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Avatar harassment and sexual assault remain controversial issues because institutions hosting virtual worlds are not accustomed to dealing with — or even discussing — digital forms of these distressing behaviors.

Harassment and assault are frequent infractions in virtual environs, including those frequented by students and professors. London journalist Tim Guest, author of Second Lives: a Journey Through Virtual Worlds, estimated that "about 6.5 percent of logged-in residents" have filed one or more abuse reports in Second Life. By the end of 2006, he writes, Linden Lab, creator of Second Life, "was receiving close to 2,000 abuse reports a day."

Current statistics are unavailable. But you can monitor the types of offenses and where they occurred in Second Life by accessing its community incident report chronicling the 25 most recent infractions and resulting penalties. On Dec. 28, 2009, five of the 25 infractions concerned "indecency: broadly offensive content or conduct"; three, sexual harassment; and two, intolerance. Most penalties included warnings with four one-day suspensions and one three-day suspension. (In fairness, Linden Lab has tried to crack down on these community infractions, hosting guides such as this to inform users about abuse and how to file reports about repeat offenders.)

Educational institutions with a presence in or that introduced students to virtual worlds might want to analyze the phenomenon of avatar rape, which presents a unique challenge to traditional jurisprudence. Rape is assumed to be both physical and geographical, as in a crime scene. Both dimensions are missing on the Web. Nevertheless, avatars are symbols of the self. As such, it behooves us to investigate:

  1. How avatar rape happens in virtual worlds.
  2. What concepts and theories apply when the act is neither physical nor geographical.
  3. Why the discussion is even necessary.

Before delving into avatar rape, I should note that such a discussion could have the unintended consequence of desensitizing the topic of real rape, whose ramifications, physical and psychological, are extreme. However, silence about virtual assault also has consequences in that many colleges and universities view virtual worlds as learning environments and may not know how to resolve issues when infractions occur.

Those unfamiliar with virtual worlds may wonder how avatar rape even happens. (You can access a short bibliography of online content devoted in part or in whole to issues involving virtual assault.) Typically, users encounter the act through three scenarios: You can lure others or be lured into it yourself. You can purchase or role-play it. You can “grief” it — a term that means to cause grief — or suffer it because of a griefer.

I became interested in avatar rape after I read an account in Gawker Media, titled “Second Life: Rape for Sale.” The post noted how users could indulge in rape fantasies (options: Rape victim, Get raped, or Hold victim) "for a trifling 220 Linden dollar things." Diana Allandale (not her real name) shared her experience with avatar rape in response to an online article, “How exactly does ‘virtual rape’ even occur in Second Life?” Her incident happened on a beach — a typical landscape as avatars interact with each other on "islands" — when another avatar invited her to go skinny-dipping.

"Being the newbie I was, I didn’t understand that the word ‘love’ hovering over the top meant ‘intercourse.’ "

When the rape began, she recalled, "my first thought was — ‘Hey! I didn’t consent to this!’ " Allandale rebuffed her attacker, dressed her avatar and left, "feeling ticked off that someone would take advantage of my newbie-ness, but having learned a little about human nature."

Allandale is no prude, by the way. She’s a high school teacher and author of erotic novels under the byline of Diana Hunter.

Then there are griefers who have haunted multiuser domains for years. In 1993, Julian Dibble published “A Rape in Cyberspace” in the Village Voice, narrating the deeds of one Mr. Bungle in the text-based virtual world, LambdaMOO:

They say he raped them that night. They say he did it with a cunning little doll, fashioned in their image and imbued with the power to make them do whatever he desired. They say that by manipulating the doll he forced them to have sex with him, and with each other, and to do horrible, brutal things to their own bodies.

Like many in academe, all I knew about avatar rape was what I had read about it. Then I witnessed an online sexual assault — and had a witness, too.

Tom Beell, a journalism professor at Iowa State, asked me about Second Life, knowing I had researched and written about it. He had never heard of the virtual world, so I opted to show rather than explain it to him using my office desktop.

I logged on and teleported to a beach. Within the first few minutes, we observed one nude male avatar violently rape another clothed male avatar drinking a pixelated martini at a boardwalk bar.

"What’s going on?" Beell asked. He looked startled. Thankfully, he couldn’t read the chat in the text bar of my monitor. In 30 years in academe, I have encountered homophobia in an inappropriate joke or offhand remark about lesbians, gays or transsexuals. Now I was reading hate speech so vile that I cannot summarize it here.

The incident occurred in 2007. I was thankful that audio was not available on my desktop at the time. If a student or staff member walked into my office and heard what I read that day on the chat bar, that person would have been exposed to hate speech in addition to avatar rape.

In researching the phenomenon, I sought viewpoints from directors of information technology and women’s studies at Big XII and other peer institutions. My research assistant Sam Berbano and I spent two months working with our Institutional Review Board, seeking approval to post our survey online.

Given the sensitive nature of the topic, the IRB asked us to warn survey participants about possible harm to their reputations should their responses be published. To lessen risk, the IRB also required signed copies of consent to anyone responding to our survey. So we opted for a snail mail version with a disclaimer: “A risk of participation in this survey may arise if some may find your opinions in the free-response section at variance with their own.”

My research assistant wondered how a survey measuring opinion about avatar rape could have more potential for harm than participation in a virtual environment in which such a digital act could occur.

As it turned out, only one respondent out of 43 provided comments for this essay. Jean Van Delinder at the time was chair of the Faculty Council at Oklahoma State University, where she is an associate professor of sociology. Van Delinder believed discussions like this raise awareness. "Since as a sociologist I view rape as an act of dominance and power," she states, "virtual reality would be a setting conducive to this type of attack and students need to be made aware of it."

Van Delinder also believed that "assault, even virtual assault, has a psychological and emotional component. It is more than just physical because the victim or target continuously replays in the mind what has happened and, in a sense, experiences it over and over again."

One of the best articles citing material affirming that view is “Virtual Rape,” published by Richard MacKinnon in the March 1997 issue of Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. In one section, MacKinnon introduces a feminist definition of rape that involves damage to the self that may be physical, emotional, psychological or material. "In this way," he writes, "rape becomes an assault not against a persona, but against the person behind the persona."

Tim Guest, author of Second Lives, believes sexual assault in virtual worlds is real and imaginary. "As the saying goes, the thought is written in water, and the deed is written in stone. Events that take place in virtual worlds seem to lie somewhere in between, a kind of water with memory."

He compares rape in a virtual realm to flashing in a real one.

Second Life advocates often note that avatar assault is easily avoided; you can teleport away, they say. Linden Lab recommends muting voice during verbal assaults. "Click! Problem solved," it states.

Walking away from hate speech on campus doesn't mean damage was circumvented or an epithet excusable or that charges cannot be filed against a person making slurs. Why should virtual reality be different when users assume liability for what happens there?

Guest agrees. Verbal assaults are just that, no matter where they happen. "The only difference being again no threat of violent escalation. Being able to teleport away is of little relevance, just another way to say you can't be trapped or hurt."

In most cases, he is correct. Many assume that crossover violence from virtual to real environs is unlikely because operators of avatars are in different locales. That is not always the case when people on residential campuses meet on an island operated by their residential institution.

The Lantern, campus newspaper at the Ohio State University, reported in a 2008 crime summary that a staff member contacted police about harassing phone calls at work. The harasser purportedly "knew the staff member through the Web site Second Life, and was under the impression they had been corresponding through the site for six months. … The staff member told the caller to stop calling after the caller said she had a package for the staff member and knew her address."

Guest believes cases like this may constitute harassment and recommends that institutions transfer any existing policies in student handbooks to the virtual world. "The only danger," he warns, "is to over-legislate the territory of sexuality, which needs a kind of animalistic disregard for propriety in order to thrive.

"Universities are probably not the place for this in SL, however."

Some legal counsels have told me if institutions support or fund virtual worlds, they also have an obligation to inform learners through curriculums or workshops about virtual rape, harassment and other assaults on the psyche.

Diana Allendale aka Diana Hunter, who wrote about being lured into avatar rape, reminded me that online harassment happens daily to students in all manner of new media venues, not just virtual worlds. Text messages insult, she says. MySpace comments intimidate. Institutions not only need policies to deal with the fallout of these incidents, she says, but also have to educate students on how to handle them.

"It's not a case of ‘if you are attacked,’ " she adds, "but ‘when you are attacked.’ "

Unlike harassing text messages or intimidating chat on social networks, the concern here involves terms of service that transfer liability to users — yet another reason that educators need to raise awareness about avatar rape and other forms of harassment in virtual worlds used as learning environments.

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