Is virtual rape a crime?

At least one victim has complained to the real-life police.

Published May 7, 2007 10:13PM (EDT)

The spectrum of sexual harassment women run into online -- from the sophomoric to the pathological and psychotic -- has become a scorching hot topic as of late. I've read the articles; I've scanned the blog posts; and many of Salon's female and (I'm proud to say) male writers have thrown down in an internal e-mail discussion on the topic. So it's surprising that I'd never heard of online harassment taken to the ultimate extreme: virtual rape. That's right, thanks to Regina Lynn's column in Wired, I've learned that virtual characters can force other virtual characters to have sex against their will.

I suppose it shouldn't come as a surprise, either. Internet tricksters are already staging protests, pranks and political rallies in Second Life, a 3-D virtual world built and owned by its more than 6 million inhabitants. They're also having lots of virtual sex. There are virtual strippers, escorts and prostitutes and, of course, plenty of customers. You can purchase the perfect penis or breasts for your avatar, go shopping for virtual BDSM gear and even use real-life sex-toy interfaces that can be controlled through the virtual world.

That virtual rape exists is unsurprising. But is it a crime? It turns out police in Brussels, Belgium, are investigating a resident's report of being raped in Second Life. Technically speaking, Second Life avatars are not supposed to be able to take control of another avatar without permission. BDSM fans can exchange collars that allow them total submission or control, though, and these types of scripts can apparently be hidden within any virtual item. It's possible, then, for one player to unknowingly hand over his or her agency to another player. (Keep in mind, though, that virtual rape was around long before Second Life.)

In her column, Lynn argues that "a [virtual] sexual assault can indeed have a deep impact on a person's life, especially if they are actual rape survivors." The emotional scars of real-world rape often take much longer to heal than the physical and so it can be in the virtual world, she argues. But she ultimately concludes that virtual rape shouldn't be considered a crime. "I have a hard time calling it 'rape,' or believing it's a matter for the police," she writes. "No matter how disturbed you are by a brutal sexual attack online, you cannot equate it to shivering in a hospital with an assailant's sweat or other excretions still damp on your body ... I can't see us making virtual rape a matter for the real-life police."

I have to agree that virtual rape shouldn't be punishable as sexual assault in the real world. But it does seem appropriate to set enforceable guidelines that allow virtual communities to combat these types of things (i.e., you rape another character, you're booted out of that virtual ZIP code). The same would apply to other crimes played out in the virtual world; for instance, virtual murder shouldn't be prosecutable in the real world. (My God, imagine if our justice system were inundated with all of the D&D players who have spilled virtual blood!) There are some virtual communities where stealing, murder and (shudder) rape might be allowed or even ... appropriate. In online communities where these activities aren't allowed, there should be suitable online punishments.

Thankfully, most states call for real-world punishments for extreme cases of online harassment. That's a category virtual rape could comfortably fall within -- but it's totally incomparable to the reality of rape, which can't be escaped simply by logging off or flipping a power switch.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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