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Singapore’s MHA Investigates Sexual Assault in Metaverse

Young woman wearing VR glasses and interacting with virtual reality, entertainment and innovative technology concept

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Whether it’s virtual, online or offline, sexual assault is an unspeakable crime. Since last year, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has been investigating and studying sexual assault in VR.

Karthigan Subramaniam, a psychologist from the Crime, Investigation and Forensic Psychology branch of the Home Team Behavioural Sciences Centre, has been working with MHA’s team of psychologists to uncover the gravity of the situation.

“There’s a fallacy called digital dualism, in which people believe the virtual and physical worlds are separate,” Karthigan told local broadsheet The Straits Times on Tuesday.

“It is a misconception that any abuse that happens online is less real just because it happens behind a screen. In the metaverse, individuals are so immersed it does feel real, and the impact of sexual assault in VR is very real,” he said.

For the victims, assault in the virtual space is just as scarring as in real life but are ridiculed for saying so.

“For many of them, they also get victim blamed, or told their experiences aren’t real because it happened in a VR space and they just have to deal with it,” Karthigan said. “But it shouldn’t be this way.”

Jordan Belamire – a pseudonym used by a woman in America – was assaulted virtually in 2016. Writing about her experience on Medium, she said “The virtual groping feels just as real. Of course, you’re not physically being touched, just like you’re not actually one hundred feet off the ground, but it’s still scary as hell.”

Gamer and marketer Christabel Chiang expressed concern about how even children can be harassed in games.

“I am especially worried for the children, because many will just ignore warnings about the dangers,” she said.

Non profit organisation Common Sense Media found that virtual strip clubs offering virtual sex acts to minors was found on Roblox. In one case, a 7-year-old girl was threatened with gang rape by a group of male avatars.

“In the metaverse, young users can regularly come across virtual strip clubs, sexual grooming, simulated sex acts, and rape threats,” the report said.