XR Embodiment and the Changing Nature of Sexual Harassment
2. Understanding Sexual Harassment
|Causes of SH3 ||Conceptions of SH||SH in the Metaverse|
|Power Differentials |
SH is explained in terms of the power differentials between those targeted for SH and those engaging in it 
Power Threat Hypothesis:
Targets of SH are chosen because they represent threats to traditional patriarchal norms 
|Tripartite Analysis of SH |
Gender-Based Harassment (GBH):
“unwelcome verbal and visual comments and remarks that insult individuals because of their gender or that use stimuli known or intended to provoke negative emotions” (79)
Unwanted Sexual Attention (USA):
“include behaviors such as posting pornographic pictures in public or in places where they deliberately insult, telling chauvinistic jokes, and making gender related degrading remarks” (80)
Sexual Coercion (SC):
“involves putting physical or psychological pressure on a person to elicit sexual cooperation. This category includes actual, undesired physical touching, offers of a bribe for sexual favors, or making threats to receive sexual cooperation” (80)
|Perpetrator, Avatar, Interaction Matrix |
The ethics of virtual sexual assault is dependent on the following factors:
Who is enacting the assault (human v. virtual agent)
Who is targeted by the assault (human v. virtual agent)
The medium the assault occurs in (avatar–avatar interaction v. immersive space)
|Routine Activities |
Perception of Benefit:
Targets of SH are (mistakenly) perceived as signaling receptivity 
Enactors of SH are in positions in which they have multiple opportunities to engage in SH with little cost 
|Experiences of SH in XR|
XR embodiment using avatars challenges conceptions of sexual coercion 
Experiences of sexual deception and consent are complicated by XR technology [6,13]
“Phantom sense” suggests the nature of XR experience is complex 
3. The Metaverse
With [social VR spaces like] Rec Room, when you’re creating the avatar, you’re actually looking at it and you can move around and turn around. It’s truly an extension of you. If it’s in a normal game, it’s not as engaging. (4)
…by using a feminine female avatar, I found that I was just more comfortable with that body, and it’s kind of what I learned about my identity. That was the evidence to myself to consider which direction I wanted to take my actual body outside of the VR. If I found I was happy in VR about my body and I was not happy with my body outside of the VR, why not change it? (5)
5. Social Elements
If one tries to be physically close to another user in social VR without asking for permission, the majority of our participants would consider it a potential form of harassment–because it disrupts the social norm of appropriate physical distancing… In the offline world, a stranger who attempts to perform similar uninvited intimate behaviors on another stranger without consent is often considered as a harasser. In social VR, people seem to hold the same understanding. (11)
6. Space in the Metaverse: Public, Private, Semi-Private, and V-POPS
… certain rights [also exist] over virtual space and property. For instance, if you have a website you have certain rights to control its content…This is akin to having a physical space such as a backyard—someone may throw trash into the yard, but you are not required to preserve it. Similarly, if someone posts spam on your blog or hacks into your website, you are generally not required to preserve what they have done. In both cases the “space” (whether physical or virtual) is something you can ethically restrict the use of. (13)
7. SH in XR: Variant, Invariant, and Unique Forms
depends only on the abstract causal organization of the underlying system… A property such as being a calculator depends only on this organization, which is also present in a simulation, so a simulated calculator is a calculator. The same reasoning explains why a virtual calculator is a calculator.
Institutional Review Board Statement
Informed Consent Statement
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
One turning point in the law was the case Williams v. Saxbe, where the court held that SH was considered discriminatory treatment against gender under Title VII. This was significant because rather than emphasizing sexual desires, the court focused on discrimination based on gender. In 1980, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) created guidelines that expanded the interpretation of Title VII in regard to SH to have similar interpretation to discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity which considers an act as discrimination when it “has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, a hostile, or offensive working environment”  (5).
This can include physical alterations as minor as “filters” applied to make oneself appear blemish free, thinner, or otherwise more in conformity to local beauty norms but can also extend to graphical overlays that more radically alter the appearance of the self to others (i.e., to embody oneself as a cat, robot, or a cloud of mist).
The hmd itself can affect the immersiveness of the system if its weight or fit intrude on a user’s experience (diminishing its likelihood of generating presence).
Ramirez  has argued that XR simulations are more likely to generate virtually real experiences in users when such simulations are high in what he refers to as “perspectival fidelity” (a simulation’s ability to recreate the user’s real-life perspective) and “context-realism” (the degree to which a simulation’s content cohere’s with the user’s expectations of real-world interaction). In more recent work, Ramirez  has also identified psychological dispositions that users bring to simulations that may make some users more likely, in virtue of those dispositions, to have virtually real experiences.
Even here, we can imagine greater and lesser degrees of freedom. Later, we will argue that creators of such spaces (specifically spaces with what we willll call public functions in the next section) have a moral obligation to allow their users to create bodies that reflect not only the full range of human embodied diversity but also embodiment options that extend into recognizable non-human forms.
Qingxiao Zheng and colleagues have coined the term “phantom touch” to describe phenomena where “users feel [virtual] sensation as if they are their avatars, without any haptic technology” . In our parlance, we would describe this as a kind of virtually real experience of physical touch. Surprisingly, Zheng’s research suggests that this can happen even without haptic feedback.
Interestingly, Ron Dotsch and Daniël Wigboldus  found that virtual distance can be used to study (very real) implicit bias. They created a virtual environment in which Native Dutch participants encountered bots whose avatars were racially coded to present either as another Native Dutch person or as a Dutch person of Moroccan descent. They found that Native Dutch participants kept a larger virtual distance between themselves and bots racially coded to present as of Moroccan descent than they did with bots coded to present as a Native Dutch person. This mirroring of implicit bias behavior is in line with our hypothesis that many XR experiences (even somewhat benign ones such as waiting at a virtual bus stop) can be experienced as virtually real and, furthermore, that virtually real racial bias (and, we think, SH) can occur in these spaces.
Danaher argues that “[i]f the wholly virtual agent committing the assault is specifically programmed by a human to perform such an act, then it will be easy to trace a line of responsibility back to that human programmer. If the wholly virtual agent has some degree of autonomy or artificial intelligence, if it is programmed by an organisation or team of humans, and if its behaviour is an unanticipated or unexpected outcome of its autonomy and intelligence, the situation might be a little more difficult. In that case, we may have a ‘responsibility gap’ opening up between the acts of the virtual agent and the decisions made by its programmers and creators” (27).
Neely  recognizes the importance of regulation when it comes to what we would call privately owned and private function spaces on the one hand and publicly owned public function spaces on the other: “the owner of the physical property still has certain rights pertaining to the augmentation of their property. However, what those rights are depends both on whether the property is private or public and how the augmentation is implemented” (14). Hers are important distinctions. We claim at the end of this paper that the regulatory environment becomes even more multifaceted when one introduces XR embodiment into virtual privately owned public spaces. As such, it is important to track not only the distinction between public and private ownership but also the functional nature of the (virtual or physical) space as well.
Although we focus specifically on sexual harassment here, the idea applies more widely to issues of speech, behavior, and appearance. Although beyond the immediate scope of this paper, we say more about regulatory questions in our conclusion.
Some  may take issue with this way of framing things and argue, instead, that a virtual calculator is a fictional calculator because it can never instantiate all the properties a physical calculator has. They might thus claim that XR SH can also never instantiate all of the properties a physical act of SH can have. As a result such a critic may sat that SH is impossible in XR and that only fictional SH can take place. We think this is a mistake for two reasons. First, although Juul may be right that a virtual calculator may only accurately represent features relevant to calculation but not, for example, a calculator’s ability to double as an improvised back scratcher, we think the relevant properties in instances of SH are largely psychological or physical. We will show that these properties are possible in social XR spaces and thus that, qua act of SH, real (as opposed to virtual or fictional) SH can occur. Secondly, accepting Juul’s argument runs counter to current conceptions of SH that recognize organizationally invariant forms of SH such as verbal harassment. It is irrelevant, we think, to SH whether the target of that harassment could realize all the properties of their harasser (like, for example, the fact that physical attackers are edible: they can be killed and eaten). Attackers may have such properties but, qua act of harassment, they are irrelevant to the reality of the action.
Litska Strickwerda  has argued that haptics harassment should be seen as a form of sexual assault: “A user could commit a virtual rape in a virtual reality environment involving a haptic device or robotics. Where in the case of a virtual rape in a virtual world, one user takes control over another user’s avatar in order to make his or her avatar appear to engage in sexual activities the user did not consent to, in this case, one user would have to take control over another user’s haptic device or robot so that s/he can give that user sexually laden sensory feedback to which s/he did not consent” (496). We treat what we call “Avatar chasing” as distinct from cyber stalking and physical stalking for several reasons. Avatar chasing can involve elements familiar to both physical stalking (following a user around from virtual space to virtual space in a way that mimics physical stalking given the psychological effects of XR embodiment) and also cyber stalking (tracking user posts, comments, and other social XR artifacts). Additionally, although we consider pseudo-allyship a unique form of XR harassment we can imagine cases of pseudo-allyship in physical spaces (e.g., undercover agents) but note that such cases are both more difficult to carry out and rarer in physical spaces. They are also usually directed at groups organized around ideology rather than groups organized around identity. Age embodiment, though not necessarily a form of SH, can be used to engage in sexual deception, active or passive graphic harassment, and deepfake harassment [35,36].
This remains true even despite the fact that people may respond quite differently to being the targets of SH. A person’s responses to SH form an important, but only partial, component of our understanding of SH.
This is less true of AR devices which aim to preserve a user’s experience of the physical world around them (albeit augmented with simulated content).
Some regulatory attempts have been nonetheless attempted. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the state of California’s California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) both aim to protect user privacy and data in ways that naturally translate to XR spaces. One concern about existing legislation is that they are not tailored to the specific forms of data gathering made possible by XR technologies and are not well suited to proactively prevent forms of harassment (including SH) made possible by these technologies [citation omitted for review].
In the United States, such an approach would likely require modifications to Section 230 of Title 47 of the United States Code which currently do not treat most spaces online as publishers of their users’ content and hence does not hold them liable for such content. While seen by many as essential for the function of modern social media, alterations to Section 230 and reconceptualizations of the relative values of privacy and freedom of speech have been proposed (Moore 2016). It may also be worth taking Luciano Floridi’s suggestion that such spaces “should be conceptualised and governed more like a condominium”  more literally, which would also require modifications to current regulatory frameworks for speech and content.
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|Privately Owned (Individual)||Privately Owned (Corporate)||Publicly Owned|
|Private function||Private Home||Internal Meeting Spaces||Naval Warship|
Public University Classroom
|Private Game Servers|
|Public function||Beach access via private property||Corporate Parks|
|Active Verbal SH|
(non-consensually spoken offensive sexual comments manifesting as unwanted sexual attention, gender-based harassment, or sexual coercion)
Active Graphic SH
(sending unsolicited, sexually explicit media to another user)
(offensive sexual messages either directly sent to a user or embedded in a virtual environment where it would not be expected)
Physical Risk: decreased attention to one’s physical environment places users at an increases user risk of many forms of SHAge Embodiment: XR embodiment allows users to engage in virtually real sexual acts with users (or bots) embodying child-like avatars
(non-consensually tracking an avatar’s movements and/or activity as a form of stalking)
Passive Verbal and Graphic SH
(embedding sexually explicit language and media in contexts where it would not be expected)
(virtually real experiences of physical harassment)
(when another user takes non-consensual control of one’s haptic devices)
(use of XR embodiment to deceive users about who they are engaging with)
(use of deepfake technology to create embodied revenge pornography)
(when designers fail to provide fully inclusive embodiment opportunities for users that reflect problematic norms about acceptable and unacceptable bodies)
(when a user takes control of another user’s XR body to alter its presentation in non-consensual and sexually explicit ways)
(embodying oneself as a member of a marginalized group in order to undermine or harass group members)
(use of deepfake technology to harass others, e.g., taking on the appearance of a person’s abuser to traumatize or coerce)
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Ramirez, E.J.; Jennett, S.; Tan, J.; Campbell, S.; Gupta, R. XR Embodiment and the Changing Nature of Sexual Harassment. Societies 2023, 13, 36. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc13020036
Ramirez EJ, Jennett S, Tan J, Campbell S, Gupta R. XR Embodiment and the Changing Nature of Sexual Harassment. Societies. 2023; 13(2):36. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc13020036Chicago/Turabian Style
Ramirez, Erick J., Shelby Jennett, Jocelyn Tan, Sydney Campbell, and Raghav Gupta. 2023. "XR Embodiment and the Changing Nature of Sexual Harassment" Societies 13, no. 2: 36. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc13020036