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Virtual Reality and Indecent Exposure

As new technology emerges and rapidly evolves, users naturally test the limits of these innovative platforms. When it comes to immersive platforms like virtual reality (VR), there are plenty of shocking opportunities for criminals to expose themselves and harass other users. Find out how indecent exposure and sexual harassment can occur in VR and the implications of these crimes in this type of immersive environment.

How Video-Based Nudity Compares to Real-Time Indecent Exposure

Historically, both social conventions and the law have punished indecent exposure much more severely than nudity that’s simply depicted in media. In fact, the First Amendment allows for public displays of media that depict nudity, but the law prohibits most instances of indecent exposure.

As a general rule, this is because indecent exposure can be seen as an immediate threat, and it can escalate to sexual harassment or other crimes. In contrast, a video display of nudity doesn’t place the viewer in danger.

Is Sexual Harassment Possible in VR?

Because VR is a sort of middle ground between reality and fantasy, issues such as indecent exposure and sexual harassment represent much more of a gray area. Most VR experts agree that indecent exposure and sexual harassment are possible in this type of virtual environment, but the impacts, responses, and potential solutions are very different from reality.

In a VR environment, users might feel less like they have to answer for their actions and might be more likely to exhibit bad behavior or commit crimes. Just because these actions don’t take place in reality, however, doesn’t mean they don’t pose actual problems or risks for users. After all, VR environments are designed to be immersive, often making them appear more immediate than reality itself. As Katherine Cross explains in Slate, “When human beings are involved and interacting with one another, it’s very real indeed. And in VR, it’s even more so.”

Many VR applications provoke more intense reactions and extreme fight-or-flight responses than users would experience in reality. That means the perception of harassment can be much worse in VR environments. After all, users can do more than issue casual threats. They can act out their threats and directly impact victims’ experiences.

Is Indecent Exposure Illegal in VR?

While some people argue that some sex offenders are unfairly punished in real life, it’s difficult to argue the same for virtual criminals. That’s because by and large, the potential to charge users for criminal activities in virtual spaces is still evolving.

Indecent exposure and instances of sexual harassment, such as groping, aren’t illegal in VR environments. That’s largely because the law punishes acts that cause physical harm. VR users can’t inflict physical harm on one another, but they can cause emotional or mental distress. Because this can make certain spaces unsafe for targeted users, VR experts anticipate that legislation or other regulations might become necessary for these immersive environments.

In addition, enforcing the current law depends on both the perpetrator and the victim being in the same jurisdiction and living under the same laws when a crime takes place. In the world of VR, however, users might be in different cities, states, or even countries. Law enforcement officers and courts might not have the ability or the resources to coordinate with one another to arrest or prosecute users in other jurisdictions. This ultimately leaves the question of policing indecent exposure and sexual harassment in VR very open.

Can VR Users Protect Themselves From Harassment?

When Jordan Belamire tested out the VR game QuiVr, an immersive combat platform, she quickly became the object of sexual harassment. A male player identified her as a female player and proceeded to grope her avatar. The male player refused repeated verbal requests to stop and even chased her avatar through the game’s VR environment. Eventually, Belamire exited the game and removed herself from the VR environment to put a stop to the harassment.

Upon learning about the harassment that Belamire experienced, QuiVr’s developers quickly took measures to make future incidents impossible. By programming a sort of personal bubble into the game, the developers were able to prevent users from harassing one another.

Other VR developers are considering standardizing such practices, effectively making users’ avatars invisible once they approach others too closely. To prevent verbal or text-based harassment, however, they’ll need to take additional steps. In some VR scenarios, developers might allow users to create friend lists consisting of users that they’ve opted to interact with closely. The default option, however, would be to prevent unwanted intimate interactions.

How VR Could Put a Stop to Indecent Exposure and Sexual Harassment

In addition, some VR experts have proposed giving users more options to protect themselves proactively. In some environments, VR users could have the ability to alter the way they perceive other users’ avatars. For instance, automatically applying modest clothing to nude avatars helps reduces instances of indecent exposure.

In other environments, VR users could gain improved resistance capabilities. For instance, developers could give users the ability to resist virtual harassment by dramatically pushing potential attackers away. This could also give some VR users a greater sense of power and agency within these platforms.

Other preventive measures could include enhancing systems that identify, monitor, and report offensive situations and instances of harassment in VR environments. Some platforms might even capture visual representations of such incidents, preserving them as evidence of harassment.

While VR is facing many potential issues with indecent exposure and sexual harassment, the good news is developers have many solutions to consider. As this technology evolves, developers will continue to test scenarios and determine how far they need to go to create safe spaces.

After all, users can choose to join many VR games, but as this technology becomes more prevalent, those who have virtual jobs might not be able to exit an environment to escape harassment. For now, users should consider approaching VR cautiously, with the understanding that they might have limited recourse against offenders and that they might encounter situations that VR can’t yet stop effectively.