There was snow all around her, and white caps topping the mountain peaks in the distance. The woman ascended to the top of a stone tower and looked out over the virtual world of QuiVr, a headset-based archery game. The game was vivid, enchanting. “Never had I experienced virtual reality that felt so real,” she wrote later, under the pseudonym Jordan Belamire. “I was smitten. I never wanted to leave this world.” From her perch atop the tower, she drew closer to the edge. “I took a single step off the ledge and…nothing happened. I didn’t fall, and I was walking on air. I was a god.”
Soon, Belamire switched to a multiplayer version of the game. In QuiVr, player avatars at the time appeared as disembodied helmets, above floating hands that clutched bows and arrows. There’s an equality that’s implied when everyone looks alike, reinforcing to the players that they’re all on the same team. But QuiVr also has a voice chat component, allowing users to talk to one another through the microphones in their headsets. When Belamire spoke to her teammates, it was in a woman’s voice. “Suddenly, [a male player’s] disembodied helmet faced me dead-on,” she wrote. “His floating hand approached my body, and he started to virtually rub my chest. ‘Stop!’ I cried.… This goaded him on, and even when I turned away from him, he chased me around, making grabbing and pinching motions near my chest. Emboldened, he even shoved his hand toward my virtual crotch and began rubbing.” The incident only ended when she removed her headset, exiting the game. In virtual reality, Belamire thought she had found a world where anything was possible. She could kill monsters; she could fly. But she still couldn’t keep a man from groping her.
Sexual harassment is rampant online, and virtual reality spaces are no exception. According to a 2018 report by Pluto VR and the VR research and strategy agency The Extended Mind, 49 percent of female users and 36 percent of male users had experienced sexual harassment in VR. The mainstreaming of the metaverse is a relatively new phenomenon. But these problems aren’t: Sexual assault by and of avatars has been a part of virtual reality for as long as the technologies have been commercially available. One of the earliest recorded instances occurred in 1993, on a platform known as LambdaMOO. A user calling himself Mr. Bungle introduced code overriding the others’ control, forcing their characters to perform sexual acts in the digital space. At the time, the game had no immersive elements; it didn’t even have pictures. His attack lasted several hours, unfolding in text across their screens.
As gaming technology has progressed, the experience of assault in VR has become much more lifelike. The Vive headset that Belamire wore in QuiVr had both a screen in front of her eyes and headphones, commandeering two of her senses. This type of immersion has always been a goal of VR. Nina Jane Patel, an activist for safety in the metaverse, points out that “from day one, it was intended to be a replication of the real world.”
Patel’s advocacy grew more urgent when she experienced a sexual attack in virtual reality herself. In 2021, she entered Meta’s Horizon Venues platform as a female avatar, one designed to look like her real-world self. “Within 60 seconds,” she says, “three male avatars—who all had male voices—came toward me and touched me inappropriately. Before I knew what was happening, they were taking screenshots of them touching my avatar, both my upper and lower body. They said things like, ‘Don’t pretend you don’t love it.’ ” (“We’re sorry to hear this happened. We want everyone in Horizon Venues to have a positive experience, easily find the safety tools,” a Meta spokesperson responded at the time.)
It’s precisely the uncanny quality of virtual reality that makes these attacks so unsettling to victims, and so morally confounding to tech observers. Katherine Cross, an academic who studies online harassment and ethics in the digital world, tells me that this is part of the point: In a place like VR, male users might have an opportunity to act out resentment toward women in a way that has the plausible deniability of play. Cross notes that the internet’s Möbius strip–like quality is especially acute in VR: For some players, it is “real when your emotional investment feels useful and constructive to you—and unreal when you might be asked to take responsibility for your actions.”
It might be this sense that what people do to each other in VR doesn’t quite count, in moral terms, that has made these digital assaults hard to categorize. Are they “real” assault? Are they a kind of harassment? The text-based sexual harassment that a female user might experience on, say, Reddit seems to occupy a different moral category than a virtual-reality groping, which is more immersive—closer to being real. It’s a new kind of sexual hostility that challenges the very definition of sexual assault. The physical body isn’t there, but the mind is tricked into thinking it is—and with the social meaning of the assault intact, and its capacity to degrade and humiliate the target still in force, how much does its “reality” or “unreality” matter?
For Carrie Goldberg, an attorney who represents women who have been sexually victimized online, such distinctions are more of a distraction than anything else. “I’m not going to sit here and say that a physical rape is the same as an avatar being raped,” she tells me. “One-to-one comparisons are not necessary. Instead, we should think of digital spaces as places where new kinds of harms can happen. Just like how the internet has given way to sextortion and revenge porn, we can imagine virtual-reality sexual violence.”
How have the companies behind these platforms responded? Mostly, the experts tell me, developers tend to insert protection features after the fact, when an attack has already taken place. After Belamire wrote about being groped in QuiVr, the game developers added a feature that would allow players to construct an unbreachable “personal bubble” by putting their hands together and then pulling them apart. But Patel worries that developers are outsourcing the responsibility for safety onto users, instead of taking up the task of building safe environments themselves. The larger concern, she tells me, is that these kinds of incidents will keep women off the platforms altogether. “Then you’re left with the world being developed by people who are convinced that we’re allowed to kill each other, rape each other.”
The truth is that virtual reality is still malleable: It’s an adaptive technology, one that responds to the people who use it. And so the more women use these platforms, the more welcoming they will be to women’s needs. The jerks and the misogynists have so far been left to shape the metaverse in their own image. But one day, we could rebuild it in ours. ■