stylized image of a man and woman using vr headsets in metaverse

Woman Claims She was Virtually ‘Groped’ in the Metaverse, a Sexual Harassment Investigation has Been Launched

The company Facebook has recently rebranded itself as Meta. CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained the reason for the change. “Right now, our brand is so tightly linked to one product that it can’t possibly represent everything that we’re doing today, let alone in the future. Over time, I hope that we are seen as a metaverse company, and I want to anchor our work and identity on what we’re building toward”.

While social media platforms Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp will keep their names, the company hopes to represent itself by their new project, “the metaverse”. [1]

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The metaverse is a shared online 3D virtual space. It’s essentially a futuristic version of the internet. Horizon Worlds is the first virtual reality social platform. It requires a Facebook account to access it and it allows 20 people to hang out virtually. However, during the beta testing, one tester spoke about how a stranger groped her avatar. ​​In her post, she wrote,

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“Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense. 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 [the virtual environment’s central gathering space].[2]

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Investigating Sexual Harassment in the VR Metaverse

When Meta investigated the situation, they concluded that the beta tester should have used the “Safe Zone” tool. Safe Zone is one of the safety features involving a protective bubble a user could activate when they feel threatened. Then no one is able to touch or talk to them until they leave the Safe Zone. Vivek Sharma, the vice president of Horizon, called the groping incident “absolutely unfortunate.” Then Sharma added, “That’s good feedback still for us because I want to make [the blocking feature] trivially easy and findable.”

However, this wasn’t the first person groped in virtual reality. And if VR is the future of the internet, it most definitely won’t be the last. But incidents like these demonstrate the need for proper safety and protection for users of the metaverse.

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In October 2016, Jordan Belamire, posted about her experience on her Medium blog. She was visiting her brother-in-law with her husband and they took turns with his HTC Vive VR system. After a few minutes of playing, another player named BigBro442 joined her. Although all of their avatars looked alike, her voice gave her gender away. “Suddenly, BigBro442’s disembodied helmet faced me dead-on. His floating hand approached my body, and he started to virtually rub my chest,” she wrote. 

In shock, he told him to stop but he continued. When she tried to run, he chased her and continued to make grabbing motions around her chest. “Emboldened, he even shoved his hand toward my virtual crotch and began rubbing. There I was, being virtually groped in a snowy fortress with my brother-in-law and husband watching.[3]

Read: Facebook Can Now Track What You Do Off of Facebook. Here’s How To Turn It Off.

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What is Virtual Sexual Harassment? 

Aaron Stanton and his cofounder, Jonathan Schenker, apologized to Belamire and added a feature where avatars can make a V gesture with their arms to push anyone away. Still, the new incident of VR groping got Stanton thinking. “There’s so much more to be done here,” he said. “No one should ever have to flee from a VR experience to escape feeling powerless.”

At the time, many people dismissed Belamire’s experience. Since there was no physical touching, was it really groping? “I think people should keep in mind that sexual harassment has never had to be a physical thing,” said Jesse Fox. Fox is an associate professor at Ohio State University who researches the social implications of virtual reality. “It can be verbal, and yes, it can be a virtual experience as well.

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Katherine Cross, who researches online harassment at the University of Washington, points out that when virtual reality is immersive, experiences in that space can feel real as well.

“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 said. “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.”

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Create a Safer Metaverse

As the metaverse takes hold, it’s likely that new guidelines will arse about sexual harassment in VR. For instance, when the internet first began, the concept of cyberbullying didn’t exist. But bullies found ways to hurt people online, so experts re-evaluated the definition to include this new dynamic. And while people can argue that victims of cyberbullying “can just go offline,” that doesn’t stop the harmful effects of the experience before the victim could hit the power button. 

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While Meta put the onus of virtual groping on the users, the created no deterrent for the aggressors who think they can act however they want through their anonymous persona.

“The structural question is the big issue for me,” she said. “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.’[4] 

A spokesperson for Meta, Kristina Milian, said, “We want everyone in Horizon Worlds to have a positive experience, with safety tools that are easy to find—and it’s never a user’s fault if they don’t use all the features we offer. We will continue to improve our UI and to better understand how people use our tools so that users are able to report things easily and reliably. Our goal is to make Horizon Worlds safe, and we are committed to doing that work.” [5]

Keep Reading: Facebook Says It’s Your Fault That Hackers Got Half a Billion User Phone Numbers

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Sources

  1. “Why has Facebook changed its name to Meta and what is the metaverse?New Scientist. Chris Stokel-Walker. October 29, 2021
  2. “Meta opens up access to its VR social platform Horizon Worlds.” The Verge. Alex Heath. December 9, 2021
  3. “My First Virtual Reality Groping.” Medium. Jordan Belamire. October 20, 2016
  4. “The metaverse has a groping problem already.Technology Review. Tanya Basuarchive. December 16, 2021
  5. “Meta launched an investigation after a woman said she was groped by a stranger in the metaverse”. Business Insider. Stephen Jones. December 17, 2021
Sarah Biren
Freelance Writer
Sarah is a baker, cook, author, and blogger living in Toronto. She believes that food is the best method of healing and a classic way of bringing people together. In her spare time, Sarah does yoga, reads cookbooks, writes stories, and finds ways to make any type of food in her blender.
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