Thursday, August 26, 2010

If It Feels Real: Sex, Harrassment, & Rape in Virtual Worlds

This week a friend of mine got griefed/harassed in Second Life by a woman who thought he was a man who had harassed her. The whole thing got so out of hand that he ended up filling an incidence report on the incensed and abusive woman who was herself a victim. Turns out the actual original harasser of the woman had a name a couple letter off of my friend's SL name. Ironic, no? The whole thing reminded me of a post I wrote back in February of 2008, so I thought I would repost it again. 

February 2008:
A while back there was an article in Virtually Blind about the Belgian police investigating an alleged rape that took place in Second Life last April. Now the first thing that comes to mind is that SL is a computer based user-controlled environment, is any sort of "rape" even possible? GameGrene has a very good article by Shataina on the issue of "Rape in RPGs" that everyone operating sexually in any virtual world should read.

One of the things I find most fascinating, though, is the wide variety of opinions that are still being generated on virtual world forums (the most recent response to the Virtually Blind story was just last week, the responses to Shataina's article in GameGrene went on for over two years with the last only a couple months ago). Why does the idea of rape or even sexual harassment of an imaginary figure push so many hot buttons for us? Most of the responses to this issue point out that the avatar is controlled at a "safe" distance, that there is no reason the person behind the av can't just tp out, mute the assailant, or turn off the computer and walk away. Other responders point out the strong identity connection to the av that the real person behind the controls has and how such an assault could disorient the real person behind the av.

The fact of the matter is that there are clear cases of sexual harassment in SL. I've met male avatars (thankfully not a lot) who have launched into graphic descriptions of what they "are doing" to my avatar--descriptions that involved graphic sexuality up to and including forcible rape scenarios. My response to that kind of behavior--if they don't take the initial response of "No thank you! I am not interested in having virtual sex with you!"--is generally something like: "are you such a lousy lover that you find it necessary to force yourself on women like this often?" My second response is to mute them. But I can see how, to someone who is young or insecure or (worse!) someone who has been a victim in RL, such an "attack" does in fact feel like rape. Is it prosecutable? Probably not. But you can report it and maybe even get an "attacker" banned from SL for such behavior (see: How to File an Incident Report).

The bottom line is that this issue is real. While it may not be rape, it certainly is rude, and that is ultimately not acceptable behavior. And lest we not forget, ladies, this door swings both ways. I'm heard from men in SL, too, that they have been put off of virtual sex because of pushy or aggressive women (all too often these are escorts looking for business). Many times in RL sexual assault cases turn into "He Said/She Said" debates. The point here is not to debate the issue, but to adhere to some standards of polite behavior to avoid such conflicts in the first place. Here are a few simple guidelines:

1. First and foremost, be certain the person you are chatting up is really interested in sex with you BEFORE launching into aggressive or sexually graphic chat. Ask not just once, but 2 or 3 times: "Say I'd like to make love to you . . . would you like to come back to my place?" If he or she says "no," that's it. Game over. No means no.

2. Pay attention to the cues they are sending you. Are they really responding to your flirtations? Or are they making polite non-committal noises? Much of the innuendo and inflection of real conversation can be lost in the use of IMs. Don't assume everyone is into virtual sex. Don't rush anyone into bed, don't let anyone drag you there against your better judgment. (An addendum to this one for escorts is that if you have not negotiated a price UP FRONT before the deed, then you don't get paid. Extortion after the fact is just as unacceptable as sexual harassment.)

3. If you are not comfortable with what someone is saying when they are flirting with you, tell them to stop. Tell them you aren't interested. If all else fails stop talking except for typing an an emote in the public chat like: "/me SLAPS YOU HARD ACROSS THE FACE". BTW, gentlemen, even if that person harassing you is a woman who doesn't want to take no for an answer, you can go ahead and slap her, too. Sometimes someone gets so caught up in the role they are playing they forget that not everyone wants to play along. You need to get your assailant's attention to make them stop.

4. If you are in a public sim, like a club, appeal to the owner or host for assistance. Sometimes a third party can get the attention of the assailant who is just lost in their own fantasy. At the very least a sim owner deserves to know what is going on so he or she can ban such a person from the sim and stop them from harassing others there.

5. If all else fails mute them, leave the area, or log off.

Sex, whether in SL or RL can be a wonderful mutual connection, a joyful coming together of willing lovers, of consensual adults. It should never be one-sided or hurtful. Being aware of your potential lover's real wants and needs, their stopping points and their go-aheads, is part of the learning curve of love. Take the time to do it right.

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