Sexual harassment in the metaverse isn’t virtual – it’s real

sexual harassment VR metaverse
Screenshot from the Horizon Worlds promo video. Source: Meta

ITEM: The metaverse may not exist yet, but it already has a sexual harassment problem. And it’s sparked a badly needed debate over whether virtual harassment is “real”, and what companies like Meta Platforms should be doing about it.

According to a Technology Review report in December, a beta tester on Meta’s VR social media platform, Horizon Worlds, reported that she had been groped by a stranger. Meta investigated and concluded that the beta tester had not turned on a tool called “Safe Zone”, a safety feature in Horizon Worlds that creates a sort of safety bubble for the user that makes it impossible for other users to touch, talk or interact with them in any way. Users are meant to activate the Safe Zone feature when they feel threatened.

However, this also implies that it’s up to the user to activate safety features to stop sexual harassment. Which is uncomfortably similar to the real-world argument by some that preventing sexual harassment is primarily the job of the victim, not the offender or the company that employs both of them.

To be clear, that’s not the argument Meta is explicitly making – Meta spokesperson Kristina Milian told TR that “it’s never a user’s fault if they don’t use all the features we offer”. She also said Meta is also working on ways to make sure Horizon Worlds users are aware of safety tools and can find them easily.

However, that still arguably amounts to Meta shifting responsibility to the user, which raises the question of who is ultimately responsible to ensure the safety of metaverse users and stop sexual harassment, and whether the platform owner’s responsibility is limited to providing safety tools, said Katherine Cross, who researches online harassment at the University of Washington:

… [T]he fact that the Meta groping victim either did not think to use Safe Zone or could not access it is precisely the problem, says Cross. “The structural question is the big issue for me,” she says. “Generally speaking, when companies address online abuse, their solution is to outsource it to the user and say, ‘Here, we give you the power to take care of yourselves.’”

And that is unfair and doesn’t work. Safety should be easy and accessible, and there are lots of ideas for making this possible.

Such ideas include more immediate ways to alert moderators to inappropriate behavior, making tools like Safe Zone a default setting until two people meeting in the metaverse mutually agree to deactivate it, or even training sessions to let all users know that what’s not acceptable in real life isn’t acceptable in the virtual world.

The latter point has its own challenges, from dismissive attitudes towards the #MeToo movement to the fact that many people think virtual groping isn’t sexual harassment because no physical touching occurred.

But that’s not how sexual harassment works – it can be verbal as well as physical, and it’s as much about the power structures involved (i.e. the power the harasser has over the person) and the emotional stress of the experience. Cross adds that the immersive nature of VR makes such toxic behavior just as real in VR as in real life:

“At the end of the day, the nature of virtual-reality spaces is such that it is designed to trick the user into thinking they are physically in a certain space, that their every bodily action is occurring in a 3D environment,” she says. “It’s part of the reason why emotional reactions can be stronger in that space, and why VR triggers the same internal nervous system and psychological responses.”

The other question is what to do with the aggressors. The hopefully obvious answer is to penalize them or kick them off the platform – the problem is that social media platforms don’t have a great track record when it comes to enforcing user behavior policies. (Note: Meta hasn’t revealed whatever happened to the alleged groper on Horizon Worlds.)

In any case, sexual harassment is likely to be a major issue in the metaverse that platform developers need to take seriously now – the Horizons World beta tester isn’t the first person to be sexually harassed in a VR environment, and sadly won’t be the last.

Full story here.

1 Comment

  1. My thought on this is just how much of a challenge we have set ourselves with Metaverse rules and design. It is not that we about to enter a world where basic safety, food and warmth are the priorities. Instead we have chosen to replicate our now vastly complex world, involving constantly evolving issues such as gender, interaction, political correctness and how we address things in the real world. It is astonishing that people would even try.

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