Navigating Women’s Safety in the Metaverse

Trigger warning: This article contains references to sexual assault which some readers may find distressing.

There's a lot of excitement about the concept of the metaverse, a network of 3D virtual worlds that are so realistic they could blend our physical and digital lives. Tech companies say it could make society fairer by removing barriers and enhancing our abilities. However, it’s also critical to look at the gaps in protections that leave users vulnerable, particularly women who comprise the majority of in person and online sexual violence victims.

We have long known that digital spaces are also rife with harmful behaviours. A 2021 survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission sheds light on the gravity of online sexual harassment, with 1 in 6 individuals, particularly women aged 18-34, reporting such experiences. As technology becomes more immersive, the ever-expanding and evolving metaverse amplifies the need for safeguarding measures, particularly for women and girls who could face a heightened risk of sexual harassment or assault in this new digital environment, which we have already seen instances of in Asia and elsewhere.

Part of the issue lies with lack of regulation and avenues for legal recourse. Current legislation defines rape and sexual assault only as physical offences. No jurisdiction yet, including Hong Kong, has passed legislation that specifically addresses sexual assault in virtual environments.

An equally worrying development has been the hyperfocus on discussing safeguarding in the metaverse on immersive, haptic technologies that blur the line between reality and virtual reality, making experiences tactile. However, this emphasis on the physical aspect of assault in the metaverse can overshadow the harm caused by non-physical forms of online abuse, which can cause long lasting impact such as self-harm, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts and more. This reinforces the misconception that physical abuse is more significant than emotional and verbal abuse.

TWF is committed to tackling all forms of sexual violence – in-person or online. As part of these efforts, we launched the #MakePeopleCount campaign in 2020 to raise awareness about the prevalence of sexual violence in Hong Kong. However, we need comprehensive cross-sector action that targets underlying structural and systemic factors to make real progress. To effectively address sexual violence in the metaverse, tech companies should implement robust policy and security measures to prevent and address any form of abuse. On the legal front, while Hong Kong has made some progress in penalising certain forms of online sexual offences, further efforts should be made to tackle the full spectrum of sexual assault in virtual environments. Importantly, as a society, we need a paradigm shift in how we address the full range of impact across all forms of online abuse. We need to recognise that various forms of abuse are continuous and interconnected, each form affecting and influencing the others.

As we continue to venture into this new realm, we must maintain a critical eye and ensure that the development of the metaverse is guided by ethical considerations and inclusivity, ensuring the metaverse is a safe space for people of all genders. The future of the metaverse holds a lot of promise, but it is up to us to shape it into a space that benefits all.

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Here are 3 ways you can act to ensure a safer digital space:

1. Adopt Comprehensive Safeguarding Practices: Consider the full range of online abuse in discussions about women's safety in the metaverse. Understand that emotional and verbal abuse are significant forms of harm that should not be overlooked.

2. Shape an Ethical and Inclusive Metaverse: Stay informed about potential issues such as the digital divide, privacy concerns, and the misuse of technology. Engage in discussions, provide feedback, and hold technology companies accountable for creating a metaverse that benefits everyone.

3. Support Victim Assistance Resources: Raise awareness about existing victim assistance resources available for survivors of sexual assault in the metaverse. Share information about helplines, counselling services, or organisations that specialise in supporting victims of online abuse. Encourage survivors to seek help and provide them with the necessary resources to navigate the process of reporting and recovering from such incidents.


Written by

The Women's Foundation