As virtual reality technology improves and spaces like the Metaversecreate a platform for our subjective realities to manifest themselves digitally, it is not only our positive traits that manifest, but also our negative traits. In light of this reality, in a society plagued with the social ill of gender based violence,  PDBY investigates where UP’s student body situates itself in understanding sexual assault in virtual spaces. 

On 4 May, PDBY conducted a poll on Instagram on the subject of sexual assault on virtual platforms.Students agreed that non-consensual acts like sexual harassment, can be committed on virtual spaces, with 86% of the voting body in consensus with this view. 

When asked, “are non-consensual acts committed on a virtual body considered to be as severe as those committed on a physical body?” 41% of the students who voted, said yes, while 59% voted, no. To help make sense of this, the individual responses of the students who participated in the poll unpack their thoughts. 

In agreement with the notion that sexual assault committed on virtual bodies is as severe as those acts committed on real bodies, is Kayla* who argues that, “if it is considered acceptable virtually, then it may become more acceptable in reality”. In consensus, Allie* explains, “Absolutely, because it translates into real-life behaviour.” The remarks expressed address the primary concern of acts of sexual violence in the virtual space manifesting themselves in real life. In other words, virtual spaces would serve as a space which normalises these behaviours which could further the risk of those already manifest behaviours in reality worsening. 

In light of this, the necessity of framing the discussion of sexual harassment in virtual spaces through the dichotomy of real bodies and virtual ones is brought into question. To unpack this public sphere expert Dr Michal-Mare Linden offers her insight, saying, “the question should not be if a virtual body or real body is the same thing, but rather the attitude that motivates ‘role playing’ sexual harassment online”. 

This rationale, obviously harkening back to the previous statements from the Instagram poll, Dr Linden continues in saying, “I would argue that the same attitude, one that is based on patriarchy and the denigration of women and other marginalised bodies, underlies online harassment in any form as well as public harassment including: rape jokes, cat calling, and even rape”. This would make the 41% – 59% split in the voting concerning the nature of virtual bodies far more concerning, albeit reflective of the current environment concerning women’s bodies in South Africa. Dr Linden, further explains, “It is this attitude that allows the GBV crisis to flourish as it presents harassment as a joke or at least something that [should] not be taken seriously and called out”.

In light of Dr. Linden’s comments, this is particularly worrying, as 83% of the students who participated in the survey agreed that sexual harassment in virtual spaces should be actionable in court. Yet, how can this be so when as Dr. Linden explains, “[women can be discouraged from seeking legal action] as their experiences are not believed and undermined by those who think they are ‘not serious enough’.”

The reality of sexual violence against women’s bodies in South Africa is a harrowing one. As a society that wishes to move toward a paradigm that treats the bodily integrity of victims of GBV with the respect they are owed, one is rendered a pessimist in light of the current perceptions that plague our understanding of virtual bodies and how they reflect the understanding of violence against real bodies.   

Banathi Nkehli

Originally posted on the PDBY website: Sexual assault in virtual spaces