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Uncovered: Sexual Violence in the Metaverse

Investigative writer Caroline Krum joins host Emma Ratkovic to discuss sexual assault and violence in the metaverse.
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Mary Allen
(Design by Mary Allen | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

Today, investigative writer Caroline Krum joins Emma to discuss her recent article on sexual assault within the metaverse. You can read her article here.


Transcript:

Emma Ratkovic: Hello and welcome back to Uncovered. I’m your host, Emma Ratkovic. And on this episode of the podcast, investigative writer Caroline Krum is joining me to discuss her recent print story on sexual assault within the metaverse. Warning: this content may be triggering for individuals. Topics such as sexual violence and rape are discussed. Listen at your own risk.

Hi, Caroline. Thanks for joining me again on the podcast.

Caroline Krum: Thanks for having me. All right, let’s jump right into it. First of all, can you describe what virtual reality is in its history? And how people can use it in our current times? Yeah, so virtual reality is a computer-generated simulation. And so people would engage in artificial reality through other kinds of role-playing like LARPing, which means live-action role-playing, or D&D, which is Dungeons and Dragons, and other kinds of like alternative worlds where you describe it and build it verbally. And then video games came along. And so that was when you were in another world visually, and it was more of like a sightseeing experience. And then more recently, VR has come along, which combines this like description of being in a different kind of reality, and also the visual aspect into one form of game playing. Some VRs even have the feeling of touch, and that’s like the idea of haptic vests. But currently, VRs are mostly used for games and human interactions within the metaspace.

Emma Ratkovic: Awesome. And in your story, you mentioned that discourse surrounding the issue of sexual violence in virtual reality in simulation games, sparked conversation after a young girl was sexually assaulted in her VR experience. Could you elaborate on the story? And what prompted [the] conversation surrounding this issue?

Caroline Krum: Yeah, so the first week of January of this year, news broke kind of internationally that there was a young girl, who was younger than 16, that’s all we know, but a minor who had been assaulted in cyberspace, which means that another person used their avatar to kind of go through the motions of sexually assaulting her avatar. In VR, you can’t differentiate between real and unreal experiences. So what happens in cyberspace, it feels real. And it’s something that both game design experts and psychologists agree on. So, no physical bodies were actually harmed, but emotional and psychological damage was done. And this is what kind of made it a big international news idea because it was super nuanced.

Emma Ratkovic: Very interesting. So can you explain more in depth what haptic vests are and how they can be connected to physical feelings?

Caroline Krum: Yeah, so when you usually wear a VR headset, it’s kind of like an [Meta Quest] eye set. And then you’ll have things that you can hold in your hands that will give you hand sensations. But haptic vests are an accessory that you can add on to this. And it helps you have a more immersive experience. It mimics touch and physical sensations that you would have you’re an actual person in the game. An example is that if you got shot, your haptic vest might react as if an actual bullet was shot at it.

Emma Ratkovic: Wow. That’s very interesting. And you mentioned in your piece that there’s evidence in certain research that the brain is unable to distinguish between perceived and actual dangers. Could you elaborate on the findings from these studies?

Caroline Krum: So your body reacts to a threat of danger immediately, right. That’s where we see the idea of like, fight or flight, like the first response to something happening. So an example of this is like, if your friend jumps out to scare you, right? Even though it’s your friend, and you can recognize after there’s not a real threat, it’s that immediate, like, “Boo!” that kind of gets you going. And it’s the same thing with games, right? And so, even if the threat isn’t real, your first reaction isn’t, “This is just a video game,” just like it wouldn’t be like, “Oh, this is someone I know.” Your first reaction is fear and like, the actual processing of danger that you go through. And so that’s why it harm in a video game is dangerous, because even though it’s not like, kind of socially considered something that’s real and not physical, your individual brain cannot distinguish that and so for the person who is experiencing it, you cannot tell that it isn’t real and to you, like you process it as if it was real trauma that happened to you.

Emma Ratkovic: Wow, you state that the online disinhibition effect is cited in literature as the cause of aggressive gameplay. What exactly is the online disinhibition effect?

Caroline Krum: So the online disinhibition effect is this name that’s given to the idea that players in online spaces are kind of separated from their actual personhood, and then they engage in behaviors that they wouldn’t usually engage in in real life. Some people believe that like video games make people violent, right, that it’s like, from playing these violent video games that starts as violent behavior, but online disinhibition is kind of the idea of that’s not the case – like that violence is always there living inside the person. And when they get to video games, that kind of becomes a way for them to express that. And so the article that I cited in my story is specifically ties online disinhibition to a couple of factors, which they name as dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic [introjection], dissociative imagination and minimization of authority. So basically the idea of being online and and being anonymous and not having consequences not having someone who can get you in trouble and being behind a mask kind of makes people live out these secret fantasies or behaviors that would be considered socially wrong online like sexual assault.

Emma Ratkovic: And you mentioned from Cognition Today that players who use anonymous online environments experience a disassociation from reality, which means they are cut off from real-world values, ethics and conventions. A higher tendency to commit crimes is also attributed to a lack of eye contact, facial motions, body language movement and other nonverbal cues. Does this phenomenon extend to all virtual and online spaces such as social media and other forms of online communication?

Caroline Krum: In my opinion, yes, I think it all kind of ties back to the Stanford Prison Experiment, like when people are wearing masks that are more violent and more aggressive because there’s a disconnect from their actual human identity. And I think online spaces have kind of improved to have a major history of this one online forum, 4chan is famous for the hate and negativity that’s posted there because it’s completely anonymous. Reddit is similar, but it’s a little less anonymous. So 4chan is kind of like the known when it comes to this, but these kind of places are filled with like, violent racism, death threats, toxic comments, hate symbols, etc. And even about a year ago, the U had to come out and make a statement about – there was like a box where people could write papers in Gardner Commons. And it was anonymous, right? Like it was just a slip of paper, and they had students write “I love” and then the n-word, the racial slur, and then as well as “f-word the gays,” so obviously, like, extreme homophobia, and racism, but because it’s the kind of thing that like those people probably wouldn’t say in class or in person, but when they have an anonymous slip to write that, like this anonymity kind of breeds this, like violence that comes out. As for social media, I think social media has a little bit more repercussions. So it’s not as bad. I don’t feel that’s the case if you’re anonymous, though. Most people, like you think about people’s Instagrams, it has their friends and family on it, it has their full name, like where they go to school, their grade. And so there is a bit of a consequence we’ve seen on social media like if someone will say like the n-word on TikTok or something like, like, people will contact their school, right? And so there is repercussions. But in internet spaces where there is anonymity like Reddit or if you have like an an anonymous Instagram or something, it absolutely is the case.

Emma Ratkovic: I think that’s so interesting. And like our world, how a lot of people feel that they can say whatever they want on these, like online platforms, especially if they’re anonymous. I think that’s so interesting. And I’m wondering how that’s gonna play a part in like the future.

Caroline Krum: Yeah, I think people have talked a lot about like, being meaner over text than you are in real life, right? And like, I don’t play video games, but I am a lot meaner over text.

Emma Ratkovic: Yeah, or more honest.

Caroline Krum: Yeah, like a lot more blunt. Yeah, I don’t have that social filter, because I don’t see eye contact, I can’t get the social cues of like, I’m being mean to this person, you know. But it’s always like, after when someone’s like, “Oh, like, hey, well, you said over text was kind of rude,” then it’s like — then it comes in. But like the human lack, because evolutionary-wise — this is a tangent, but like evolutionary-wise, we like, we know how to, like adapt to social cues and communication, because like humans have been speaking for millions of years. But like online communication, like we have not evolved to be able to, like understand cues there. And so I think that’s why it’s so like, people go crazy.

Emma Ratkovic: There’s so much miscommunication. There’s so much — so many different emotions because you can’t see the person. No, it just makes it hard.

Caroline Krum: Yeah.

Emma Ratkovic: Can you provide additional details about the book “Sexuality in Role-Playing Games” written by Ashley Guajardo, a professor at the University of Utah’s gaming department?

Caroline Krum: Yeah, so I got to interview Professor Guajardo, who, like you said, works in the department of games. And she wrote this book called “Sexuality in Role-Playing Games.” And she teaches specifically about video games in interaction with society and the self and personhood. And so in this book, she talks about the relation between sex and games. And she even touches on how those two concepts are connected, how people live out sexual fantasies in games like erotic role-playing, or playing erotic characters. And she even goes into how sexual behaviors can play a role in virtual realities and role-playing. So how like the sexual behaviors and wants of an individual can kind of come out in a virtual reality setting?

Emma Ratkovic: Very interesting. Can you explain how sexual violence has infiltrated the virtual world, which was traditionally perceived as a place where women in particular felt safe from risks related to their gender?

Caroline Krum: Yeah, it comes very heavily from male-identifying players. It’s not like an actual like video game thing. And so Dr. Guajardo, who I interviewed for the story, she gave the example of how women like virtual spaces because inherent sexism does not exist for them in these spaces. And she talked about how like if she is a girl character running through a forest in a video game, she is no more likely to be hunted by a monster than a male player. That’s obviously not true in the real world. If a man and woman were to take a walk through Salt Lake City, at night, one of those is way more likely to be attacked. And it’s clearly the woman. And so video games, even though they’re kind of a male-dominated thing, have given women this like, escapism from like, sexism and sexual violence, since it’s like against computer-generated things. But now we’re getting into more like multiplayer games and more games where you can interact with actual beings. Like people who would assault a women on the street are also in video games, and so they’re doing the same in virtual spaces, which is really disappointing because this escapist, like real kind of space women used to have where they could exist on the same level as a male player, it is now starting to disappear. And they’re starting to be forced to interact with the violent assaults that do exist in the real world.

Emma Ratkovic: How do U of U officials anticipate [handling] cases of sexual assault in the metaverse?

Caroline Krum: So I interviewed [University of Utah Police Department] for this article. And they actually said they would take it very seriously, which I was glad about. But they related it to sextortion or online sexual threats, right? So like, threatening to leak nudes over someone or sexually explicit messages or, or inappropriate photos being put out online. And so that kind of stuff would also be brought up to local law enforcement. And they can’t always guarantee justice because of when it comes to jurisdiction, right? So if the online perpetrator is like from someone in a completely different country, obviously, like UUPD can’t go to across the world and arrest this person. But they said that if they can’t get the online perpetrator in jail, the next best thing to do is to make sure the victim is well-supported and has their needs met to heal and process the trauma. And this, from what they relayed to me is kind of like their first priority, is making sure like the victim is okay and that they have resources to reach out to they have the help they can get and everything that they would need as an individual to move on from this deeply traumatic event.

Emma Ratkovic: What state laws exist regarding sexual violence and rape? And does this extend to sexual violence in the metaverse?

Caroline Krum: So because this is such a nuanced topic, there aren’t really any laws that specifically prohibit sexual assault in virtual reality. So from my understanding, it kind of is like a “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it” kind of deal. The case that was reported in January about the girl under 16 was really the first, that we know of, widely reported example of this happening. Like if you try to Google and do research on this, there is not a lot there. That’s why most of the stuff we’re pulling from is like actual current, like studies being done at universities. And so it usually takes like the the legislator a couple of years to like, catch up to current social issues. And because it’s so new, there’s not laws that prohibit it — even looking at sexual assault statutes does not specifically mention anything about like virtual sexual assault. Specifically, because the idea of sexual assault in the metaverse isn’t physical, right? And so people debate — there’s actually a piece of literature called “A Rape in Cyberspace” from like, the 90s, so way ahead of its time, about this idea of like, is someone a rapist if no, if no bodies were touched if nothing [had] happened. And so it’s, it’s like kind of yet to be addressed on a real-world scale.

Emma Ratkovic: And I’m curious because you said like, there’s not much research online about it. How did you even like discover that?

Caroline Krum: So honestly, this is a topic I was super curious in, and like, when I pitched it to [Investigative Desk Editor] Abhilasha, she was like, oh, that’s like, that’s so interesting. Like, no one’s talking about it, you know, like, even in the [February] print issue. Like there’s kind of nothing on this topic. And so I had to kind of build it based off of the story of the girl who got assaulted, and then pulling from the 90s story “A Rape in Cyberspace.” And most of it was like, from interviews — like, honestly, Dr. Guajardo was a huge help. I reached out to her, I reached out to a couple other people in the games department that I did not hear back from, but I was really happy that I heard back from a woman in the games department because I think it’s very rare to get a female gamers perspective on it, right? Like, sometimes you have women that are like, yes, gaming is inherently terrible, or you have gamers that are like, no, like, women just don’t get it. And so to have someone that was both was incredibly helpful. And she’s where I got most of my information from. And she’s an expert on this topic. Obviously, she’s written books on it. And she linked to other studies, right, like, actual studies, like methods, abstract conclusions that she had me read. And so a lot of the literature or research I got surrounding this topic was provided by her, because as someone in that game space, like, she has colleagues that are researching similar things. She has mentors that are researching similar things. And so that’s where it came from.

Emma Ratkovic: That’s a very interesting topic. When I was reading your story, I was like, I had no idea that this was like a thing. And I was kind of confused. I was very, like, interested to read more. It’s a very captivating story.

Caroline Krum: Yeah. When I when I interviewed like Public Safety and stuff, I was like, “Can we interview about sexual assault in the metaverse?” and they were all like, “What?” like, “What is it?” I had to send everyone that I was talking to — or or even just like discussing the story with — like, the actual article from the girl. Like, I’d be like, look like it happened, you know, because most people generally never heard of it.

Emma Ratkovic: Yeah. And what is the connection between crimes of sexual violence in the virtual world in the jurisdiction issue?

Caroline Krum: So jurisdiction with online crimes is super complicated. Crimes are always prosecuted in the physical location of where it happened. So for example, I’m here in Utah, but if I committed a crime in California, I would be tried in California, versus if I committed a crime in Utah, I would be tried in Utah. And so the hard part with crimes online is that there is no physical space. And so it kind of brings up this like whole debate on like, on where did the crime actually happen, right? If you have someone in Texas who’s online harassing someone in Illinois, like is it tried in Texas where the perp is, or is it tried in Illinois where the crime happened? So already that is like a big area of discourse online, but from like a legal perspective, it’s so hard because it’s rare that someone who’s harassing you online is like local, right? Like, if I experience sextortion, it’s going to be very rare that it’s someone at the U doing it. And so it would go to whoever is in jurisdiction of where the perp lives, which is hard, because most of the time, it’s completely out of state. And that’s the issue with like, the university police, that when I interviewed them they talked about that it’s random. And so first of all, it’s incredibly hard to find the identity because it’s not like someone’s harassing you from like, their LinkedIn with their job and their family and their, you know, address and stuff. It usually is like, anonymous. If you can break the anonymity and find who it is usually someone far apart. And so like, how does University of Utah police handle like putting putting consequences on someone who sexually assaulted a university student online when that person lives in like, I don’t know, France or something, you know. And so of course if it happens in the city, it goes to Salt Lake police, if it happens at the U, it’s to the university police, if it happens outside of Salt Lake, it’s to the state police, and then outside of that would be to the feds. And outside of that is kind of just like, I mean, not much you can do you know, how international laws are gonna like punish an individual perpetrator. So that’s what’s so unfortunate. And that’s the hard part about online perpetrators.

Emma Ratkovic: Yeah, no, that’s definitely a tricky situation. And you share that if the crime is a campus situation, the campus police would reach out to the Office of Equal Opportunity, or OEO, how is virtual sexual harassment expected to be handled by OEO?

Caroline Krum: So OEO doesn’t handle legal punishments or repercussions, but they are there to enforce Title IX, and they provide sanctions. So this means that they would act on sexual assaults. So OEO would probably provide solutions and support for the victims. And then if the victim filed an official complaint, they would open up an investigation to what happened. And then, depending on the findings of the investigation, they would create sanctions if it was for another U student. And sanctions could be like expulsion from the university. If this was someone that was living in university housing, they could be kicked out of housing, you know, having classes dropped, but legal punishments for like fines, jail times, courts — that would all be handled by the law. So that would be like OEO, referring to the Salt Lake City police to kind of deal with that.

Emma Ratkovic: You mentioned that Title IX makes no distinction between sexual harassment that occurs in person and that which occurs online. This is according to Jess Morrison, interim director of OEO. What is said in Title IX?

Caroline Krum: So Title IX is a federal law from the 70s that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education spaces. And so this includes sex-based crimes like sexual assault, and so it works like to protect people from, you know, discrimination based off of gender, discrimination based off of sexuality, based off of their gender identity — anything like related to the word “sex,” and so it also comes to a head when it comes to like sexual violence, sexual misconduct, sexual assault. And so that’s why it would go to OEO because OEO is the person that enforces Title IX and make sure that that no violations are happening, like sexual violence.

Emma Ratkovic: What consequences will perpetrators of sexual violence face from the U?

Caroline Krum: So because sexual violence is not just a university crime, it also is illegal for state and federal laws. People who engage in sexual violence or acts of sexual violence won’t just face university sanctions like we mentioned, the potential expulsion or suspension, but also legal repercussions like fines, jail times, charges filed against them, permanent records of them as a sex offender, and obviously whatever kind of kind of consequences a judge would see fit.

Emma Ratkovic: And what resources are available to students to deal with cyber crimes?

Caroline Krum: If students experience a cybercrime online, the first thing they should do is report it to UUPD. They have an online police report filing place and so if students don’t want to, like go in person, or stay with a police officer, they can file a report online, you also can file a report online outside of the U and for the city. And so that’s kind of step one to like get [an] investigation going, get it on record and have it be like officially noted, and then go from there.

Emma Ratkovic: And what resources are accessible to victims of cyber crimes around the world?

Caroline Krum: UUPD recommended victims use the Internet Crime Complaint Center or the IC3 and so that is kind of where people all different jurisdictions work together to solve this issue. And so they have like the state and the federal and the local like all these people and so if I go online and I complain about, I don’t know, like Lana Del Rey Fan Number One about doing something bad and then someone else complains about Lana Del Rey Fan Number One like in Texas like that would all be seen on the same spot, right? Like it creates like just a really good open communication between all different jurisdictions levels and so you can like report a crime there if you’ve experienced a cybercrime. And then if anyone else has experienced similar things, that’s how it kind of like interacts. That way there’s not this like disconnect from you reporting locally and someone else reporting locally — everyone is kind of in on it.

Emma Ratkovic: And Caroline, how in your opinion, can the issues surrounding rape and sexual violence in the virtual world be acknowledged and addressed on a national and international level?

Caroline Krum: I think the first step to any kind of like, hard legal change is enacting like a social change, right, and pressuring your representatives and stuff to do things. And so I feel like the first thing that people need to do is consider it real, right? Prior to this online sexual assault happening, I was in a class, “Literature by the Numbers.” So 18 months ago, I guess, like three semesters ago, and we read “A Rape in Cyberspace.” And so that’s where I was introduced to this topic. And we kind of debated in class like, like, is this real? And for that one — this is vulgar, but in that one, it was an online forum. So it was just like a text kind of deal, people chatting. And one of the members like described the violent things he was doing to the other women’s avatars, like raping them with objects, sodomizing them, even like shaving and forcing one of the avatars to eat her own pubic hair, which is like insanely messed up. And it wasn’t real, right? Like he didn’t he didn’t actually do that. But he did it in an online space and, like, described doing it — which is, I mean, even traumatizing to hear, even though it wasn’t like about me, you know, it still is uncomfortable. And so we talked about this as a class. And there were actually like, multiple men in the class that were like, one of them made a joke, “Imagine going to jail for rape when you literally never even touch someone.” And some of us were like, oh, like that’s, that’s an interesting stance, because to them like, or not to everyone, but to some people in this class, like — and this was this was recent, right? This is 18 months ago — they don’t believe that they should be punished for sexual crimes unless they actually lay a hand on someone. And so these are real people that like, are playing video games, are doing these things. And they have that kind of belief. And so I think step one is like, as a society, we need to kind of cut that behavior out and say, like, no, no, no, like, it is absolutely real. Because even if no bodies were harmed, it’s like, how do you measure something as being real? I think by like, the effects of it, the consequences. And we’ve proven the effects are there, the consequences are there, the trauma is there, the like psychological damage is there, right? It has the same effects on an individual as it would if it was physical. It’s just not taken as seriously. And so I think we need to take it seriously, and we need to make laws to address this. And most importantly, I think we need to not debate a victim’s validity. It should never be a question of whether they’re valid and how they feel about something. It should always — victims should always be believed, the victims should always be advocated for and their trauma should never be dismissed. And so I think that’s the first thing we need to do.

Emma Ratkovic: All right. Do you have any final thoughts or comments, Caroline?

Caroline Krum: Yeah, I think I’ll say the same thing that UUPD did. If this happens to you, it’s never your fault. It’s not that you did anything. It’s not like you’re being done in an online space or for existing somewhere you shouldn’t. It is always the perpetrator’s fault, and it’s more common than you think. And so if this happens to you or if you know someone who it happens to, absolutely report it, absolutely go to OEO, go to UUPD. Because people kind of making this a big deal and showing that they’re going to seek legal action for it is what gives perps the desire to not do it anymore when they know that they’ll be met with action. And so that is my concluding thought.

Emma Ratkovic: Well, thank you so much for joining me on this episode of Uncovered, Caroline.

Caroline Krum: Thank you for having me.

Emma Ratkovic: And I’m your host, Emma Ratkovic. And thank you for tuning into this episode of Uncovered. Make sure to stay tuned for future episodes.

Producer and Host: Emma Ratkovic [email protected] // @eratkovic_news

Guest: Caroline Krum [email protected] // @CarolineChrony

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About the Contributors
Emma Ratkovic, News For U host
Emma is from Park City and is studying journalism and Spanish. She was an investigative writer for a year before doing full-time podcasting for the News For U and Uncovered Podcasts. She has also done work for the Park City Prospector, TownLift, and the University of Utah's Humanities Radio. She also runs an independent podcast called What's The Dilemma, which is available on most streaming platforms. She loves writing, producing, traveling, music, exercise, and hiking through the mountains of beautiful Utah.
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.
Mary Allen, Design Director
(she/her) Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Mary is thrilled to be here at the University of Utah studying graphic design. She feels very lucky to get to rub shoulders with the talented people that make up the team here at the Chronicle and is learning a lot from them every day. Other than making things look cute, Mary’s passions include music, pickleball, Diet Coke, wildlife protection, and the Boston Red Sox.

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