In a disturbing incident, the UK police have launched an investigation into the alleged gang-rape of a 16-year-old girl’s avatar within a virtual reality game, as reported by the New York Post. The teenager, equipped with a VR headset, found her animated representation subjected to virtual assault in the metaverse. Despite the absence of physical injuries, the girl may have endured emotional trauma akin to real-life experiences of sexual abuse, according to statements from a police source.
The impact on the victim extends beyond physical harm, as lasting emotional and psychological repercussions are immense. However, authorities in the UK are grappling with legal challenges, expressing concerns that existing laws defining sexual assault as ‘physical touching’ without consent may pose obstacles to prosecuting the case.
Dr Rennie Joyy, Advocate and Founder, Aalekh Foundation, says, ” A teenage girl, immersed in a virtual reality game, faced emotional trauma after allegedly being assaulted (virtual gang rape) by a group of men, despite no physical injuries. Concerns arise about the potential real-world impact of such virtual experiences, prompting the need for new laws addressing online crimes against women. This case is the first virtual sexual offense under investigation by law enforcement, highlighting the urgency of regulatory measures in this evolving digital landscape.”
This distressing incident is not an isolated occurrence. A similar report from Wion last year detailed the sexual assault and harassment of a 21-year-old girl within hours of entering the metaverse. These incidents underscore the need for a comprehensive approach to addressing virtual offenses in the evolving digital landscape.
Shatadru Sarkar, Co-founder, Metastar Media, opines, ” All spaces where people gather and interact, be it virtual or IRL, needs a certain level of monitoring to ensure security of all participants. This particular incident is akin to online sexual harassment or cyber bullying and there are laws in the country to address such situations. Metaverse platforms have a code of conduct in place and can track avatar behaviour, identify violations in real time, and eject repeat offenders from a platform.”
Major Vineet Kumar, Founder and Global President, CyberPeace Foundation, adds, “This alarming event underscores the urgent need for robust safety protocols and a strong ethical framework in virtual environments. While the Metaverse offers ground-breaking opportunities for social interaction and innovation, it also presents new challenges that must be addressed proactively. Ensuring Trust and safety, a safe, resilient, and respectful virtual space demands a collaborative effort from developers, users, Tech platforms, organizations like ICANN, Non-profits, Academia, and regulatory bodies. It’s extremely important to implement stringent security measures, educate users about consent, and strong content moderation and establish clear consequences for malicious actions. Platforms have an important role here – content moderation, community guidelines, and also self-regulation.”
Kumar feels it’s our priority to cultivate a Metaverse that is inclusive, secure, resilient, and respectful, reflecting the best of human values in this emerging cyberspace.
“While such instances are uncalled for, however, at the end of the day, virtual reality is just an immersive digital experience, and the user can choose to end any experience at any time with a press of a button,” believes Sarkar.
Dr Joy believes several legal issues surrounding virtual sexual offenses in immersive games need urgent attention like Consent and Boundaries: