- Sexual violence online includes abuse in VR, revenge porn, harassment and rape threats
- Experts say harassment online can have short and long-term mental health impacts
- Research shows 61% of women say online harassment is a major problem
What is real? What is violence? If no one touches you, is it rape?
These questions swirled earlier this month after a woman in the U.K. said she was playing the game Horizon Worlds, developed by Meta, formerly known as Facebook, when she was “virtually gang raped” by three to four male avatars with male voices who yelled obscene taunts.
“It was surreal,” said Nina Jane Patel, vice president of Metaverse Research for Kabuni Ventures, an immersive technology company. “It was a nightmare.”
Patel isn’t the first woman to call an online experience “rape.” The concept of virtual rape has existed and been debated for decades. In 1993, journalist Julian Dibbell wrote the essay “A Rape in Cyberspace,” which described his abuse in a virtual community. Belgium police in 2007 investigated a woman’s claim of “virtual rape” by a user in the game Second Life. In 2018, a North Carolina mother said her 7-year-old daughter was playing the online game Roblox when her avatar was “violently gang raped on a playground.”
Reports of sexual harassment and abuse online are pervasive, with women and gender-marginalized people at particular risk. A third of women under 35 say they have been sexually harassed online and 61% of women say online harassment is a major problem, according to the Pew Research Center. Women who have been harassed online are more than twice as likely as men to say they were upset by their most recent experience. Sixty-four percent of LGBTQ social media users report experiencing harassment, according to a report by GLAAD.
After Patel posted about the incident on Medium, she said critics tried to trivialize it, with one calling it “a pathetic cry for attention.” She said some commenters suggested what happened wasn’t “real” and shouldn’t be a concern. Reaction to Patel’s post not only reveals the ways in which people are grappling to define the boundaries between real and online lives, but experts say it also underscores that sexual violence is an experience that some people will make every effort to minimize – online or off – despite research showing sexual abuse in any context can be devastating and traumatic and can exact a significant and often lasting mental health toll.
“Rather than trying to compare the suffering of different experiences and really trying to pit survivors against each other, I really wish we would look at how all of these behaviors contribute to rape culture,” said Jae Lin, director of The Games and Online Harassment Hotline. “It’s not as if there are some people who are only experiencing sexual violence online versus the people who are only experiencing it offline. All of these experiences are happening to real people because of a culture that wants to uphold gender-based violence as an acceptable and normal thing.”
Emily May is co-founder and executive director of Hollaback!, an organization that works to end harassment and runs a project called HeartMob, a community for people experiencing online harassment. May said the language used to describe these harms can feel inadequate or ill-fitting. Some terms might feel like an overstatement. Others feel insufficient.
“Violence exists on a spectrum. Calling something ‘virtual rape’ is something that is real and can exist, and I think by giving that frame around it of ‘virtual,’ you better name what happened. I also think people may feel the term ‘virtual harassment’ doesn’t describe their experience. I think we are going to start to see language develop on what it means to experience sexual violence and harassment in these new virtual spaces,” May said.
New technology, old harms
Lin said that while the technology may be new, these forms of harm are old: “Getting groped in VR or assaulted in VR does feel like, ‘Whoa, that’s never really happened before,’ but it’s all coming from the same root source.”
There is a broad range of harms online that experts consider sexual violence, including “sextortion,” revenge porn, child pornography, online harassment, unsolicited explicit images and rape threats. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center says these are but a “fraction” of the ways that consent is violated online, noting that “some acts are identified as criminal under the law, others violate policies put in place by online platforms … while other acts of sexual violence online remain unnamed problems.”
May said efforts to minimize the effect of these experiences stem from a long-standing debate around whether online harassment is a real and viable form of harm.
“Can you experience sexual violence online? Well, of course you can. And you could have experienced it years ago, well before virtual reality took place. When somebody says ‘I want to rape you,’ that’s a form of sexual violence,” May said. “Now, with the metaverse and virtual reality, there are new ways to hurt someone that unfortunately are more visual, more visceral, more akin to what real-life sexual violence and rape might look like.”
Lin also notes that abuse online doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s part of a larger landscape of harassment.
“The reality is that it happens everywhere in a million different ways, all of the time. And that is actually what is so exhausting and so terrifying and prohibitive,” Lin said. “We also understand now more than ever during this pandemic, how much online is real life.”
Experiences of sexual violence online can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety
Patel wrote in her Medium post that “virtual reality has essentially been designed so the mind and body can’t differentiate virtual/digital experiences from real. In some capacity, my physiological and psychological response was as though it happened in reality.”
Sexual violence experts say harassment online can be frightening, paralyzing, humiliating and demeaning.
A 2018 study of a sample of women on university campuses in Ontario, Canada, found experiences of cyber-sexual violence were associated with symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress and post-traumatic reactions. A 2019 article published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction found female gamers frequently coped with the culture of abuse by playing alone, hiding their identity and avoiding verbal communication with other players, which led to experiences of anxiety and loneliness.
“Experiencing this kind of abuse, especially on an ongoing basis, really can wear away at that sense of self, at that sense of agency,” Lin said. “That does have long-term mental health effects, especially around needing to feel vigilant all of the time. That’s really exhausting, feeling really worn down about yourself, about your own image and place and worth.”
Tech platforms must act, but experts say they aren’t the only solution to online abuse
May said that while online abuse mirrors offline abuse, it also offers curious new ways to mitigate harm, and technology platforms have a responsibility to explore them.
After Patel’s post, Facebook parent Meta said it plans to add a personal boundary to avatars in its virtual worlds.
“It’s something that makes us stop and think, ‘Wow, what if as women we were all given personal boundaries and we could choose at any time to turn them on or turn them off?’ That imagining is actually really beautiful and I think supportive of a movement to address sexual violence long-term? There’s a lot of potential there,” May said.
At the same time, May points out that technology can’t be the only solution. Bystander intervention is as crucial online as it is off. People can distract, delegate, document, delay and direct online too, May said – it will just look a bit different. While offline “distract” might look like spilling your drink when you notice someone being harassed on the subway, online it could look like flooding a hateful conversation with fluffy animals.
“It’s not companies that are going to fix this, it’s communities coming together to take care of one another and ultimately address violence in a meaningful way,” she said. “We all have a responsibility to create these online spaces that we want to live in.”
Lin also said it’s crucial that the people experiencing harassment and abuse online take it seriously. Even when the culture tries to minimize it, even when it isn’t the worst example of abuse, it’s always serious and it always matters, Lin said.
“Beyond the scale of things, everyone deserves to be treated with dignity,” Lin said. “We might often discount that for ourselves, but I think that’s a really important thing to hold on to.”
The Games and Online Harassment Hotline is a free, text message-based, confidential emotional support hotline for anyone who makes or plays games.
If you want to learn more about how to stop abuse online, PEN America and Hollaback! conduct free interactive training on intervening safely and effectively.
If you are a survivor of sexual assault, RAINN offers support through the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE & online.rainn.org).