Friday, February 5, 2016

Sexual Harm in Virtual Worlds

Virtual world and virtual communities are an increasing social phenomenon. To say that they are without law is false, but also it is illogical to believe that virtual worlds are free from criminal acts even through these offences and their perpetrators may differ from offline, as well as other on-line, offending behaviour. Individuals who use the on-line environment to commit or orchestrate sexual harm  can use technology to assist them in committing physical sexual abuse as well as use of the internet to commit non-contact, virtual sexual violence (i.e., through the use of sexually abusive language, imagery, etc). Virtual sexual harm can be multifaceted ranging from inappropriate conversations, the grooming of potential victims for either a contact offence or the production of sexual abuse imagery, or to an on-line, virtual community, sexual offence (i.e., raping a character in game or in a virtual community) (Taylor and Qualye, 2003; Sheldon & Howitt, 2007). Global variations in the development of policies, practices, education, understanding and policing of online sexual harm are pertinent given its growing impact and prevalence (online grooming, online offending, online stalking and trolling). One area where the prevalence, policies, impact and criminal justice responses are still developing is that of sexual harm in virtual worlds.

Since the advent of the internet in 1950’s with the development of computers and the growth and use of technology has challenged the ways and means of communicating with others. Virtual worlds are one such avenue where people communicate on a social educational or business level with others via on-line virtual worlds.  There is no real agreement as to what virtual world means, but Bell (2008) argues that a virtual is a place where real people can enter via a computer and communicate with others. A virtual world is often seen as something that it unreal and which does not reflect the traditional approaches to life, but upon closer examination a virtual world does, more often than not, form close synergies with the real world. In the modern world many social interactions and milestones in peoples lives now take place on-line and in virtual worlds or on social networking sites such as FaceBook, Second Life, World of Warcraft; therefore these social interactions often provide perpetrators the opportunity to meet and gain the trust of a potential victim (Klimmt and Hartmann 2008).

Research shows that most users of virtual worlds are of a young adolescent male who are attracted to the hyper-masculine (macho) arena that can be found within these virtual worlds (Klimmit, 2011). Furthermore these young often males lack the socially honed personal interactions within social spheres with the hyper-masculine attributes they display leading to behaviours that would not normally be tried out in the real world being carried out in the virtual worlds (Klimmt 2011); therefore boundary testing free from social consequences. This reinforces the experimental, boundary pushing aspects of risk taking behaviour often found in youths as a consequence of their development rather than an indication of an ongoing, life course persistent pattern of offending behaviour. Therefore begging the question; are virtual worlds and live action gaming testing grounds for future offline offending or merely an exploratory arena for risk taking behaviour?

Individuals acting within virtual worlds can see their actions as being quasi-real and therefore believe that said actions do not fully adhere to the moral and ethical norms learnt, as well as reinforced, through normal social behaviour in the real world. Deviant behaviour (sexual and non-sexual) can often be justified and perceived as acceptable in this instance with perpetrators using cognitive distortions to justify their deviant behaviours arguing that “it’s not real”, “that people on these sites should know better and not take comments at face value” and “there are no real victims”. However, when these online offences (especially virtual offences in online environments against avatars or via comment boards) take place they are   consciously acknowledged by the victim who feels and believes that they are a real crime (Klimmt 2011). Although, there may not always be  a fear of physical violence in these cases the victim may have be psychologically traumatised by the event which could have result in a negative psychological reaction (anxiety, fear, distrust) and adverse behavioural response (isolation, withdrawal or aggression). Hence, the virtual world/on-line offence could affect their offline behaviour, especially if they believe their on-line and offline lives are firmly tied together and co-dependent.

As we known responding to sexual offending, in general, is a difficult line for the government and the Criminal Justice System agencies to tread, but this difficulty increase exponentially in respect to on -line sexual harm with a multitude of countries, corporations, laws and red tape involved. This begs the question of, how virtual worlds are regulated both inside and outside the virtual world.  General guidance and criteria relating to what constitutes a virtual world crime should be considered in the first instance before any legislation or regulation is handed down to regulate virtual words. Having said this, although regulating virtual world and communities is a difficult and complex task does not mean that the virtual world should be a place where criminal acts are condoned or go unpunished (especially those related to sexual harm), rather the laws must be considered in terms of the best fit for the environment in which it finds itself in.

Kieran McCartan,PhD, & Clare Jones, PhD (Associate Professor in Law - UWE, Bristol)


Bell, M. W. (2008). Towards a definition of virtual worlds. Journal of Virtual World Research, 1:1.

Klimmt, C., & Hartmann, T. (2011). Mediated interpersonal communication in multiplayer video games: implications for entertainment and relationship management. In Konijn, E. Tanis, M. Utz, S. Barns, S. (eds) Mediated interpersonal communication. Routledge, New York, pp.309-330.

Klimmt, C. (2011). Virtual Worlds as a regulatory challenge, a user perspective. In Cornelius, K., & Hermann, D. (eds) Virtual Worlds and Criminality. Springer. Pp. 1-19.
Sheldon, K., & Howitt, D. (2007). Sex Offenders & the internet. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Taylor, M., and Quayle, E. (2003). Child Pornography; an Internet Crime. Hove and New York; Brunner-Routledge.

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