For three days in October 2019, I stood in a New York City SoHo storefront, blinded by a virtual reality headset. I roamed through the worlds of VRChat with everything I saw in VR projected behind me. I staged unscripted interviews with groups of male users wearing female skins, asking them why they chose their sexualized female avatars.
The project continued a line of VR harassment research I’d been pursuing and aimed to prove that the men of VRChat had pushed out authentic female experience and replaced it with fetishized subjugations of the female form. Instead of harassment, I found myself within a surprisingly sincere subculture—of largely cis-gender straight men—experimenting with gender expression.
The experience was somehow the perfect closure to years spent thinking about virtual sexual harassment. It began when I discovered that my assault PTSD could be triggered by embodied virtual experiences, and it ended recently when I publicly submitted myself to the trolls and saw them to be a lot like me: sincere, damaged, caustic people just trying to figure themselves out.
Below is that journey — the story of how a self-proclaimed broken woman recognized her pain (and her abusers’ humanity) in the virtually real.
The first time VR triggered my PTSD, I was baffled and terrified, but mostly embarrassed.
Sometime in early 2017 I found myself playing Drunkn Bar Fight on friend’s HTC Vive. The game, released in late 2016, lets you chug booze props and brawl with fellow bar patrons in a state of virtually-induced intoxication. The appeal is the freedom to wreak havoc mixed with the rag-doll physics of the people you smack around the bar.
So there I was, surrounded by friends in real life, punching virtual goons in VR, when it happened: a large NPC [non-player character] got way too close, loomed over me, pushing and gesticulating—in that shitty way only NPCs do—and I panicked. I innately sensed a familiar knee-jerk reaction to an incoming assault. My heart sank. The air evaporated from my lungs. I froze. I braced.
… I braced, for nothing.
My body responded to virtual stimuli with real-life survivalism (see Inducing illusory ownership of a virtual body for more on this). Ashamed of my emotional lapse and VR n00b reaction, I kept on playing like everything was fine. To better understand this story, you should probably know that I work in VR and that I’m a survivor of 10+ years of prolonged violent assault—and I’ve always had a weird [read: evasive and previously alcoholic] relationship with my trauma.
Fast-forward to mid-2017: my co-workers on Facebook’s former VR & 360 Design Team decided to do a VR field trip. We planned to gather in Rec Room and play paintball. While I waited for my crew in the holding area, a man chased me around the space dumping virtual bottles of water on me, screaming, “WET T-SHIRT CONTEST.”
The first few times you get chased around VR and called a whore, it’s honestly pretty funny. The sheer absurdism of being yelled at by a cartoon in a crudely-designed 3D space shields you from the reality of the interaction for awhile. Eventually, you remember that the threats are coming from actual people in the actual world and the whole thing starts to hit home.
Imagine if YouTube comments could chase you—that’s what it feels like to be harassed in VR.
For me, this specific brand of trolling started to remind me (a little too much) of the years I spent living with an ill-tempered addict—whose favorite activities seemed to be chasing and baseless slut-shaming.
After months of observation, I was able to keep track of these reactions and spot potential triggers. By November 2017, during a VR design critique, a co-worker showed a Facebook Spaces prototype with new interaction mechanic and I immediately clocked its trigger potential. When I tried to covertly explain to my (predominantly male) co-workers why the proposed interaction was problematic, the feedback was overlooked. After the critique, I decided to talk more honestly with a co-worker who I trusted. I told him about my PTSD and the virtually embodied triggers. I explained how the proposed design would raise issues for users with similar trauma. And he got it.
When my co-worker admitted his blindspot, I knew there was a way to help designers who didn’t have these specific safety concerns understand them empathetically. And for a couple months, I forced myself to be candid in design critiques about my history and my assaults. I paid reference to my own triggers anytime I felt like it could help make a case for safer and more inclusive social VR design.
This method — obviously — is exhausting, unsustainable, and just plain awful for a survivor.
Around the same time I was discovering the horrors of this approach, I got an email from Laura Scherling and Andrew DeRosa, co-editors of an upcoming book on design ethics. When they asked me to propose a chapter on VR design ethics, I knew it had to be about safety in social VR.
Then in February 2018, it all came together. During a late-night chat about consent dynamics in BSDM, I saw the through-line: body sovereignty translates to the virtual world, just as it translates to any other. And if that’s true, then real-world consent paradigms could be used to build virtual permissions. I pitched this thesis to my co-worker, Andrea Zeller, who agreed and advised that we use Edward T. Hall’s proxemics (a space-based framework) to translate real-world consent into virtual consent.
Over the next eight months Andrea and I would assemble, ‘Designing Safe Spaces for Virtual Reality’ — a Facebook Research publication and chapter in the upcoming Bloomsbury Visual Arts book, Ethics in Design and Communication: New Critical Perspectives. (See Designing Safer Social VR via Immerse for an abridged recap of our chapter).
Cut to November 2018: things were looking up! Our book chapter was submitted to the publisher. Our team at Facebook AR/VR had kicked off the prototyping that would eventually become Facebook Horizon. Andrea and I began distributing our research internally and Horizon even started to pick up some of the theories we laid out in the paper. By spring 2019, we were regularly touring in support of this research.
But no matter how comprehensive or impactful they may be, these presentations could never seem to render the tension of VR harassment. It started to feel necessary to have demonstrative footage of virtual trolling; an impulse that would ultimately become a performance piece.
Enter Virtual_ and Other Pleasures. I wanted to continue in the long line of female artists performing social experience by showing the horrors of social VR harassment to a live audience.
And I would do it in a custom avatar designed to look like me, blindfolded by my headset in a public place. To get this right, I’d have to spend more time than ever in social VR, predominantly VRChat, trying to understand the harassment landscape enough to perform it.
There, two things became evident: (1) sexual harassment is definitely still pushing women out, and yet, (2) the place is bustling with female avatars (worn by men).
With these observations in mind, I wanted to prove a psychoanalytic feminist thesis: the representation of women exclusively through the lens of male desire reinforces a fantasy in which female bodies are highly visible, but the experience of female-identifying persons is explicitly left out.
So, it became a daily practice for me to go on VRChat, befriend strange packs of men and—when they were comfortable—ask them about gender expression. Why are there are so many men here wearing sexualized female avatars and so few actual women? Do they prefer these bodies? Do they identify as female in some way? Does it give them access to some previously untapped part of themselves?
After months of interfacing with this, observing the strangely soft and sincere responses, I realized this was the performance. I had humanized the internet’s worst for myself (an understandably tough critic of toxic masculinity) and I wanted to share this.
As it turns out, these men — wanting to adorn themselves, yet held back by gender-normative sensations that there’s queerness in the decorative male and only women can be pretty — don female skins as a means to free themselves of the confines of their expected expression. They built their own safe spaces, bolstered by toxicity, to experiment with gender identity.
In a sense, my thesis is still correct: these men did push female-identifying persons out to replace them with effigies. But the reasoning couldn’t have been more wrong. It was never about removing women, it was about cultivating an environment in which they could confront themselves.
This observation echoed a realization that helped me get through one of my most horrible traumas: rarely is your abuser trying to get you, you are not so flawed that you must be destroyed; rather, they are struggling to exist and you are caught in the cross-fire. You are not the problem.
Realizing this after leaving a cycle of chronic abuse is what initially helped me rebuild and see myself as more than a victim.
Please know that I’m not excusing abuse or validating aggressive behavior. But in the same virtual landscape where I recognized my own pain, I saw the humanity in the troll.
I now have ultimate faith in the idea that we can translate real-world consent into virtual empowerment. Because if my recovery process could be so echoed by the virtual world, then why can’t our solutions?
Michelle Cortese is a Canadian virtual reality designer, artist and futurist. She splits her professional time between working on Facebook Horizon and teaching at NYU Steinhardt. Most of her work, both art and design, investigates the transmutation of human communication across new technologies and formats. @ellecortese | ellecor.com