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Rape in the Metaverse: The U’s Response to Virtual Sexual Assaults

The U has not yet received any reports of cyber sexual assault but is prepared to offer support to victims.
Parker Jenkins
(Design by Parker Jenkinds | The Daily Utah Chronicle)


Virtual realities and simulation games have existed for years. One of the first virtual spaces, “Maze War,” was created in 1973. Popular games and platforms like “Second Life,” “Virtualityand “Meta Questfollowed this release to grow the virtual world. 

VR was created to allow people to play in a simulation of their life. Like in real life, people (or avatars) can make choices and engage in interactions with other characters — even if these actions are harmful. Last year, a girl younger than 16 from the U.K. was sexually assaulted in her VR experience. This event has led to discourse surrounding whether virtual sexual assault is a real issue, if people who engage in it should face repercussions in real life, if this is the start of a new wave of sexual violence and how authorities will handle these types of cyber crimes. 

How ‘Real’ is ‘Virtual’ Rape?

Ashley Guajardo, a professor in the University of Utah’s games department, says “games feel real to the people who play them.”

Earlier versions of video games engaged with different sensory experiences, which has been extended to VR.

“In the ’80s, you’re using your ears, you’re listening to what other people are saying … in the ’90s, you’re using your eyes, you’re reading the text on the screen,” Guajardo said. “In contemporary times, you’re using your eyes to see in the VR environment, you’re using your ears to hear in the VR environment.”

Not only does VR use a combination of senses, but it can also use actual touch. Guajardo points to the example of “haptic vests,” or suits that simulate physical feelings in the game like gunshots, energy, explosions and recoils.

Guajardo connects the experience of being in VR to a metaphor used by digital humanities academic Janet Murray, who compares being in a game to being underwater.

“Your eyes, you see water. Your skin, you feel water. Your ears, your sound is distorted because you’re in water. All of your senses are completely immersed by water, ” Guajardo said. “That is the sensation that people feel when they’re in a video game.”

Guajardo also points out that companies frequently use the hyperrealism of a video game as a selling point.

Even with educational games, Guajardo says the player is “so immersed … so close to real life.”

Players can learn things from playing the game, but this hyperrealism for good experiences also means that the hyperrealism exists for potentially harmful experiences.

“The virtual worlds we’re interacting with can be as real as our ordinary physical world,” David Chalmers, a professor of philosophy and neural science at New York University, told The Guardian. “Virtual reality is genuine reality.”

If a player experiences negative events in a gaming space, they are likely to process it the same way they would a negative event in real life. Some studies suggest that the brain cannot differentiate between real and imaginary threats and experiences.

“The exact same stress response kicks in when you imagine danger, also producing cortisol and [adrenaline] and pushing blood around the body,” wrote David Hamilton, an author and scientist. “The same chemistry is produced regardless of whether the danger is real or imagined.”

To victims of online sex crimes, the events may feel entirely real to them — and their brains might even process them as such.

The Psychology of Sexual Violence in Video Games

Literature suggests that it is not video games that make players violent, but instead a phenomenon known as the online disinhibition effect.

Cognition Today describes how anonymous spaces online create a dissociation from reality. Once separated from reality, a player is also separated from “morals, ethics, and norms” that exist in real life. Online spaces allow for a “lack of eye contact, facial expressions, body language, movement, etc.” that erases the feeling of guilt or shame from engaging in negative behaviors.

Guajardo points to how this lack of eye contact makes people feel more willing to commit crimes, as they are not directly face-to-face with the victim.

“The more violent aspects of ourselves may come out, because there’s an idea that online spaces are not regulated. There’s a faceless victim,” Guajardo said. “The idea to commit the crime in the first place does not start with the game. That comes from the individual.”

Guajardo’s book, “Sexuality in Role-Playing Games,” discusses the individual expression that appears in games.

“Players are distanced, but not removed completely, from their own primary frameworks that dictate the normative sexual ethics that affect their everyday lives and sense of self,” Guajardo wrote.

The effect of this is that players are free to “experiment with activities that would be considered in conflict” with their usual selves. They create distance from their actions in a game with defenses like “it was only a game.”

Her book cites Gary Alan Fine‘s foundational text “Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Words,” which describes players sometimes engaging in “sexual violence.”

“‘Frequently … female non-player characters [are] raped for sport,'” according to Fine.

Guajardo says people may use games as a utopian escape. By immersing oneself in an artificial reality, a player can escape the horrors they face in real life. For women specifically, they can escape sexism and experience virtual equality.

“If I am running [in a virtual world], I have no more chance of getting attacked by a monster than does a man,” Guajardo said. “This is literally an equal playing field.”

She also expressed her disappointment that the dangers and threats of the real world are now in existence in VR. Now, there is “no escape” when virtual spaces are permeated with real life issues.

“To hear that now the virtual world is also a place where being female or inhabiting a female form attracts violence is really depressing,” Guajardo said.

Preparing for Cyber Sexual Assault

At this time, the U has not yet had to deal with a virtual sexual violence case. Both the Office of Equal Opportunity and University of Utah Police stated that they have not yet received reports of cyber sexual assault.

Captain Brian Lohrke described the process that would take place if campus police were to get a report of a similar situation.

“The first thing is we really want to listen to the victim of the crime and make sure they have the proper resources to deal with it,” Lohrke said.

He explained investigations are completed in two parts: one part is taking care of the victim, and the other part is the criminal investigation.

Campus police utilize their crime victim advocate to “make sure that the [victim] gets connected with the right resources” before fully delving into the legal aspect.

Actual prosecution of cyber crimes is a difficult concept due to how nuanced the crime is. One issue is difficulty with condemning the “crime” in the first place.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network lists the statutes and definitions for sexual crimes in Utah. Rape is defined as when someone “has sexual intercourse with another person without the victim’s consent,” but included no guidelines for when this occurs in an online, non-physical space.

A 1997 journal article titled “Virtual Rape” states, “While the act of rape is almost universally condemned, the conception of rape is far less universally agreed upon.” Before immersive VR spaces were added to the equation, it was difficult to define when something was rape and when someone could face legal repercussions for their actions.

With cyber sexual assault, “It’s not a physical attack, not a physical rape, so it may not meet our state statutes,” Lohrke said.

Once it is determined that rape or illegal sexual activity occurred, police run into another issue: jurisdiction. With online perpetrators, is it difficult to prosecute their crimes.

“That is one thing in this cyber world that we really struggle with, because some of the perpetrators are not local,” Lohrke said.

The U’s public safety officers are state officers, meaning their jurisdiction is within the state of Utah.

Once it goes outside of the state, the investigation gets handled by their federal partners. When the suspect is outside of the country, it goes beyond the federal government.

If it was a campus situation, the university police would reach out to the Office of Equal Opportunity.

Jess Morrison, interim director of OEO, explained they would treat virtual sexual harassment the same as physical harassment.

“OEO would address reports of online sexual harassment or assault,” Morrison said in a written statement. “Title IX does not create a distinction between sexual harassment occurring in person [versus] online, and the University would promptly respond to the report of exclusively online harassment.”

If the perpetrator was a fellow U student, they would face consequences from the U.

“If a student was found to have violated University Policy 1-012: University Non-discrimination Policy, then that student would be subject to sanctions even if the conduct consisted of exclusively online harassment,” Morrison said.

Despite how new this issue is, faculty and staff at the U continue to offer support and advocate for victims of cyber rape and assault.

Guajardo said her “heart goes out to the victim” of the U.K. virtual assault and the event is “incredibly disheartening.” She “absolutely” believes victims of virtual sexual violence deserve justice.

Lohrke said online sexual assault cases are “traumatizing” and public safety wants first and foremost to help the victims.

“If anybody has experiences or anything, come to us,” Lohrke said. “Let’s have a conversation about what we can do.”

Lohrke shared the website as one resource for victims of cyber crimes. The website offers links to reporting cyber crimes as well as information to help educate the public on protecting themselves from future internet crimes.

“At least pick up the phone and give us a call. 24/7, our officers are always willing and able to talk,” Lohrke said.

University police can be reached at their number, 801-585-COPS (2677), or through their website.


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About the Contributors
Caroline Krum, Investigative Writer
Caroline was born and raised in California and moved to Salt Lake City to pursue a degree in English education. She enjoys reading classic literature (especially Russian literature) and spends her weekends outdoors. Caroline fills her free time with plein air painting, attending museums, playing with her cat, watching vintage films, hiking, or playing the sims. She hopes to attend Grad school next fall to start working on her master's and doctorate.
Parker Jenkins, Designer
(he/him) Parker Jenkins joined the Chronicle in 2023 as a designer. He is currently pursuing a degree in biomedical engineering at the University of Utah. Parker grew up in Portland, OR and graduated from an arts school. In addition to design, he enjoys drone photography, filmmaking and soccer!

Comments (3)

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  • C

    CommonSenseMar 8, 2024 at 1:41 pm

    I play COD so now I can go to a war veteran and tell them I went through the same traumatic situation. You’re comparing the actually physical assault of rape to one that someone merely observed. You know how absolutely invalidating that is to true rape victims?

  • C

    CharlieMar 5, 2024 at 5:07 pm

    Maybe I’m old, or extremely out of touch – maybe someone can shed some light on where I need to change my thought process on this whole situation? First, I’m not victim blaming. Anyone who is a victim of SA should get all the help they need in recovery. Second: Reading stories like this I have questions though. The U.K. girl – where are her parents? Why are they allowing their underage daughter to talk to strangers online, in such a personal fashion (VR)? How much of our youth are being raised by tablets and headsets like this, with unrestricted Internet access? I remember when the Internet hit the mainstream in the 90’s and everyone talked about “don’t tell anyone your name, don’t tell anyone personal details, don’t tell anyone your address or phone number” – now it is the complete opposite. Even with all the bad actors online, kids are still allowed to roam free. Third: The Metaverse, and in fact almost every online game at this point in time, have mute and block features… How are these people missing those features? I’ve been in Metaverse, there is a pretty comprehensive guide to how things work before you are allowed to explore, including muting and blocking people. For that matter, while the assault is happening… Why not just take your headset off and power it down, if it’s that bad? There are already so many self policing features on apps, why do we need big mega corps to step in and babysit the general public because parents refuse to, you know, parent, or people can’t be bothered to use the features built in to the app?

    • M

      MattMar 6, 2024 at 1:22 pm

      Yes this article is clearly trying to make a problem out of nothing.