Misogyny in the metaverse

We can't allow the metaverse to become a worse version of the real world, says Annalisa Roy

Content warning: this article talks about sexual harassment/violence/rape, in relation to the metaverse

The metaverse has the potential to introduce a whole new dimension to our lives, and to the lives of brands and businesses, which is why it’s such a hot topic in our industry right now.

It’s easy to see why we are all so excited about the metaverse. It’s a playground for the creative industries; one that will allow us to extend, amplify and give more meaning to brand experiences by breaking down physical barriers.

However, the metaverse’s role in society will go way beyond those new-found commercial opportunities. As we begin to live out elements of our lives in this new dimension, some of the issues of the real world are already following us there.

TBWA\Paris’ new film, “Will,” made for Entourage Network, takes homelessness into the metaverse with an avatar who reminds us that, while people are already buying up virtual properties and items worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, there is still a need to address the reality of people who do not have a home.

Tech entrepreneur Herman Narula, CEO of Improbable, believes that the metaverse will have “a profound effect on how societies function,” because it will contain “environments where we will earn real money, forge deep relationships and have experiences that enrich our lives.”

This may seem a huge leap right now, but I agree with Narula that this interconnected virtual world will have a profound effect on our reality, which is why we must address some uncomfortable truths about it before it is too late.

Already the metaverse is replicating a world of haves and have nots, and — shockingly — becoming a place for misogyny and sexual violence

The war in Ukraine has turned up some monstrous examples of this, and unless we do something about it right now, the metaverse will not provide a refuge.

We all — brands included — want to play in a safe space, so we must do something about the ugly side of the metaverse before it is too late.

Nina Jane Patel’s article on Medium, Reality or Fiction? Sexual Harassment in VR, describes how within 60 seconds of entering Horizon Worlds, Meta’s social virtual reality platform, her avatar was gang-raped. Catherine Allen described in Glamour Magazine how inside Meta, her avatar started talking to another female avatar, who turned out to be a 7-year-old girl, and within seconds the pair were surrounded by a group of male avatars talking about rape.

In response to these reports, Meta recently announced the rolling out of “personal boundaries” in Horizon Worlds — a protective bubble that wraps around an avatar and stops others from coming closer than 4ft.

This ‘protective shield’ seems to me like an entirely inadequate solution to what already looks like a systemic problem. To think that a virtual ‘shield’ is all that’s needed to solve the complex problems around gender-based violence in the metaverse is the equivalent of thinking that pepper spray will be the answer in the real universe.

The metaverse is being built by technology companies like Meta, Microsoft or Improbable, but the running of it is everyone’s responsibility. We can’t allow it to be a worse version of the real world; we have to understand that the two are interconnected and that what happens in one can and will affect the other.

For this reason, we must petition for sexual harassment and abuse in the metaverse to be added to the UK online safety bill, and be treated as a criminal offence with custodial sentences.

We already succeeded in doing so for cyber-flashing, but we shouldn’t stop there because in order to make the most of the opportunities the metaverse offers — for the individual, for society, and for business — we need to advocate persuasively for rights and safety in this dimension.

Featured image: Horizon Worlds / Meta

Annalisa Roy, Strategic advisor

Annalisa was previously Joint Head of Strategy at Grey London. She is now an independent strategic advisor to brands, widely known for her expertise in strategic innovation and her innate need to challenge the status quo. Having started her career as a digital media specialist working for OMD and Verizon Media, she then moved on to working with 4 of the most respected advertising agencies in London: AMVBBDO, Publicis, BBH and most recently Grey as board strategist, head of content and social strategy and global strategy lead.

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