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Present and Future Instances of Virtual Rape in Light of Three Categories of Legal Philosophical Theories on Rape

Abstract

This paper is about the question of whether or not virtual rape should be considered a crime under current law. A virtual rape is the rape of an avatar (a person’s virtual representation) in a virtual world. In the future, possibilities for virtual rape of a person him- or herself will arise in virtual reality environments involving a haptic device or robotics. As the title indicates, I will study both these present and future instances of virtual rape in light of three categories of legal philosophical theories on rape in order to answer the aforementioned question. I will argue that a virtual rape in a future virtual reality environment involving a haptic device or robotics should in principle count as the crime of rape; for it corresponds to rape as it is viewed under the liberal theories that currently dominate the law. A surprising finding will be that a virtual rape in a virtual world re-actualizes the conservative view of rape that used to dominate the law in the Middle Ages and resembles rape as it is viewed under the feminist theories that criticize current law. Virtual rape in a virtual world cannot count as rape under current law; however, and at the end of this paper, I will suggest qualifying it as sexual harassment instead.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    It should probably be added that hacking (in the sense of illegal access) already constitutes a crime in itself for which the user could be held liable (see e.g., article 2 Convention on Cybercrime).

  2. 2.

    It is important to emphasize that this definition of virtual rape is only applicable to virtual worlds, which are accessed by multiple users at the same time and not to single-player computer games like the infamous RapeLay (2006) in which users can rape virtual characters that do not represent other users.

  3. 3.

    Roxxxy and Rocky would make the wearing of the goggles and dataglove or datasuit from Zhai’s scenario superfluous; for they are not needed to give users the impression that they can see and touch the person they have sex with, users can touch their robots and they will look and feel the same as a real human being.

  4. 4.

    Note that the policemen in Grand Theft Auto are not representations of other users. There is thus no real person ‘behind’ the virtual policemen who could be shocked or otherwise emotionally effected.

  5. 5.

    The terms “actus reus” and “mens rea” derive specifically from Anglo-American jurisprudence. But these elements are, although under a different name, also found in other legal systems.

  6. 6.

    Cf. the Dutch convictions for theft of virtual items in the virtual worlds of the online multiplayer computer games Habbo and RuneScape (Rechtbank Amsterdam, 2 April 2009, ECLI: NL: RBAMS: 2009: BH9789, BH9790, BH9791; Hoge Raad, 31 January 2012, ECLI: NL: HR: 2012: BQ9251). The judges in these cases argued that the act of stealing virtual property can be brought under the scope of the prohibition on theft if it has real (emotional or financial) consequences. Note that the latter case was decided by the Dutch Supreme Court.

  7. 7.

    Note that certain interests which are less vital for our well-being are protected as well, but by civil instead of criminal law.

  8. 8.

    It should be added that sexual intercourse with a person who is, under law, incapable of consenting to sex, i.e., minors and physically and/or mentally incapacitated persons, is usually considered rape in itself (statutory rape).

  9. 9.

    It should be added that virtual rape involving avatars that appear to be minors can be seen as virtual child pornography, which falls under the scope of the prohibition on child pornography in many countries (see, e.g., article 9 (2) c Convention on Cybercrime <http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/EN/ Reports/html/185.htm>). Virtual child pornography raises issues of its own. This paper only deals with cases of virtual rape in which the avatars appear to be adults.

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Table of Cases

  1. Rechtbank Amsterdam, 2 April 2009, ECLI: NL: RBAMS: 2009: BH9789, BH9790, BH9791. Retrieved from <http://www.rechtspraak.nl>. (Available in Dutch only).

  2. Hoge Raad, 31 January 2012, ECLI: NL: HR: 2012: BQ9251. Retrieved from <http://www.rechtspraak.nl>. (Available in Dutch only).

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Strikwerda, L. Present and Future Instances of Virtual Rape in Light of Three Categories of Legal Philosophical Theories on Rape. Philos. Technol. 28, 491–510 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-014-0167-6

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Keywords

  • Virtual rape
  • Dibbell
  • Legal philosophical theories of rape
  • Sexual harassment