How should a 'physical' crime in virtual reality be considered?

I do a little writing and one setting has a character who is paralysed and interacts with others in a VR environment, the story is set in the near future so its very realistic VR and people using it have direct sensory feedback. Anyway a complaint is received that he sexually assaulted a female friend when they were both using the VR environment. He doesn’t deny it but defends himself by saying there was no actual physical contact and therefore no assault.

What should be done? Assume there are no laws as yet in place specifically covering the situation.

Does the level of abstraction matter? In the story the VR environment is a good analogue to real life and they are both using human avatars, how about a much lower level of technology like we have today or if they were using more abstract or non-human avatars?

I suspect we’re going to have to deal with this sort of thing before long.

If there are no laws covering this type of situation, then nothing legally can be done.

Hhhhhhmmmm good point, not sure how to answer that. Don’t really want him to just virtually rub his hands and whistle while walking away with no consequences.

I’m sorry, but even if you attempt to make such actions illegal the problem arises as to matters of degree. Why should assault in this game you describe be legally actionable when other games aren’t equally protected? If you make assault in any game illegal, a crapload of one-on-one or team vs. team gaming will be shut down.

What does this mean? Direct sensory feedback via what?

I imagine such a crime would/should be considered as being less-than-real life but more severe than mere misdemeanour-level cyberbullying or cyberharassment. It might be considered a much watered-down-version of assault, like “Fourth-degree assault” if such a thing exists by law.

So, a lot would depend on exactly what’s going on here. Are users somehow “locked in” to the feedback suits so that an extended assault is possible? Otherwise one would assume that a sustained assault is not possible, a user could just exit. Not that just quickly copping a feel or something is okay, but there’s less at stake from a dramatic perspective.

As VR gets better, there’s obviously going to be a big market for sexual encounters, which would mean feedback suits designed specifically to facilitate intimate physical interaction. Use of a prototype system of this kind before the legal system has caught up to the technology might be an interesting setup.

I don’t think you can say that. Just because existing law doesn’t explicitly mention VR does not mean that it necessarily doesn’t apply. Whether something falls under the scope of existing law is often not a black-and-white issue, it would be a matter for the courts.

Arguably, assault via an advanced VR system with sensory feedback is conceptually no different than assaulting someone IRL while wearing gloves. And a defense that you didn’t assault someone because you were wearing gloves isn’t going to get much traction.

Any defense attorney would have a field day with a case like this. “Do you have evidence that you have been physically damaged in any way by my client?”

A VR feedback suit implies real physical sensation through physical contact with the suit. (And sexual assault does not necssarily entail “physical damage”.)

If I assault you via a low tech Heath Robinson system of pulleys and levers, is there no crime? This is why I brought up the analogy of just assaulting someone while wearing gloves.

Very bad analogy, because I haven’t been assaulted, with or without a glove-my avatar has.

Do you understand what a VR sensory feedback system means?

This is the key to it. What does this mean?

If it means “if I get my avatar to slap your avatar, you feel an actual slap in real time”, then I don’t think we have an issue. If I, e.g., electrocute you, that’s plainly an assault, even though I myself haven’t touched you; I just tripped switch in front of me. This doesn’t change if I manage to electrocute you from a great distance. So if I can remotely cause any other physical impact on your body that is injurious, that is non-consensual, etc, etc, then that’s an assault and, if appropriate, a sexual assault.

But if it means “if I get my avatar to slap your avatar, you see your avatar being slapped in real time” I think that’s different. There has been no physical contact, and you are not put in fear of any immediate physical contact. This is not an assault. You may feel that I am expressing hostility to you or threatening you with actual sexual violence, you may feel disrespected, you may feel that I have violated your trust, etc, etc, and if there are legal remedies for this in your jurisdiction then you have them.

This game came into existence without any built-in safety features? I can see lawsuits happening against the parent company…perhaps.

Is this a typo for we DO have an issue?

Will this game allow me to kill myself by having my avatar throw itself off the top of a virtual Empire State Building? If/when the game crashes who gets convicted of mass murder?

Well, I raised this issue in my first post. I’m not sure under what circumstances anyone would design a system that a user could not quickly exit at will. This would allow only a very brief assault, the physical power imbalance of IRL sustained sexual assault would not be present.

As a fictional dramatic setup, perhaps a VR system designed explicitly for sexual encounters; and for some people it becomes a kink to intensify the experience by locking themselves into the suit so that they cannot exit? And the perpetrator exploits such a situation to access the system in place of the victim’s partner to enable a serious assault.

Again, this sounds like a lot of failed “failsafes” that the company would be responsible for.

The fact that the company might also have liability isn’t going to exonerate the perpetrator from criminal culpability.

What criminal culpability? Remember, the OP stipulates that no laws have been created to cover this situation.

Well, that the debate. But you seem to be returning to your position that if a law doesn’t explicitly cover a specific situation then the law automatically doesn’t apply. That isn’t the way it works when it isn’t black-and-white. We’re here to present arguments about whether existing law should apply.