Woman says she was virtually ‘raped’ in the metaverse while others ‘passed around a bottle of vodka’

The researcher described the expeirence as ‘disorienting’ and confusing, although Meta has put in place boundaries that keep people at a safe distance

Adam Smith
Monday 30 May 2022 17:08 BST
(AFP via Getty Images)
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Louise Thomas

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A woman has claimed she experienced sexual assault by a stranger in Meta’s virtual reality space, Horizon’s World.

He researcher, who was investigating the platform for by SumOfUs, a non-profit organisation that seeks to limit the power of large corporations, has claimed the virtual assault happened while other users ‘watched and passed around a vodka bottle’.

“About an hour into using the platform, a SumOfUs researcher was led into a private room at a party where she was raped by a user who kept telling her to turn around so he could do it from behind while users outside the window could see – all while another user in the room watched and passed around a vodka bottle”, a report by the organisation states.

“This sexual act was non-consensual, and the researcher described the experience as ‘disorienting’ and confusing.”

Many other incidents have occurred, according to the report: one anonymous beta tester claimed that her “avatar had been groped by a stranger” in the Worlds beta test, while other reports have documented simulated groping and ejaculating, as well as verbal and sexual harassment.

“The SumOfUs researcher noted how quickly she encountered sexual assault on the platform after another user encouraged her to disable the personal boundaries setting. She noted that when another user touches you, the hand controllers vibrate, creating a very disorienting and even disturbing physical experience during a virtual assault,” the report states.

“Regarding the experience of being sexually assaulted in VR, the researcher said: ‘It happened so fast I kind of disassociated. One part of my brain was like wtf is happening, the other part was like this isn’t a real body, and another part was like, this is important research.’”

In December of last year, Nina Jane Patel, a psychotherapist who conducts research on the metaverse, also wrote a medium post about the “surreal nightmare” of being “gang raped” in Horizon Venues.

“Within 60 seconds of joining — I was verbally and sexually harassed — 3–4 male avatars, with male voices, essentially, but virtually gang-raped my avatar and took photos”, she wrote.

After that, Meta added a ‘personal boundary’ mode into its virtual reality platforms, setting an ‘almost four-foot distance’ between one user and another. While these reported actions took place, Meta’s personal boundary was not activated.

“As it stands now, the metaverse is not safe, and based on Meta’s stance on how it will moderate the platform, it will continue to spiral into a dark abyss. Our researcher went from donning an oculus headset for the first time, to being virtually raped in less than an hour. And this isn’t a one-off account”, Rewan Al-Hadad, SumOfUs campaign director said in a statement.

In a statement, Meta said: "In Horizon Worlds, Personal Boundary is default on at almost four foot for non-friends to make it easier to avoid unwanted interactions. We don’t recommend turning off the safety feature with people you do not know. We want everyone using our products to have a good experience and easily find the tools that can help in situations like these, so we can investigate and take action.”

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said that the metaverse – an embodied internet – will be the future of his company, planning to launch four new virtual reality headsets over time coming years. Mark Zuckerberg reportedly called the technology a “holy grail” device that will “redefine our relationship with technology”.

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