When is RP NOT RP?


I am taking the liberty to once again repost a column by one of my favorite commentators, Regina Lynn. I have been following this story since it first surfaced on the SL Forums a month or so ago. While it is now clear that some of the details have been exaggerated (such as the Belgian “investigation”) , the core issues are of interest to anyone in SL, and especially those of us in Caledon.

In this article, Miss Lynn addresses a very, very delicate question which on the surface seems simple, but becomes less so the more you think about it. Is is possible to be raped in SL?

At the moment we are “living” in one of the only communities online where an honor code and positive peer pressure works to keep things civil, friendly and safe. What happens should that honour code break down. How far does a cruel and/or sadistic act in SL extend into someone’s real life? How can that overlap be quantified? When does cruel become criminal?

I am looking forward to your comments on this issues raised by Miss Lynn. Please understand that the opinions in this column are HERS and not MINE. I am still thinking, I have no opinions…yet.

As for Miss Lynn, her columns are essential reading for anyone interested in what sex and technology are doing in the backseat of their PC while the drive-in movie is playing. Read her daily at reginalynn.com and weekly at http://www.wired.com.

Virtual Rape Is Traumatic, but Is It a Crime?

Last month, two Belgian publications reported that the Brussels police have begun an investigation into a citizen’s allegations of rape — in Second Life.

I am half convinced that the tantalizingly brief story, printed in De Morgen and Het Laatste Nieuws, is a hoax or an April Fool’s joke.

Yet it has prompted several threads of discussion, from a legal analysis to four pages of commentary at the Second Citizen forums.

Unfortunately, rape in virtual spaces is not unheard of. And I’m not talking about the “consensual” rape built into some games (although if you’re interested in that debate, GameGrene has a good conversation about it).

There is no question that forced online sexual activity — whether through text, animation, malicious scripts or other means — is real; and is a traumatic experience that can have a profound and unpleasant aftermath, shaking your faith in yourself, in the community, in the platform, even in sex itself.

Our laws say that an adult subjecting a teenager or child to sexual words, images or suggestions on the internet is preying on their mental and emotional state in a sexual way. Even if you never try to meet the minor in person, and even if you never touch them or expose your naked self to them, it is a crime to attempt to engage sexually with a minor.

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.

That’s not to say I dismiss the trauma a person suffers after being raped online. Virtual rape is not just a prank, one the target needs to get over or expect as part of a role-playing world. (And if you are inclined to pooh-pooh this, first read author Julian Dibble’s chapter about a rape that occurred in a text-only MOO in the early ’90s.)

A virtual rape is by definition sudden, explicit and often devastating. If you’ve never immersed yourself in online life, you might not realize the emotional availability it takes to be a regular member of an internet community. The psychological aspects of relating are magnified because the physical aspects are (mostly) removed.

Even regular users might not realize how wide open they are until something drastic happens — they fall in love, get dumped, have a huge fight or get attacked in the online parallel of rape. In that context, a sexual assault can indeed have a deep impact on a person’s life, especially if they are actual rape survivors.

Some suggest that the best way to deal with a virtual rape is to ignore it, or simply log off and come back as another user.

But in a game, you don’t want to lose the long-term investment you’ve made in your character. And these days, your real world income or professional reputation can depend on your online self.

In a 3-D marketplace, your avatar’s name is your brand. You can change the appearance of your cartoon without much impact, but changing your name makes it too difficult for customers or clients to find you.

If an online environment becomes too hostile or scary, or causes you such great anxiety you cannot work or interact with friends, more has been taken from you than your playtime. Your friends will gather around to give you emotional support — but your customers will wander off and shop elsewhere.

Adult communities facilitate our need to go deeper into our sexual selves, even into secret places around gender and taboos that we cannot acknowledge anywhere else. We feel safe because of the peculiar blend of disclosure and anonymity provided in online communities, and we journey along paths we might not even glance at in the physical world. We don’t expect to have our control wrenched away or our minds assaulted or even the intensity of our anguish during and after.

The truth is, anywhere people gather, we bring all of our potential with us — for love, for sex, for community and creation, and for violence and destruction, too. That’s why we still enjoy pondering whether cybersex is real sex and whether an online affair is more or less damaging to a relationship than a physical affair. It’s a tacit acknowledgment that while the time-space continuum may change, people don’t.

Rape is the ultimate perversion of sexual intimacy. Like sex, rape has mental and emotional elements that go beyond the body and the damage to the mind and spirit generally takes much longer to heal than the body.

But that doesn’t make the psychological upheaval of virtual rape anywhere near the trauma of real rape. And I can’t see us making virtual rape a matter for the real-life police.

It’s a shitty thing to do to someone. But it’s not a crime.


Opinions, reactions? How does this impact on a community like Caledon? Post here at will.



  1. As much as I’m shying away from answering this…I feel I must, considering.

    In one sense, yes, she is right–in an environment where all actions, even forced “capture”, must be approved by the “victim”, there is nothing non-consensual that can happen–if one is disturbed by particular happenings, one can simply disincline to participate, teleport away, or the end limit, turn off one’s computer and choose not to relog in for whatever length of time necessary.

    That having been said…I have been a participant in two fairly brutal encounters that, had they happened in analog space, I would have had no ethical problem whatsoever in terming ‘rape’. Here, the definition is more slippery, but there were enough ethical twinges surrounding both incidents that they were definitely verging on nonconsensual, and beyond where I wished to go, on both occasions.

    During the first incident, I will freely admit, I simply got swept away in the description, and reacted much as I would have in real life, without considering overmuch the additional options I had at that point–everything from simply saying no, standing up, and walking away, to banning said individual from the sim–as I was, and am, a land administrator listed on that sim, and could have engaged that option at any time.

    Instead, I locked myself in the limitations of a would-be physical form, and…everything spiraled out of control. The gentleman in question was appalled afterwards, I played over the next few days as if I had been weakened and had lost a fair amount of blood–but the shocking thing, to me, was that my physical body bled for four days after the event. I’ve heard that the mind writes deeply in the body, the mental can become the physical–but that was frightening to me.

    The second incident occurred in a full-scale dark RP sim, where such violent acts are known and understood. Even so, this incident also pushed limits, and I did tell him repeatedly in IM to stop. Did he? No. Could I have done more to stop him, or again, could I have left the area, logged off, walked around in the real world, before logging back in? Of course I could have.

    However, with the second incident, I was more aware of my options, and, while I chose to play it out, above and beyond the emotional reactions, I knew it was roleplay, knew that this individual would be captured afterwards–harming one of the Queen of Air and Darkness’ court being one of those unforgiveable acts, in that sim–and that whatever happened then would (somewhat, at least) ease any potential emotional trauma created by participating. I felt more or less rationally in control of what occurred.

    Until a day afterwords, when I went…off, and didn’t restore to full balance for about a week. It had affected me, made me reevaluate many of my existing relationships, and my own tendencies towards emotional self-destruction.

    Based on my own experiences, I would hold to the fact that nothing happens without consent in SL, by and large–barring such actions as orbiting or crashing, per se–but, it must be said, it is also true that getting caught up in the roleplay of a violent action can make those with ingrained tendencies react as if they, themselves, are being victimized. I think that’s the danger in the equation–not that such incidents can occur, but that women, by and large, put themselves in positions lacking strength, based on socialization and other factors.

  2. Is it rape? No, not literally.

    Is it sexual harassment? Just as certainly as an obscene phone call is. Miss Orr’s story illustrates WHY that sort of thing is wrong. It has real, damaging emotional impact. (And Miss O, thank you for your willingness to share something that no doubt you’d prefer to forget)

    I’ll leave the legal hairsplitting to the professionals we have around here. But no one should ever think it’s ok because “it’s just a game”.

  3. Which is why I qualified, Miss Tombola, because in a world wherein *some* level of consent is mandatory–barring certain weapons, like orbiters, or griefing objects like cages–there are no completely unwilling victims, here.

    But there can be force, and the ethical terrain is slippery.

    I’ve been asked to consent to my own violation, as I related; I’ve been involved in a severe torture situation–with myself as the torturer, which did *not* do good things to my head; I’ve been asked, in essence, to participate in an assisted suicide of another avatar.

    I think that one, because I loved the individual in question, took me about two weeks to recover from, all in all–because I’d never faced, RL or SL, a situation wherein I ‘killed’ someone I loved.

    Though these later incidents do step away from the question at hand…

  4. Complicating this, is there are scripted items to simulate raping another avatar. At one point my avatar lost consciousness..meaning, my player’s screen suspiciously went black, and common commands failed to work.

    It was all very confusing but I could swear I saw the words you feel a hand covering your mouth!

    Finally after a minute or two I was able to teleport with a hotkey command to my default home, which is in a PG sim. My screen was still black, but I could use the mini-map to navigate. I decided to log out.

    When I logged back in the next day I saw another odd message waiting for me..something about feeling ill. I was certain that I had been attacked with some sort of virtual date-rape drug.

    When Dr. Mason began to search for medical supplies for his new office, for his office, he found the most likely culprit in one of the Dark RP sims.

    Chloroform. A 10-use item that paralyzes an avatar for ten minutes each use. Sold in a sim that specifically made for predatory RP.

    Even though this did not approach the horrors of a RL assault, it was..and is..still unsettling. If this happens to you the best advice I can give is to log out.


  5. I agree with V. Tombola, in that I would call this type of assault “sexual harrassment”. It’s like forcing pornography on another person, in that we’re dealing basically with images, but it’s more than that, since our avatar is an image or automaton that represents us in a more intimate way.

    That “virtual chloroform” thing is creepy. Please tell me it’s a black market thing and not something that would be sanctioned by Linden Labs!

    N. Nadir

  6. Sadly, ladies and gentlemen, I can testify to the existence of the ‘Virtual Chloroform’, though thankfully not to its effects. It is freely available, on commercial display (together with a substance that paralyses your physical body, but leaves you awake; a ‘knife’ that enables an attacker to affect your movements; and clothing attachments that enable you to be ‘dragged off’ by another). Of course, the efficacy of these devices depend upon you accepting their request to animate your body…but how many ‘request to animate’ dialogue boxes does one see in a day? Not least of all if one has friends who are equipped with overriding devices. How easy is it to be aware of what these items do? Unless one is familiar with the item, or until one sees the effect…almost impossible. Then the issue is not just consent, but *informed* consent; I’m not a member of the legal profession, but any item that removes ones ability to make an informed choice to consent is as…dubious as any RL Rohypnol or its ilk.

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