Sexual harassment in the metaverse: A woman’s disturbing experience

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A woman has shared her disturbing experience of being sexually harassed in the metaverse, a virtual reality world where users can interact with each other through digital avatars.

The woman, who works as a researcher for an online watchdog group, said she was virtually “groped” and “raped” by a user while another watched and made lewd comments in Horizon Worlds, a metaverse platform created by Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook.

She said the assault happened within an hour of logging into the platform, where she was invited to a private room at a party. She said her hand controllers vibrated when the attacker touched her avatar, creating a “disorienting and even disturbing physical experience”.

She said she felt “disassociated” and “violated” by the incident, which was captured on video and released by her employer, SumOfUs, a nonprofit advocacy organization that campaigns to hold corporations accountable.

The report by SumOfUs, titled “Metaverse: another cesspool of toxic content”, also documented other cases of sexual harassment, verbal abuse, racial slurs and invasion of personal space targeting women and girls in the metaverse.

The report said that “minimal moderation” and “lack of safeguards” in these virtual worlds have allowed concerning behavior to “thrive”, especially towards female-appearing and female-sounding avatars.

The report also criticized Meta for its “lack of transparency” and “inadequate response” to the issue of sexual harassment in the metaverse, saying that the company has failed to provide clear policies, reporting mechanisms, user education and support for victims.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been promoting the metaverse as the future of social media and online interaction, saying that it will offer “incredible opportunities for connection, expression and creativity”.

However, experts have warned that the immersive and realistic nature of virtual reality also poses serious risks for users’ safety, privacy and mental health, especially for women and girls who are already vulnerable to online violence.

A Meta spokesperson said that the company takes sexual harassment in the metaverse “very seriously” and that it has features to help users control their experience, such as personal boundaries, blocking and reporting tools.

The spokesperson also said that the researcher who was assaulted had turned off the personal boundary feature, which prevents other users from getting too close to one’s avatar.

However, the researcher said that she was not aware of this feature and that it was not clearly explained to her when she joined the platform. She also said that she did not receive any follow-up or support from Meta after reporting the incident.

She said that she hopes that her story will raise awareness and spark action to prevent sexual harassment in the metaverse and to protect users’ rights and dignity.

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