Is it possible to commit a crime in the metaverse? At least one country thinks it could be.
In a UK first, police are investigating the alleged virtual gang rape of a 16-year-old girl. This is despite the fact that the nation is grappling with a backlog of actual sexual offense and rape cases requiring investigation or prosecution. The country has nearly 10,000 of such cases sluggishly moving through their criminal justice system, and some persons charged with sexual assault do not face trial for upwards of five years after the crimes.
Though Britain’s Sexual Offence Act defines both sexual assault and rape as physical acts and the girl involved in the investigation was never physically touched, one senior police official said that the minor “experienced psychological trauma similar to that of someone who has been physically raped.”
Speaking to the Daily Mail, the officer stated that there was “an emotional and psychological impact on the victim that is longer term than any physical injuries.”
Hundreds of social media users expressed disbelief following the announcement of the police investigation.
“This [the virtual gang rape] sounds unpleasant. You know what it DOESN’T sound like? An actual crime, worthy of investigation,” posted X (formerly Twitter) user @SD4RFKJr24.
“So the police are making the case to ignore real world rapes for thr [sic] virtual version of the crime?” quipped X user @ThatUmbrella.
So the police are making the case to ignore real world rapes for thr virtual version of the crime? pic.twitter.com/9m0fwRfnvV— ThatUmbrellaGuy (@ThatUmbrella) January 2, 2024
Others expressed skepticism that the “crime” was even a possibility in the metaverse, considering the UK’s legal definition of rape requires penetration to have taken place.
X user @wahsatchmo pointed out that there would need to be “rape feature” programmed into the game. “This didn’t happen. This is the UK police trying to make some sort of social statement.”
1. So Meta programmed in a "rape feature"?— wahsatchmo (@wahsatchmo) January 2, 2024
2. This didn't happen. This is the UK police trying to make some sort of social statement.
In 2022, then 43-year-old psychotherapist Nina Jane Patel also claimed to have been “virtually gang raped” in the metaverse.
She told media at the time that the “attack” felt “very real” and that she “froze in shock before desperately trying to free her virtual self.” Patel works in research for Kabuni, a virtual reality platform for children.
The decision to investigate virtual crimes has been met with backlash due to the overwhelming amount of backlogged rape cases in the country sluggishly making their way through investigations and the court system. Further, as previously reported by The Publica, many rapists are no longer being jailed with officials citing prison “overcrowding” as an excuse.
In October of 2023, Crown court judges received instructions to postpone sentencing proceedings for those convicted of even heinous crimes such as rape, child rape, and other sexual offenses.
Speaking anonymously to press, one senior Crown court judge said that the officials advised of these new measures had been “ordered/strongly encouraged” not to imprison defendants so as not to add to the prison population, and expressed concerns over the impact.
“What am I going to do if a jury finds someone guilty [of rape],” the judge asked, adding: “Do I release that person who is now convicted back into the community, where the victim might see them? What will the victim think?”