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Woman Claims She Was 'Groped' In Metaverse — Does Sexual Assault Exist In Virtual Reality?

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Virtual reality (VR) headsets

Facebook has been making big moves in the virtual reality world. Ever since their purchase of Oculus and the changing of their name to Meta, their entire brand seems to have changed.

Their mission is now to bring the Metaverse into reality, and their virtual reality social platform, Horizon Worlds, is their first step to achieving the goal they set for themselves.

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However, the launch of the new social platform that features games and events like comedy shows and movie nights hasn’t been as smooth as the company would have hoped.

A woman claims that she was virtually ‘groped’ in the metaverse beta testing for Horizon Worlds

The woman reported the incident that occurred on November 26 in the Horizon Worlds beta testing Facebook group, where people typically report any bugs or problems with the game.

Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense,” she wrote, according to The Verge. “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.

According to a 2020 Pew Pew Research poll, “severe” encounters of online harassment — including physical threats, stalking, and “repeated” harassment — are on the rise.

In 2014, a mere 15% of people reported these incidents occurring only while today, 25% of users have reported experiencing some form of “severe” online harassment.

While social media lays claim as the place where a majority of these incidents occur, VR has shown that, while still being a relatively new medium, it has already caused people many problems in these areas involving harassment — sexual or otherwise.

Meta responded to the incident and pointed out that Horizon Worlds offers a “Safe Zone” feature which allows users to place a block against interaction with other users.

However, Vivek Sharma, the vice president of Horizon, admitted in a statement to The Verge that the company needs to work on making the security feature “trivially easy and findable.”

She called the groping incident “absolutely unfortunate,” but added, “That’s good feedback still for us because I want to make [the blocking feature] trivially easy and findable.”

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According to experts, sexual harassment in the virtual world is equal to sexual harassment in the real world.

“I think people should keep in mind that sexual harassment has never had to be a physical thing,” said Jesse Fox to Technology Review. 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.”

Katherine Cross, who researches online harassment at the University of Washington, also discussed the implications that virtual reality has and the parallels that they make with the real world.

“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.”

Anyone who has played with one of these virtual reality headsets can tell you that the feelings and sensations they get when playing some of the games are entirely real — you feel physically in tune with what’s going on in that virtual world.

This is why Meta has committed to and emphasized their plan to further improve the platform, citing that Horizon Worlds already has safeguards in place to try and prevent these things from happening.

“We want everyone in Horizon Worlds to have a positive experience with safety tools... and it’s never a user's fault if they don’t use all the features we offer,” Meta spokesperson, Kristina Milian, said. “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.”

While nothing outside of the Horizon Worlds beta testing Facebook group has occurred — like pressing charges — this is still a very serious issue that needs to be addressed if Meta wants to expand the metaverse and if virtual reality wants to become the new norm.

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Isaac Serna-Diez is a writer who focuses on entertainment and news, social justice, and politics. Follow him on Twitter here.

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