This article is written by Raslin Saluja from KIIT School of Law, Bhubaneswar. This article analyses the recognition of the concept of virtual rape and its real-life implications with a way forward.
As of today, the concept of rape in virtual reality has not been widely publicized. Though people have been talking about it, today’s social construct allows rape to exist in real life only. The fact that the concept of rape connects more to the physical nature of the act, makes it even more difficult to fathom it in non-physical virtual reality. However, the development of computer-mediated communication (CMC) has provided a reliable platform for people networking with each other in virtual reality to have an open discourse on the topic. CMC helps people to interact through separate computers having the internet and connected through social software. It has led those people to address and recognize the concept of virtual rape to make it more condemnable within the virtual society. This article attempts to try, and analyze what is virtual rape and why is it problematic.
Definition of virtual rape
Since the concept has just started being openly addressed and recognized, as of now it lacks a prominent legal definition. However, virtual rape, in simple terms, may be defined as an act of forcing an unwilling sexual act on someone in a virtual environment. It could involve a non-consensual touch, exposure, or manipulation of the character representation. The conduct could vary based upon the said virtual environment being a visual one representing the users in the form of online avatars (a figure representing a particular user in a video game) or a more direct form of the textual immersive interaction. There can be potential loopholes in the definition in terms of its restrictive scope to not involve other forms and types of sexual assault or sexually explicit behaviour. Therefore, an ideal definition should suggest virtual rape as one which is performed in the real world, which would constitute rape.
Online violation of sexual autonomy
Rape, as a criminal offence, is one of the most severe and reviled forms of an act that one can inflict on another. Though with time, the various penal codes have recognized various kinds of rape starting from the penial-vagina penetration, oral and anal penetrations, forceful insertion of inanimate objects, by sedation, with incompetent victims, fraud, and all the sorts of problematic unacceptable sex. However, in today’s world, it has reached a limitless concept of rape in cyberspace. Even using the internet from the comfort of our homes could not help us to escape from the shackles of this evil. Virtual rape stems from the very concept of violent video games which gives a platform to the real-life aggression of an individual.
There is no doubt that the online gaming industry forms one of the largest entertainment industries in the world. It has been identified that violent games are the most played and famous on the web today. This has also led to becoming a most discussed topic for psychologists all over the world, whether there is a correlation between real-life violence and violence in games. While there are studies strongly showing a link between the two, on the contrary, there are also another set of stories that show no engagement between the two.
Virtual reality has indeed opened doors to an unimaginable new level of violence which has an extra layer of immersion. Those who get too attached and involved in their online game avatars would face similar visual stimuli online as they would have had in the real world. There is not going to be any difference in the feeling of violation as it appears to happen to their own body. That said, such a lifelike experience could feel more traumatizing in those moments. Thus, this ability of the users involved to harm one another even in the layers of virtual reality raises critically complex legal and ethical questions. It is something remarkable as at this point people can feel a sensory reaction making virtual reality much more real than we think it is.
A game that goes by the name Rape Day was released in March 2019 whose creator is someone known as Jake Roberts, is the first game that allows one to rape other people. In its initial original copy, it had allowed raping babies, but later the developer removed that option and allowed the feature to only rape adult women. The game had a set of pre-written story choices and still images to choose from, set in a zombie apocalypse setting allowing the player to control the protagonist whose character was a menacing serial killer-rapist. It is a visual novel where raping a woman was encouraged to progress in the game. It sparked plenty of hues and outcry, and finally, a petition was filed which garnered about 8000 signatures which finally led to its ban in major countries. However, it is still available in some countries where one could purchase as the restrictions are being discussed.
Though this was the first recognized official game found in the market, the stories of online sexual violence have been decades old. Back in 1993, an article called “The Village Voice” written by Julian Dibbell described the first-ever virtual rape of the world. The premise was set up in a text-based multi-user dimension known as LambdaMOO, wherein the rape involved one of the users hijacking the system writing sentences visually describing the sexual acts involving the avatars of the other users. The exact words read as “No bodies touched, and yet, to the victims, the violation was real: “posttraumatic tears were streaming down her face – a real-life fact that should suffice to prove that the words’ emotional content was no mere playacting.” Herein it explains violation in the context of an individual’s bodily integrity, that even though the actions are being done to the fake avatars present on the screen but the effects of it are being felt by a real person present beyond the screen.
Soon after in 2003, the instance repeated in a virtual world known as Second Life, created by an engineer known as Philip Rosedale. It allows people to create visual avatars that can interact with other users avatars in a detailed visual way. The Belgian Police in 2007 had announced a virtual rape incident that took in the said environment in 2003. Though not much is known about how the case progressed, second life was known for such activities.
Another such incident took place in 2016 in the case of QuiVR which is typically an archery game. A player in the game started to rub the chest area and the virtual crotch area of the other player’s avatar and chased her around. Thus though the game was intended to be a rape game, it did not prohibit such activities either. The player by the name of Jordan Balamire wrote in a blog about her experience of being groped and described that while she was not being physically touched, it felt just as real and violating.
Each of these instances mentioned above involved some sort of online sexual assault. All of them involved violative actions taking place in a virtual environment. Each of them depicted the human-controlled avatars engaging in sexually explicit acts in the absence of the consent of the other. The traumatic stress and psychological harm of which can be clearly understood by the various victims’ responses.
Does it constitute a crime – the thesis behind
As rape goes cyber, the transition of rape into space online makes this offensive scene a bit less intimate and intrusive. In no way undermining the traumatic impact it could have on the victims, the intrusion lessens as the proximity and visualization lack from the whole act in contrast to the actual real-life act. The coercion and the offender’s controller are less, which will differ the stressful experience as faced by the victim. It varies from a real-life setting of rape which involves physical force, coercion, and unwillingness. Herein, the offender manages to stay distant from the sense of wrongdoing. The whole process renders itself an exclusive one because it depicts a new way of exploiting the victim and violating their rights. Thus, to say it is a new paradigm of a sexual offence that we are witnessing.
In an experience, the element of consent frames the whole setting. It draws a moral line between the act to become criminally or socially acceptable. But despite that, it remains vague because of the absence of a unified understanding of the concept. As a result, it varies from case to case. As for online, a representation or an on-screen avatar would perform such acts that make it nature complicated. Applying the idea of consent seems complex as the characters are wholly deemed virtual essentially incapable of granting consent despite being controlled by a human user. The other aspect is whether such conduct involves real-life repercussions or not. If not, then does the activity cause criminalization? If it does then how should it be dealt with? Chances are due to the blurry boundary between the real and virtual, certain incidents might slip through the gaps of the present laws not recognizing the gravity of the harm.
Scholars say that though the characters in the virtual world are not real people and do not have real feelings, their human controllers who let their avatars become an extension of them become vulnerable to such psychological harm. It moves to the mental and emotional realm of the person and that behind every character or persona exists a real human mind and body. This suggests that these virtual characters should not be treated separately from the real-life operators.
Recently, in March 2020 in a very appreciative move, the Supreme Court of Israel has asserted convictions of rape performed by distant words as stated in an article. These instances involve the perpetrators fraudulently blackmailing the children, teenagers, and adult women online to manipulate them into masturbation and self-penetration in CrimA 1195/19 Doe vs. Israel. While this seems a progressive step, it still lags covering the concept of virtual rape through representations. Even in the United States, the approach could be under emotional distress and personal harm, however, the concept remains largely unanswered similar to that in other countries.
What’s new for the future
Immersive technology is committed to its progress and in turn has raised a lot of concern about the future of increasing virtual rapes, sexual assault and violation, and image-based abuse. In no time the virtual reality headsets and haptic suits will be launched which produce vibrations to enhance the stimuli of touch for a user’s experience upon wearing these devices. It seems problematic because it allows the user to attach the device which has the potential of engaging in sexual conduct. This raises the issue of consent. Australia’s eSafety Commission predicts that this technology would soon almost be indistinguishable from actual experiences forming an extended version of our reality.
In 2020, one of the largest virtual reality porn companies known as Sex Like Real launched a new engaging experience. It uses multi-camera videos and provides a feature of interaction through synchronized teledildonics (which is a type of haptic device which functions to enhance sexual excitement).
There are many possible negative outcomes for it as if the devices and wearables are manipulated or controlled, it could lead to non-consensual activity. It could increase the chances of online sexual abuse and violation by streaming such non-consensual images and videos. Virtual reality can be used to form an image or video using a fake three-dimensional figure to interact with a user.
- There needs to be a substantial reform in legally recognizing and addressing the concept.
- Framing an effective, efficient, and holistic legal framework for appropriate criminalization of the acts.
- Understanding the conditions of what virtual acts warrant criminalization based on both real and virtual repercussions.
- A need to determine the legality of such games not prohibiting sexually explicit behaviour.
- A clear process of identification and determination of the perpetrator.
- The process of imposing the liability whether on the offender or the intermediary in terms of the platform or the hardware manufacturer and any other such relevant actions.
It has been pointed out that society is not yet at the point where virtual assaults should be considered criminal. However, the topic remains highly subjective at the moment due to the lack of any legislative or judicial recognition. With all the information and data available, the questions revolving around the matter could only be answered through extensive research. To have a prominent and clear understanding would require the wisdom of our lawmakers dealing with a claim of virtual rapes and the related issues. Till then it becomes the duty of the virtual communities and their creators to find ways to develop safe virtual surroundings for their users. The virtual space demands more accountability and responsibility in terms of understanding the concept of virtual rape and the potential implications on the various users of its community.
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