explore, play and create” — is the company’s first-ever virtual-reality social media platform that opened up its beta testing earlier this month; a person requires a Facebook account to access the platform, which can accommodate up to 20 users (in their avatar form) to hang out, create, build and game — all of it virtually. Horizon Worlds also allows users to “design worlds of your own or get to know other members of the community and be inspired by their creations.”

However, the recent groping incident on the seemingly hunky-dory platform seems to have opened up a slew of safety and security concerns for virtual reality aficionados. Experts state that such instances of sexual assault in the virtual platform can be as triggering as similar real-world experiences—and in some cases—even more traumatic. Such incidents can further hamper the victim’s ability to socially, as well as romantically, interact with people.

Although Vivek Sharma, the Vice-President of Horizon, described the groping incident as “absolutely unfortunate,” Meta’s internal review of the incident found that the beta user should have used the “Safe Zone” tool to activate a protective bubble around her avatar, which would prevent people from touching or interacting with them in any sort of way until the user lifted the safety feature. Sharma further told The Verge that a report of the incident was still “good feedback” for the company because he wants to make the blocking feature “trivially easy and findable”

When asked if groping someone (an avatar) in the virtual world counts as sexual assault, even though there is no physical touching involved, Dr. Avinash D’Souza, President of the Bombay Psychiatric Society, said: “This (incident of groping in virtual reality) is another form of sexual harassment because the virtual avatar that is hanging out is an extension of the user. The avatar is practically and technically the user hanging out there in virtual reality, in whatever animation or avatar of theirs. If somebody is trying to grope you or trying to touch you inappropriately in virtual reality—then it is indirectly being directed at you.”

Dr D’Souza pointed out that much like in real life, the perpetrator of an act of sexual harassment in the virtual world could be someone that knows the user or is a complete stranger. “Though there might not be a legal definition of things in the virtual reality space…such an incident will count as sexual harassment..”

When asked if a victim of sexual assault in the virtual world could bring back such trauma from the virtual world to the real world, he said: “It depends on how involved they were in their VR persona.” Referencing the popular and once-banned multiplayer mobile game PUBG, D’souza says that as part of this game, gamers would take on a persona that is similar to their avatar—“and even go into a psychotic element while playing.” According to him, the same thing happens in VR. “If a user feels that the avatar he/she has created is the perfect embodiment of the self that they want—and looks at the avatar as an extension of himself/herself—that is when a concern arises. If I am virtually groped in the latter situation, then I tend to embody and feel what is actually happening there. There are a lot of people who have a very fuzzy boundary between reality and VR, and in such cases, the user ends up bringing back the trauma into the real world.”

Dsouza cites that both—being groped in real life as well as VR—can lead to psychological trauma. However, the intensity and severity of it may vary. “We need to regulate such virtual worlds because there is going to be an entire younger generation, for whom, VR is going to be a big part of their lives. For people like me (of my age), we can go into VR worlds and have our little fantasy and come back—but for a lot of people out there, the virtual world is an extension of their regular world.” He added: “VR is here to stay. And the more we use it, the more we are going to look at it as an extension of ourselves. How much access of our true selves ourselves do we want to give to virtual reality is solely upon us.”

When asked why wouldn’t a person simply remove their goggles if they sensed any threat or danger to themselves in the virtual world, he said: “Sometimes what happens is that when you are in the VR world, there are a hundred other things that you are enjoying, and therefore, just because of this one facet, you (a user), who is enjoying the overall experience except for this one incident, would not want to leave the virtual space.”

Dr Pragya Lodha, a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist who has worked with a large number of youth during her practice and who also writes on digital mental health, said: “When we look at the Metaverse, it is essentially a place where you are living your entire life virtually, using augmented reality and the entire digital connectedness. Even if we don’t reference the Metaverse, and look at other platforms such as video games and social media, it has been well established that these things impact our perception building and emotional building as well. Looking at the concept of Metaverse (and as far as I understand), I would say if it literally means that we are going to be socially connected in the digital world and living digitally our entire lives, it implies that whatever happens over there is also then a projection of what is ok and what is not ok in the real world. It simply means that the way we live our lives right now on a day-to-day basis would be exactly the same—but in a digitalized way.”

Dr. Lodha says that even though the “Safe Zone” or bubble feature was there on Meta, this puts the onus on the victim because when there is a constant understanding of how I, as a victim, need to constantly be aware of threats or danger…it means that I am not going to be walking on eggshells constantly. Even in modern-day society—the onus has to lie on society as a whole and not on just the victim.”

The recent groping incident has also raised questions about whether and how Meta will be keeping a log of such offenders, and what measures will the company take to ban users that are a threat to others. Lodha says that the need for a regulatory framework for virtual worlds is a must. “We are living in a world where problems come before, and the good comes later. The challenges are something that has to be thought about because no matter what we build today, whether the Metaverse or any other machine, we have to be ready to deal with the kind of loopholes it will come with.”

However, this is not the first reported incident of an alleged sexual assault taking place in the virtual world. In October 2016, a woman gamer called Jordan Belamire had written an open letter on Medium describing how she was groped in Quivr, a game in which players were armed with bows and arrows to shoot down zombies—all the while with her husband and brother-in-law watching. In her letter, Belamire described entering the multiplayer mode and having a user [BigBro442] sexually assault her by rubbing her chest. Even when Belamire cried out “stop,” this seems to have goaded BigBro442, who then went on to chase Belamire around in the game, “making grabbing and pinching motions near my chest.”

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“From what I have seen, the impact of cyberbullying is a lot more than that of being physically bullied,” said Lodha. “As a society, the psychological impact of cybercrimes is not very new to us. We have seen that it affects the individual as much as any other crime would.”

Psychotherapist and psychiatrist Rukshada Syeda says that there is no debate that groping someone in the virtual world constitutes as sexual assault. “It is a deliberate act from one individual to another. When I know that I am wilfully doing this to another person, I know that I am assaulting you. It is assault in whichever sphere; whether somebody is touching me inappropriately in real life or trolling me online or leaving abusive messages on my tweets. If I am assaulted physically in the virtual world, it is most certainly going to have a psychological impact on me. Every abuse, every assault, every part of domestic violence is psychological trauma.”

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She says that Meta’s safety feature on Horizon World is “not going to be helpful unless and until the person who is actually committing the crime is also held accountable for.” She said: “Simply telling a user that they can interact only if they are feeling safe doesn’t make the user feel safe at all. Assault doesn’t happen because the victim is not careful—assault happens because the perpetrator wants to assault you—and till the time that is not addressed, providing users with other features which may seem helpful, aren’t really helpful at all.”

When asked how can such incidents of aggravated sexual assault in the cyber world or virtual world impact someone, she said: “
There are two types: the first is where I am someone who has never been a victim of assault before i.e. this is brand new trauma for me. The second type is if I have had a similar experience in my childhood or adulthood. In the first case, being groped in VR may end up causing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and in the latter’s case, it may end up augmenting and triggering previously experienced PTSD.” She added: “Every assault/abuse is a psychological trauma. A lot of the time, victims will suffer from anxiety, sadness, and undergo a change in their attitude towards life as well as their day-to-day interactions with other people. They can also have full-fledged disorders.”

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