Technology and consent: avoiding digital rape

It's easy to forget one's good manners when interacting with the world through a device. Technology can awaken the cave people in us.

"Hey, a free show," someone shouts and invites people over to watch it while also passing around a bottle of vodka.

At the center of attention – a female researcher from a non-profit advocacy organization being raped. The attacker keeps asking her to turn around so he could do it from behind.

The assault, unfortunately, not an isolated incident, happened on the Meta's Horizon Worlds metaverse. But does virtual rape make the traumatic experience any less real?

I grew up with the infuriating notion that women should not provoke. That world, where a victim "deserved it" or "asked for it" might be slowly fading away. Nowadays, you can even hear people asking for a dog’s consent to pet them.

At the same time, we’re increasingly immersing ourselves in the virtual world, where you might provoke a perpetrator just by logging in to a particular platform.

Nina Jane Patel was gang raped by a group of male-appearing avatars within 60 seconds of logging on to the Horizon Worlds for her "outwardly female appearance."

"It was surreal. It was a nightmare," she recalled.

Somehow, technology is forcing people to succumb to their primal instincts. Top-notch technology gives birth to cave people who are oblivious to the social contract. Racist, homophobic slurs, sexual harassment, and rape are the more extreme cases.

You might have experienced an example of this yourself. Perhaps less shocking, but still incredibly annoying.

Maybe it's your boss texting you via Facebook during weekends or holidays. Perhaps it's a friend relentlessly texting you or leaving voice messages after you explicitly asked to be left alone. Or someone tagging you on an Instagram post.

Do we forget about consent when we’re not interacting physically with each other? You'd like a heads up before receiving a picture of male genitalia, for example, even on Tinder. You wouldn’t expect someone you’re talking to in real life to just whip it out, would you?

Whenever I need to call my best friend, once in a year or so, I first say, "sorry for calling you." She does the same. Because we agreed to the way we communicate years ago, the method of using technology that works for us. That's always text, never call.

Over the weekend, I saw one of my Facebook friends running a survey about who's to blame for our failures – technology or us? Some people try out things like smartwatches for, let's say, fitness challenges and get rid of them if it doesn't work out. Others blame themselves for not keeping up with the challenge and get demotivated and disappointed in themselves.

Technology, built to empower us and create progress, too often incites violence. Against others, against ourselves. Why?

Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror series could offer us one explanation here. When hiding behind technology, people distance themselves from what they’re capturing. They become spectators to suffering, and exposing pain through a device seemingly makes it less real or relatable.

Bullies now hide behind the screens. It's just, are we sure we aren't bullies ourselves?

Technological advancement is exciting, not only when it comes to breakthroughs in medical research or space exploration. It might just offer an unforgettable experience.

When I try to wrap my head around what our world could look like when we fully immerse ourselves in technology, I often remember a novel by Victor Pelevin, iPhuck. While the book itself, the way I see it, is more of a fictional dystopian world with sentient artificial intelligence, it also offers us a glimpse into the intimacy of the modern world. Human-to-human sex no longer exists in Pelevin's novel. It's considered illegal and dangerous. iPhuck is a sexbot used for, well, physical relations, with many variable features of the background and the sex partner.

Remote sex is sort of here already – devices enabling remote kissing or even remote penetrative sex are already here. VR, AR glasses, and eventually, the metaverse will surely take intimate relationships to a new level.

Therefore, we need to talk about consent.

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