Sexual assault is a significant problem facing the evolving metaverse. Therefore, preventative measures must be implemented before the metaverse becomes widely adopted and accessible.

Several users of Meta’s virtual reality (VR) platform have alleged that they were sexually assaulted while using the system. Now the company, formerly known as Facebook, has added a safety feature, dubbed ‘Personal Boundary’, to two of its VR apps (Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues). The Personal Boundary feature allows avatars to add a bubble around them with a radius of two feet, which stops users from coming into close contact.

Is the metaverse a new threat to women’s online safety?

Sexual assault is rife on virtual platforms. A 2021 survey by Reach3 Insights and Lenovo found that 59% of women hide their gender while playing games online to avoid such harassment.

Sexual harassment in Meta’s metaverse was reported during trials in late 2021. In December, one victim reported that she was harassed in Meta’s Horizon Venues after a group of male avatars inappropriately touched her and verbally abused her with sexual references. The abusers also took a photograph of her and sent a message saying, “pretend you didn’t love it.” Similarly, there was a report of groping on Horizon Worlds during testing in November.

Meta’s new Personal Boundary feature could be the start of a safe virtual space  

Meta, which has already invested billions of dollars in its metaverse plans, promises that the safety of its users is a priority. On February 4, the company announced Personal Boundary, designed to prevent avatars from coming within two feet of each other, creating more personal space for people to avoid unwanted interactions.

However, Meta has previously failed to implement safety measures in its online spaces despite using both humans and artificial intelligence (AI) technology to moderate content. Adopting similar preventative measures in the metaverse may not be computationally possible, but the metaverse could follow in the footsteps of online games like World of Warcraft, where there are limits on whom avatars can approach and interact with.  

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Before launching Personal Boundary, the company implemented a feature in Horizon Worlds that made avatars’ hands invisible when entering someone’s personal space. Meta has also ensured its avatars are only visible from the waist up, which could help to avoid ‘below the belt’ harassment.

What has become increasingly apparent is that Meta must develop a better reputation for its metaverse channels than its social media platforms.