De-Incentivizing Virtual Rape

As reported by Wired’s Regina Lynn: Controversy is brewing in virtual reality world Second Life over the occurrence and potential illegality of online rape. The 3-D virtual world, built and owned by its more than 6 million users, currently allows members to engage in a wide range of sexual activities. You can buy S&M gear and solicit strippers, escorts, and prostitutes (all of whom are in fact other SL users). While individual avatars are supposedly prohibited from taking control of other avatars without permission, savvy users can still use scripts to force submission. As a result, Belgian police are now investigating an SL user’s allegations of a sexual assault that took place entirely online. Here’s what Lynn has to say on the matter:

If it is a criminal offense to sexually abuse a child on the internet, how can we say it is not possible to rape an adult online?

But I have a hard time calling it “rape,” or believing it’s a matter for the police. No matter how disturbed you are by a brutal sexual attack online, you cannot equate it to shivering in a hospital with an assailant’s sweat or other excretions still damp on your body.

Meanwhile, Salon‘s Broadsheet reports that SL rarely and barely punishes abusers, while noting that most U.S. states have enacted statutes calling for real-life punishment of extreme online harassement. Crime in Second Life isn’t a new phenomenon, and users have criticized SL’s slow response to complaints of “illegal” activity, while SL creator Philip Rosedale has reportedly been reluctant to start policing the virtual world. Still, when issues like sexual assault start sparking real-life police action, it sounds like a case for some necessary introduction of retribution to remove incentives if ever there was one.

tim in tampa

Is it silly to treat acts in a game like acts that happen in reality? Yes.

Are we being forced to confront the diminishing barrier between these definitions of reality? Absolutely.

Like it or not, we are moving in a direction by which there IS no delineation between the two.


It's sad that there is even an article on this topic. It is a bigger shame that living out your life in a computer game is becoming more and more acceptable, to the point of setting laws, and that these shut-ins can direct so much attention to this creepy hobby. How about they start paying more attention to their first lives before they bring this crap before us.

Sara Washburn

I believe we need to punish those who terrorize others in any form without their consent. It doesn't matter whether it is in an online medium or not. The fact it may occur within a "game" does not change the requirements people should be held to.

That said, on another note, the viability of online accountability is another issue. I believe it is THE issue, not merely whether it should be punished. A Second Life Avatar can have their account suspended, and merely open up another one under a different name... I am certain Linden Labs has been struggling with this. There is no way to regulate whether a real life person enters in accurate identity information when creating an account. Second Life does not require payment to participate; requiring a credit card for payment would be the only option, and then that may be impractical as well, as many people have similar names, etc.

Second Life is an excellent medium for many fields and contrary to some commentators' thoughts is not something only "shut-ins" participate in, etc. I myself started a philosophy club that has regular meetings dialoguing on varying strands of philosophy. Compliments of my Second Life philosophy club, I can gather regularly with fellow philosophers all over the world, an unimaginable feat in real life. Most hours of the day, you can find at least one other philosopher online, ready to pursue deep discussion. Many of the philosophy club members are college students majoring in philosophy. The philosophy club gives them a convenient place where they can toss around ideas they're studying.

I purchased virtual land in Second Life for my philosophy club, which I maintain with monthly dues. I am only one of many Second Lifers who own virtual land. Land ownership, along with participation in many outstanding groups, are strong reasons why safety concerns matter significantly to Second Life users.

And, sharing personally, I never much like it when Second Life is referred to as a game! In how many other games can users come together to have intellectual discussion while building international relationships? Second Life is what you make of it. To dog it without being familiar with it seems unwise...



Virtual crimes in virtual worlds should be punishable by their respective virtual police.

It's only a matter of time before people will be going to their virtual work within their virtual world and putting in a solid 8-1/2 hour work day sitting at a virtual desk on a virtual computer (maybe taking breaks to sneak off to a virtual virtual world).


Thanks for bringing some perspective to this, Sara. I know a few people at my work who participate actively in online gaming, and they are hardly shut-ins. They have no trouble with actual human interaction and have vibrant social lives. They also happen to spend some of their time engaged in online gaming. So stereotyping in this situation is not a step toward understanding.

Speaking of, it is clear from this discussion and related articles I've read that I have no idea what Second Life is or what the complexities and possibilities of online gaming are. And I don't know if I want to step into that world, at least not too deeply. Is there a primer somewhere that would give me an idea of what is involved with these sorts of online gaming, short of my having to experience it myself? I'm intrigued given that this is clearly not an issue simply for "shut-ins" but that it has broad ramifications for society in general.



>>For instance, Becker proposed in his original JPE article "Crime and Punishment" liberal use of fines to deal with crimes

With all due respect, I thought that the book Freakonomics' section on arriving late for day-care pick-up showed that a fine did not constitute a disincentive to crime as much as it did a price.

>>This is so dumb. If you don't like the game, log out.

That's like saying if you don't like what the newspaper printed about you, don't read it.

>>Will a person someday be a criminal for having pedophilia dreams?

No, but it is quite likely that if they go to the local elementary school and relate the dreams to the 9 year olds, they will.

I once read a couple of people posting on a bulletin board happily fantasizing (describing?) raping a frat boy, abusively ascribing the stupidest attention-seeking motives to the poor fellow. That is reprehensible behavior, and communities would be wise to stamp it out, whether that effort is assisted by law enforcement or not.

and to me the most interesting...
>>Is it silly to treat acts in a game like acts that happen in reality?


>>Are we being forced to confront the diminishing barrier between these definitions of reality? Absolutely.

>>Like it or not, we are moving in a direction by which there IS no delineation between the two.

Whether you want to consider the case of the law students whose f...-ability was described in endless detail with pictures copied from the internet and fantasy rapes attached, any hollywood celebrity unnerved by the writings of a stalker, Carol Burnett's suit against a tabloid 31 years ago, (my god, who ever would have thought that 'arguing with Henry Kissinger' could be included in a legal matter about whether one was drunk in public?!), or some other old case of people standing up and declaring, "you cannot do that to my public persona", there has been a long-standing tradition in law that what you do to a person's image matters.




Anyone who claims that rape is about sex and not about power, domination, and control should take a hard look at what's happening in Second Life.

David in NYC

>>>>This is so dumb. If you don't like the game, log out.

>>That's like saying if you don't like what the newspaper printed about you, don't read it.

Yes, it is. And your point would be what?

It's a game, people. Get over it.

heather barr

With all the truly tragic happenings in this often bitter, earthly, real life, I cannot imagine that anyone would waste their precious time worrying about what goes on among fake people who choose to waste their time playing games in an ersatz virtual second life. If real rape really bothers you, you can actually volunteer to help authentic rape victims in Rwanda, or even in your own actual, physical home town. There is more than enough genuine suffering that needs your real life, human attention. We only get one life, why waste it playing games ? Why not try something bold and unique, like taking a risk and being useful on earth?


I've been frequenting SL for about 3 years now, am unashamedly sexually active there, and in all that time I've never heard of anything like this. In fact, I really don't understand how a 'cyber-rape' is even possible in Second Life. Unless you've voluntarily turned over control of your avatar to someone else (in which case you really have no cause to complain), you *always* have the option of just transporting out of any unpleasant situation with a simple click.

And if for some reason that shouldn't work, you can always just turn off the damned computer and walk away. How difficult is that?

How, then, is rape possible?

There does exist a software modification called the Restrained Life Viewer which intentionally restricts autonomy for the avatar who wants to play at being owned and controlled by another, but the RLV is entirely voluntary and can still be overridden by the user or turned off with a simple click.

Harassment ("griefing") does occur in SL, both in adult and non-adult venues. But forcing an avatar to do something "against its will"?