Here's How Men Reacted To Virtual Assault News

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Here's How Men Reacted To Virtual Assault News
October 27, 2016

Before Jordan Belamire could say hello, the man was rubbing her chest. When she said "stop" and ran, he chased her, reaching out and pinching. He even shoved his hand at her crotch and grabbed at her.
 
"There I was," Belamire wrote, "being virtually groped in a snowy fortress with my brother-in-law and husband watching." She was playing QuiVr with the HTC Vive — a game in virtual reality — and a fellow player had just sexually assaulted her.
 
Belamire, an author, has been assaulted in real life — "once in a Starbucks in broad daylight. I know what it's like to happen in person," she told CNNMoney. "The shock and disgust I felt" playing in virtual reality "was not too far off from that."
 
But when she told her story — first published on Medium, then on Mic — it triggered a wave of abuse she never saw coming. The response was crueler than she imagined.
 
"The groping that happened to me in VR was disgusting, but the verbal backlash is way worse," Belamire, 30, said in an email on Monday. "As understanding as I can be toward angry comments, the waves of negativity can get overwhelming." Here are some reactions from men on the internet:
 
"Cry me a fucking river."
"Welcome to the internet."
"Whine more, please."
"Good lord, you really are a sniveling cowardly woman, aren't you. Or do you always need a full red carpet treatment to do something fun?"
 
While some people responded to Belamire sympathetically, a slew of commenters on Medium, Reddit and Twitter attacked and belittled her. They downplayed her virtual assault, saying they'd experienced worse behavior — like tea-bagging, when a virtual avatar puts his crotch on a dead character's head.
 
"You're seriously complaining about a video game. Guess I should curl into a ball over all the times my Halo corpse has been tea-bagged."
"Wow, this article is such a horrible joke." 
 
The instant counter-blast to her story is an all-too-common consequence for women who choose to speak up about harassment.  "I understand now why women don't share their stories," Belamire told Mic. "The backlash is swift and intense, and why would anyone want to put themselves through that? It's much easier to never say a thing."
 
Readers blamed Belamire for staying in the game. They questioned her sanity and told her to grow up:
 
"You can be an adult and learn to deal with the situation and heal and grow, or you can be a child expecting someone to change our diapers from crapping yourself every time your pain is triggered because you never chose to heal it."
"Have you considered visiting a therapist?" one user wrote on Medium. "Most women are able to differentiate between the imaginary and reality."
"If someone does something you don't like, the reasonable solution is to leave," said a redditor.
"As much of a douche that guy must have been, makes you wonder why she didn't just leave the match," another wrote.
 
Another common response: The attack took place in a game, so it shouldn't be taken seriously — and it definitely wasn't real sexual assault.
 
"Let's be clear," said one redditor. "This is VR. There was no assault. There is no victim. There is an asshole who made someone uncomfortable. The easiest solution is to find someone else to play with or play solo."
"She was not sexually assaulted in VR," another redditor said. "Her sexless avatar was virtually touched by another sexless avatar. This is not a big deal at all."
 
I asked game developer Elizabeth Sampat how she would classify Belamire's experience: Was it harassment or an unavoidable consequence of the medium?
 
"First, I'd consider it assault, not harassment," Sampat said in an email. "And it is unavoidable in VR for the same reason it's unavoidable in reality: No one in power cares enough to do anything."
 
Ohio State University researchers surveyed 293 women who played video games online and found that misogynistic comments — like rape jokes and threats — had lasting effects.
 
"They don't forget about sexual harassment," said Dr. Jesse Fox, lead author of the study and professor of communication at Ohio State University, reported PsychCentral. "The abuse that women experience online stays with them and has a real-world impact. They withdraw from the game and continue to think about what happened."
 
And that's not even factoring in unwanted physical contact in an immersive environment — a platform that's gaining in popularity. As one of Belamire's critics ominously told her, "Just wait for further adoption of VR. This is nothing yet."
 
Virtual reality spaces are going to continue to become more lifelike and densely populated as more people acquire the hardware. That puts the onus on developers working in VR to learn from their two-dimensional predecessors dealing, or not dealing, with online abuse. 
 
Twitter, for example, sees women and people of color ditch its platform when the abuse becomes too much — abuse that has cost Twitter some very necessary business. So what can VR developers do to get ahead of an already rising issue? 
 
First, diverse teams. 
 
Game developer Jessica Price told Mic that companies need to make sure there are women on their creative teams, dev teams and test groups.
 
"Silicon Valley companies and their ilk elsewhere tend to make technology by affluent white men [and] for affluent white men, which is why mob harassment is basically baked into Twitter's DNA — it's something that most affluent white guys have never had to deal with, and would never think of designing to prevent," Price said in an email on Tuesday. 
 
"People with different life experiences — women, especially women of color, non-straight women, trans women, etc. — bring different perspectives and have different priorities," she added. 
 
Price said that developers should also try stepping into their users' footsteps. She called on male developers to use their products under female names and avatars. 
 
"I guarantee you that if everyone employed by Twitter had to tweet about game dev/politics/etc. using female avatars and names, Twitter's tools for handling harassment would get more robust in a hurry," she said. Price added that companies should ask women what they want and what makes them comfortable.
 
"Get hard data," she said. "Bring in psychologists to study online toxicity and figure out how to reduce it. This has been a problem for decades, but there's been very little effort devoted to studying why it happens and how to ameliorate it." 
 
When I asked Price if harassment in virtual reality is more than "just a game," she said that it gets "really tiring" to have to constantly prove that it's harmful.
 
"The dirty secret is that there's a lot they can do to stop harassment and be more inclusive toward women, but they won't because they're afraid of losing their male user base — which is a fear unsupported by any evidence that men will leave if they can't engage in harassment."
 
We don't need more women to come forward with hellish tales of harassment in these spaces. We need online abuse to be met with a sense of urgency. 
 
"Virtual assault is not inevitable because of the medium of virtual reality," Sampat said. "Virtual assault is inevitable because, ironically, the people creating virtual reality hardware, software and platforms completely lack the ability to put themselves in anyone else's shoes."

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