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Government Department and
Advanced Communication Technologies Laboratory
The University of Texas at Austin
Table of Contents
- Virtual Reality
- Virtual Rape: The Mr Bungle Case
- Social Construction and Rape
- The Social History of Rape
- A Cross-Cultural Analysis
- Guiding the Social Construction of Rape in Real Life
- Evaluating the Social Construction of Rape in Virtual Reality
- A Climate for Rape
- Virtually Unaccountable
- Bodylessness and the Technology to Rape
- Bringing the Rapist In
- Empowerment through the Conscious Construction of Rape in Virtual Reality
- About the Author
The current social construction of rape in virtual reality is not a worthwhile endeavor in that it forces theorists to adapt an undesirable concept in order to import it into virtual reality. Rape exists as such in "real life" because of the social construction of women relative to the social construction of men. The relationship of these constructions is not and does not have to be analogous in virtual reality because virtual reality presents an opportunity for social reordering. Among these opportunities is the exploration of the ramifications of bodies presented arbitrarily. Given these opportunities, theorists seeking to pursue positive constructionism ought to endeavor to develop virtual-reality specific constructions which empower rather than import real life constructions which victimize.
The incident known as the first widely publicized rape in cyberspace occurred in the virtual place or MUD called LambdaMOO. In front of witnesses, the alleged rapist, Mr Bungle, sexually assaulted several persons until he was captured (Dibble, 1993). This article analyzes rape as a social construction and, using the "Bungle Affair" as a case study, recommends a course of action for reducing or eliminating instances of rape in virtual reality.
While the act of rape is almost universally condemned, the conception of rape is far less universally agreed upon. The event described as rape varies from one culture to another. Indeed, the brief socio-history to follow reveals that the concept of rape is embedded in the habits, folkways, mores, and laws of a given society. Despite this variation, common origins, similar original conditions, and shared development contribute to similarities found throughout the sample. The cross-cultural analysis which strengthens the case is not included here, but may be found in a longer work (MacKinnon, 1997a).
The development of computer-mediated communication (CMC) has led to the phenomenon of a virtual reality peopled by networked users interacting within developing virtual societies replete with habits, folkways, mores, and laws of their own. The concept of rape is currently being addressed by participants in virtual reality and adapted so that the virtual act of rape is recognizable as such and condemnable within their virtual society. This iteration of the social construction of rape is thought laudable by most, but I argue that it is seriously misguided in the end.
The fact that virtual reality is non-physical in character provides theoreticians with the opportunity to re-analyze rape as a mutable social construction. They may therefore be able to avoid nonconsciously importing the unmodified phenomenon into virtual reality. The rape construction in this article is proposed to alleviate the pain, stigmatization, and victimization typically attendant with the competing constructions.
The problem addressed in this paper is encompassed by the questions: What is rape in virtual reality and why is this a problem? The solution is based upon the historical mutability of real life rape constructions, the identification of an unnecessarily destructive rape construction in virtual reality, and the suggestion of a re-constructed version in that realm. To this end, the argument begins with a discussion of the concept of virtual reality as a preface to examining the case of alleged rape in cyberspace. The literature on virtual communities and cyberspace is increasing at a phenomenal rate and thereby boasts a plethora of competing theories and analyses in search of a paradigm. This paper attempts to identify the recurrent themes necessary for adequately addressing the rape issue.
The argument continues with a treatment of the concept of rape, an area of research with a long history of scholarship. The concept of rape is even more controversial than the competing conceptions of virtual reality, for its scholarship too is undergoing paradigmatic changes. It is beyond the scope of this article to undertake a complete socio-history of rape. Instead, I refer the reader to a longer work which offers a general historical analysis by means of a selective cross-cultural analysis of rape (MacKinnon, 1997a). In that work, the findings are contrasted with contemporary interpretations of rape in America, where rape is in fact less defined than is commonly believed. Given this, it should become clear that rape is not a discreet concept, nor does it enjoy universal consensus. Rather, it is a social construction steeped in and subject to the influence of the culture in which it is manifested.
The argument then turns to the prevailing theories of rape which are competing for influence in the social construction of the concept. While these theories postulate the causes of rape and suggest possible solutions, most of them acknowledge rape as a phenomenon resulting in part from the unequal status of women relative to men. Whereas the socio-history and cross-cultural analysis (MacKinnon, 1997a) of rape identifies the nonconscious, social construction of rape, these theories are attempts to consciously construct or re-create the concept.
Feminist theorists seeking social parity for women have fostered a broadening of the concept of rape to include conceptions which do not necessarily involve penetration or even any physical contact. Such a broad conception makes it possible to import rape into virtual reality, for only such a broad conception of rape would be adaptable to a society in which no physical bodies exist for either assault or penetration.
While a broad conception of rape may achieve societal goals in real life, the nonconscious importation of the same broad conception into virtual reality results in unintended, unfortunate consequences for the members of virtual society. Indeed, to construct rape for virtual reality is to introduce the emotional, psychological, and sociological consequences correspondent to rape in real life. Given these serious ramifications, the social construction of rape should not be imported into virtual reality without rigorous, conscious construction.
Finally, the argument engages the social construction of rape in virtual reality by first considering the characteristics of virtual society which make its inhabitants prone to rape, such as anonymity and transience within the online population. However, the "bodylessness" of virtual reality participants forces theorists to further modify the already broad conception of rape so that it can be feasible in virtual reality. To do this, rape needs to be constructed so that it is an assault upon the consciousness or mind rather than the body. Further, the prosecution of this special virtual reality construction of rape necessarily must include the means for punishing the virtual rapist. Since the rapist, like the victim, lacks a body, the punishment is problematically directed to the mind as well (MacKinnon, 1997b). All of this creative construction begs the question of whether it is worth it. The answer to this question inspires the central argument of this article.
Virtual RealityCyberspace is a globally networked, computer- sustained, computer-accessed, and computer-generated, multidimensional, artificial, or "virtual" reality. In this reality, to which every computer is a window, seen or heard objects are neither physical nor, necessarily, representations of physical objects but are, rather, in form, character and action, made up of data, of pure information. (Benedikt, 1992).
There is no shortage of descriptions for virtual reality for virtually everyone who is aware of the concept can come up with a metaphor. Yet among these, there are those which have become famous because of their imagery. Rheingold (1991) writes about a futuristic virtual reality in which one is required to wear "something like a body stocking, but with the intimate kind of snugness of a condom. [The inner surface is] Embedded with a mesh of tiny tactile detectors coupled to vibrators . . . hundreds of them per inch." Once donned, this special suit via the telephone network creates a "totally artificial visual representation of your own body and of your partner's. . . . Your partner(s) can move independently in the cyberspace and your representations are able to touch each other ..." (p.346) and manipulate objects as if they were physically real.
Rheingold's description refers to "cyberspace," a term often interchanged with virtual reality. It presents problems for some scholars because virtual reality does not depend upon cyber or space. It depends upon shared "collections of common beliefs and practices" (Stone, 1991: 85). William Gibson, the science fiction author and coiner of "cyberspace" says it is a "consensual hallucination." Indeed, the same definition has been applied to reality itself.
The primary difference then between the real and the virtually real is the interposition of some mediating and transforming agent or interface between the senses and the shared perception. Popularly, electronic gadgetry such as suits, gloves, and goggles are identified as the equipment necessary for such mediation, but fundamentally it is not the gadgets which mediate, but rather the computers to which they are attached. It is for this reason that some scholars have organized their research around the notion of computer-mediated communication (CMC). The sharing made possible through CMC creates a virtual reality for its participants, often without the need of unwieldy apparel.
Further, it appears that sophisticated technology is not a requirement for it can be argued that a newspaper's Op/Ed page can create a virtual community among its readers. To wit, Gibson remarks, "Cyberspace is where you are when you're talking on the telephone" (quoted in Kramarae, 1995: 38). With commonly found computer equipment, CMC allows persons to experience "desktop" rather than "immersion" virtual reality. This usually takes place via electronic mail and computer conferencing. In the case of the Usenet conferencing network, the high level of interaction among its users creates a more permanent community transcending the fleeting sense of community found among the participants of a newspaper's Op/Ed page (MacKinnon, 1995: 117). Evidently, notions of virtual reality and the communities formed within it have in common the themes of sharing and interactivity.
For the purposes of this article, the theory and argument addressing the problem of rape in the communities and societies arising from shared experiences in virtual reality are not dependent upon the most technologically sophisticated manifestation of the virtually real. In this way, they will have relevant application even as technology surpasses the currently imaginable. Thus, although the rape in the case study analyzed herein occurred in the cyberspace of a stylized, electronic, meeting room or "MUD," a generalized notion of virtual reality is used so that the treatment of virtual rape extends beyond the "MUD" to other virtual realities.
Virtual Rape: The Mr Bungle Case
The facts of the case as reported by Dibbell (1993) are that [a] Mr Bungle used a voodoo doll to [b] force legba, a person of indeterminate gender, to "sexually service him in a variety of ... ways" (line 118) whereupon Mr Bungle was forced to move to another room; however, because the victim(s) were still in range of the voodoo doll, he was able to [c] force legba into "unwanted liaisons with other individuals present in the room" (lines 124-125). Further, as his actions grew progressively violent, he [d] forced legba to "eat his/her own pubic hair (lines 127-128), and [e] forced Starsinger to "violate herself with a piece of kitchen cutlery" (lines 128-129). The assault ceased when Mr Bungle was "enveloped . . . in a cage impermeable even to a voodoo doll's powers" (lines 134-135).
Aside from the fact that rape, with or without the use of a voodoo doll, was not explicitly prohibited in LambdaMOO at the time of the incident (Dibbell, 1993: lines 432-433), the question to be answered is "Did a rape occur?" The given in the problem is that the reality of the parties involved is mediated via the computer which hosts LambdaMOO, that the textual narrative generated by the mediation constitutes the reality of the parties, and that the parties influence the generation of the narrative by interacting with the host computer. Given this, when Mr Bungle directed the host computer to report that legba engaged in sexual activities, the resulting computer-mediated reality reflected this direction despite legba's objections.
While this may be a case of a failing in the design of the computer's software, most societies do not have the luxury of software to control sociopathy in their midst. Although there was no law proscribing rape, it was generally understood to be anti-social behavior and the members of LambdaMOO society had relied upon the traditional methods of social control to curtail it (MacKinnon, 1997b). Interestingly, the degree of social control needed in LambdaMOO had been a subject for debate. Characterized as an anarchist by Dibbell, legba is on record as saying "I tend to think that restrictive measures around here cause more trouble than they prevent" (Dibbell, 1993: lines 240-242). Since this case, an arbitration system has been setup in LambdaMOO so that individuals can bring suit against one another, the range of possible judgments notably including virtual death (Dibbell, 1993: lines 744-753).
Ostracism and social admonition are available and are generally effective means for enforcing community standards of behavior in virtual societies (Reid, 1995; MacKinnon, 1995). Further, legba did not employ the technological means in his/her self-defense. By instructing the computer to "gag" or mute Mr Bungle, legba could have excluded Bungle's actions from his/her reality. Despite the existence of these means of social control, the incident nevertheless occurred, forcing the members of LambdaMOO society to confront the meaning of Mr Bungle's actions and why his actions foiled the existing system for preventing or discouraging their occurrence.
The fact that LambdaMOO is a text-based virtual reality, not only must one ask if a rape had occurred, but also, was it a rape or simply an inert description of the act? If the latter, does anything really occur in LambdaMOO? Reid (1995) writes, "Users treat the worlds depicted by MUD programs as if they were real." By implication, the words and worlds from the words are not inert descriptions, but the users' perceptions of the virtually real set into motion by sheer willingness. Reid continues, "The illusion of reality lies not in the machinery itself but in the user's willingness to treat the manifestations of his or her imaginings as if they were real" (p. 165, 166). The issue of willingness demands attention, for legba and the others opted not to gag Mr. Bungle. This choice will be considered later, but Reid's observations do support the given that the members of LambdaMOO accepted the textual narration as their consensual hallucination or virtual reality. Therefore, Mr. Bungle did force legba and others to engage in sexual activity against their will; however, is this act properly called rape?
Nowhere did Mr Bungle inject the word "rape" into the narrative. Only by interpretation can one infer from the acts committed that a rape had occurred. Further, even if Mr Bungle had explicitly raped legba and the others, one wonders if the concept of rape lacks meaning in the context of virtual reality. If Mr Bungle had directed the computer to narrate legba's fatal burst into flames, one presumes that legba and the witnesses would have rejected that perversion of reality as fraudulent. Even legba concedes, "Mostly voodoo dolls are amusing" (Dibbell, 1993: line 237) implying that they are commonly used to influence reality in non-sensical or ridiculous ways; ways that are interpreted with levity or rejected outright.
This process for interpreting, reconciling, and incorporating events into the consensual reality prompts questions regarding that interpretive process. How are sexual "services" and "unwanted liaisons" constructed into rape? Is it due to the elements of force or violence? Or unwillingness on the part of the victim? Must penetration or violation be literal (i.e., virtually real) such as in Starsinger's induced self-violation with a steak knife or can it be figurative as in legba's forced act of eating his/her own pubic hair? If figurative, exactly what of legba's was violated, his/her autonomy, privacy, or peace (of mind)? Does the construction of rape necessarily include acts of a sexual nature? If legba had been induced into biting his/her own nails, would the act have been rejected from the consensual reality as non-sensical, retained as "amusing," or constructed into rape? How operative is the gender or apparent gender of the parties involved? If the victims lacked the necessary anatomy, how would they have reconciled this with a reality narrated as "legba fondles Starsinger's pouch with his/her tentacle"? Would such an act have been rejected, retained, or constructed? These questions draw attention to the elements of force, autonomy of will, sexuality, and gender. Perhaps when the elements are present in combination, the socio-historical development of sexual deviation compels the parties involved to identify the combination as constitutive of rape.
Virtual reality presents its inhabitants with the opportunity to selectively ascribe meaning and signification to the events which transpire. That legba and the others chose, however willingly, to retain the incident in their shared reality underscores the need to examine the development of the social construction of rape and its ramifications for society. It is no trivial matter that while legba would have rejected fatal immolation, he/she chose (more importantly and accurately, did not consciously choose, but felt or was compelled) to ascribe rape to the actions imposed upon him/her. It is not the intention of this argument to under-appreciate legba's emotional duress, and it is hoped that the rigorous analysis of the construction of rape and the resulting deprivation or reassignment of meaning to that act will forestall undue suffering for others.
Social Construction and Rape
The concept of the social construction of reality is understood in the terms presented by Berger and Luckmann (1967) and Holzner (1972). Incorporated into postmodern methodology, it has drawn the criticism of those who would call the practice "invention theory." Harvey (1989) is concerned with political agendas and the "projects to shape space and encourage spatial practices." He believes that the results are "at best conserving and at worst downright reactionary in their implications" (p. 277). The concern that some theorists are inventing reality or creating it out of whole cloth reaffirms the necessity of grounding social construction in the conservative and incremental development of socio-historical conceptions. This is not to say that all social constructions are and should be the efforts of conscious conservation. It is saying that those who guide constructions ought to be mindful of the criticism; however, the vast majority of social constructions are unguided by theory, whether mindful or not. Most constructions developed or evolved "naturally," that is, according to and within the frameworks of their respective cultures with little or no intervention by theory. This dichotomy between natural or evolutionary construction and guided or conscious construction is sometimes referred to as the difference between social construction and social creation (cf. Edwards, 1973).
The goal of this article is to undertake a conscious construction of rape in virtual reality rather than import intact the construction as it exists in real life. To accomplish this goal, one must examine the social construction of rape in real life. Chayko (1993) writes "It is one of the tasks of sociologists to problematize 'what is real'. Rather than assume that the real world is 'out there' to be learned about and internalized, we recognize that there is no reality apart from what social actors make of it" (p.72). Given this perspective, it is possible to see how sociologists and anthropologists are able to view a great many instances of reality as socially constructed. Among these constructions are gender, sexuality, and rape.
But there are arguable limits as to how much is or can be constructed. Foucault (1990) pushes these limits farther than most when he contends that sex itself, that is, desire, the erotic, and the procreative urge, is subject to the forces of socialization. Malinowski (1932) has a more restrained view when he cautions, "the sexual impulse is never entirely free, neither can it be completely enslaved by social imperatives. The limits of freedom vary; but there is always a sphere within which it is determined by biological and psychological motives only and also a sphere in which the control of custom and convention is paramount" (p. 371). Malinowski identifies the tension in the nature-nurture interplay, but he seems to underestimate the influence of the social upon both the human psychology and biology.
Thus admonished and remaining cognizant of the evolutionary nature of unguided social construction, one proceeds to understand sexuality and rape in our (late twentieth century Western) culture by first identifying its origins in the cultures of others.
The Social History of Rape
To find the theoretical origins of pre-civil society, one should turn to the "state of nature" treatises of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, but to find the "first rape" in the state of nature, perhaps one should turn to Brownmiller (1975). Given the subject matter, it is no surprise that her conception accords more with Hobbesian brutishness than the happier cooperatives found in the others' conceptions. Brownmiller writes that the "accident of biology", which provides the male of the species with both the penis and superior strength, leads men to no other end than to use them. The female, possessor of relatively less strength and the anatomical counterpart, must comply or flee from unwanted interlocking. She continues,In the violent landscape inhabited by primitive woman and man, some woman somewhere had a prescient vision of her right to her own integrity, and in my mind's eye I can picture her fighting like hell to preserve it. After a thunderbolt of recognition that this particular incarnation of hairy, two-legged hominid was not the Homo sapiens with whom she would like to freely join parts, it might have been she, and not some man, who picked up the first stone and hurled it. (p.14).
Recognizing the futility of the battle, the precursor to or first clause of the social contract might have been a woman's surrender of her freedom and integrity to a man so that he would protect her from the assaults of other men. This compact, according to Brownmiller, lays the foundation for marriage and the reduction of women to property. Indeed, while both Hobbes and Locke observe that men must submit to the Sovereign, women must first submit to other men. But unlike these theorists, Brownmiller does not gloss over the historical evidence supporting her thesis. In this regard, she has set herself apart.
Ethnographic support for Brownmiller's "first rape" and resulting feminine social contract is found throughout history and across western and non-western cultures. Common to these cultures are factors which contribute to the "non-presence" of rape; that is, the social status of women relative to men eliminates or reduces the occurrence of rape in those cultures. Non-presence is attributed in some cultures to the non-recognition of forced intercourse as rape because of mitigating circumstances such as chastity and the marital status of the victim. The distinction between rape as a proscribed activity and as a punishable offense relates to the difficulty in proving that the act was perpetrated, and second, by a particular person. The relative social status of women is pertinent because the proof often depends upon the testimony of the victim, who belongs to a gender and/or class of people whose credibility does not weigh equally with that of her attacker. The issues of proof and credibility do not combine well when the penalty for rape may be severe and the woman may have something to gain from a false accusation. As a result, it is often the case that the attacker is acquitted or given a lesser sentence in light of the extenuating circumstances. Indeed, the issue of proof is so operative that in some cultures the punishment or some aspect of it is left to their deities.
A Cross-Cultural Analysis
Due to space limitations, the reader is referred to the longer work for the cross-cultural analysis (MacKinnon, 1997a). By no means is it a complete survey of the socio-historical and cultural development of the social construction of rape. It shows that, as an unguided construct, the perception of acts constitutive of rape is dependent upon the cultural context in which they occur. Cultural differences notwithstanding, the development of the construction across cultural and temporal boundaries has resulted in many similarities in the manifestation of the conception of rape. The benefit of the survey is the understanding that the unguided social construction of rape is mutable and tied to other mutable constructions such as men, women, and their relationships to one another. Given this mutability, we are positioned to re-evaluate the construction of rape in virtual reality, but first, it is important to review how theorists have re-evaluated and consciously constructed rape in real life contexts.
Guiding the Social Construction of Rape in Real Life
The prevailing contemporary theories of rape attempt to explain the underlying causes of rape and can be useful for consciously reconstructing or guiding the social construction of reality as it pertains to sex, gender, and status. These competing paradigms can be generally categorized into three perspectives or approaches: feminist, social learning, and evolutionary. The feminist approach can be found in the works of Mehrhof and Kearon (1972), LeGrande (1973), Brownmiller (1975), Davis (1975), Clark and Lewis (1977), Rose (1977), Groth (1979), Dworkin (1981), and Schwendinger and Schwendinger (1983)). According to Ellis (1989), "the feminist theory considers rape to be the result of long and deep-rooted social traditions in which males have dominated nearly all important political and economic activities" (p.10).
The social learning model, found in the writings of Donnerstein (1985), Malamuth (1981, 1983, 1984), Zillmann (1984), Check (1985) suggests that aggressive sexual behavior is learned through repeated exposure to it. If "original society" can be viewed as the inculcation of aggression from the Hobbesian-Brownmiller state of nature, then social learning theory is one way of explaining how rape is learned, transmitted, and reinforced within and among cultures.
The third perspective, the evolutionary or sociobiological theory of rape, is advocated by Barash (1979), Symons (1979), Gibson, Linden, and Johnson (1980), Rhodes (1981), Konner (1982), Shields and Shields (1983), Thornhill and Thornhill (1983, 1987), Quinsey (1984), Crawford and Galdikas (1986), and Thiessen (1986). Sociobiologists propose that rape is the manifestation of differences between the sexes with regard to reproductive priorities. Based on the assumption that the transmission of one's genes to future generations is a natural priority, proponents of evolutionary theory contend that natural selection favors males who inseminate as many females as possible. Since the use of violence may be necessary to accomplish this goal, genetic carriage of violent tendencies reinforces those tendencies in subsequent generations.
There is much contention among and within these approaches. By identifying a cause of rape, whether it is reified socio-political domination, learned sexual aggression, or genetic proclivity, each approach implies an agenda for a solution. It is this implication which concerns Harvey (1989); that is, the danger in shaping a social construct to match the needs of an existing faction's agenda. Feminist theorists view rape as the construction of a "male's decision to behave toward women in a possessive, dominating, and demeaning manner" (Ellis, 1989: 11), thus suggesting that rape is an act of power or a "pseudosexual act" rather than an act of erotic or biological desire. The solution agenda here focuses on the uneven power distribution between the sexes. This contrasts with the proponents of social learning theory who acknowledge the sexual aspect as a noteworthy manifestation of learned negative behavior towards women. Correspondingly, the solution agenda focuses on the influence of pornographic materials and other negative portrayals of women in the socially pervasive media. Generally speaking, the former theory minimizes the role of sex, whereas the latter attempts to "put sex back into rape." Although these approaches are steeped in the politicization of the women's movement, it is apparent that they are not diametrically opposed and one finds members of both camps in collaborative efforts.
With the exception of the somewhat deterministic evolutionary theory, the perspectives identify possible avenues for guiding the continuing social construction of rape. Among these possibilities is the reconstruction of women as the social, economic, and political equals of men. The transformation of women-as-property to women-as-propertied is an important reformulation of a social construction which has been transmitted across cultural boundaries for centuries. Such a radical reconception takes time to effect in light of the resistance to change. But time-consuming, incremental changes allow social construction theorists to guide and inform the "natural" construction of reality by reconceiving mutable constructions and identifying flexibility in interpretations previously held as rigid. In this way, the essentialist and limiting concept of "woman" is set into motion as an evolving construct of identity. In the same vein, the advent of virtual reality allows theorists to exploit the technology and mutability of rape to the advantage and disadvantage of its potential victims.
Evaluating the Social Construction of Rape in Virtual Reality
With the understanding that rape is an historically mutable construct susceptible to both natural evolution and guidance, one turns now to the present iteration in the context of virtual reality. Legba and the others believe that the events which transpired constituted a rape. Against the backdrop of the development of rape as a concept, it is understandable how these virtual acts can be constructed into a rape. Indeed, a psychological model known as "attribution theory" exists to explain how the average person explains behavior and makes judgments (Bourque, 1989: 77). Attribution theorists present test subjects with hypothetical scenarios and assess how and why the scenarios are interpreted or not interpreted as rape. This method is found in Goldschmidt's (1976) study of the Sebei. He noted that "most respondents do not imagine a sexual outcome to the scene of a man lurking in the bushes watching a woman come down the path" (p.205). Of course, this interpretation is culturally dependent.
So in the case of LambaMOO, when Mr Bungle used his voodoo doll to force legba into "unwanted liaisons" with other individuals, this force was interpreted as rape. It was the collective ascription of meaning and signification to the event; that is, the (non)decision on all the participants' parts to retain and incorporate Mr Bungle's actions into their consensual reality. The element of decision is qualified because no victim rationally decides to be raped, yet it seems that it is possible for a victim of an unsolicited assault to interpret the assault in more ways than one.
The foundation for that interpretation is the subject of attribution theory and unsurprisingly is firmly rooted in the socio-historical and cross-cultural (MacKinnon, 1997a) construction of rape. For example, Bourque (1989) observes that attribution theorists' findings center on the issues of the victim's marital, sexual, and occupational status; the relative status of the perpetrator; the context of the rape (rape by a stranger is viewed as more serious than rape by an acquaintance) and the degree of force used; and the gender of the observer--women identify more strongly with the victim and men are more likely to identify with a male perpetrator (pp.77-95). These are the same issues in the cross-cultural analysis (MacKinnon, 1997a) which determined the presence and non-presence of rape as well as the severity of its punishment. It was the operation of these issues that Dibbell captures when he writes,They say he raped them that night. They say he did it with a cunning little doll ... imbued with the power to make them do whatever he desired. They say that by manipulating the doll he forced them to have sex with him, and with each other, and to do horrible, brutal things to their own bodies. And although I wasn't there that night, I think I can assure you that what they say is true . . . (lines 19-25).
The problematic acceptance of voodoo aside, the attribution of rape ("They say he raped them") to virtual acts ("he forced them to have sex with him") occurred and Dibbell and many others not present concur.
While it is noteworthy that the "first rape" in cyberspace occurred, it was inevitable that rape would follow humankind into the next social dimension as it has followed humanity from the hurling of the first stone. What is less understood as noteworthy is the general acceptance of this inevitability. Indeed, the passive transmission of rape from culture to culture is so infectious that the denizens of cybersociety are quick to open the doors to their virtual living rooms and bring in their attacker. Recall Reid's (1995) observation that reality within a MUD is set into motion by the "user's willingness to treat the manifestations of his or her imaginings as if they were real" (pp. 165, 166). Given this "willingness" and the compelling rationale of rape's sordid past, one cannot blame them, especially when this new reality is possibly the perfect hunting ground for the virtual rapist. The irony is that in trying to make virtual reality a more realistic experience, these founding citizens may be eliminating the best aspects of the virtual in order to make it more real.
A Climate for Rape
Viewed as an anarchy destined for governance (MacKinnon, 1995), virtual society is undergoing a process of social organization, disorganization, and reorganization (Carey citing Thomas and Znaniecki in Baron and Straus, 1989: 127). This process of social organization is evident in virtual realities (Reid, 1991; MacKinnon, 1995). MacKinnon attributes the disorganization to the fact that "users are unable to 'bring' with them [into virtual reality] their respective social structures because the limitations of [the medium] deconstruct their external world social structure" (p.114). Just as the separation of persons from their usual social structure manifests itself initially as disorganization in real life, so too does it manifest itself in LamdaMOO and other virtual realms.
The (dis)organization of virtual society's population is due to a mix of varying degrees of permanence. There are certainly enclaves of relatively isolated communities as well as huge, heterogeneous concentrations. Movement among these communities and the resulting irresponsibility or freedom from responsibility is easily identifiable in virtual reality society. Further, it is well-known that the current virtual realities are primarily designed and peopled by men (Kramarae, 1995). The relative rarity of virtual women in a predominantly male cybersociety has led to the documentation of great numbers of instances of sexual harassment, the present case notwithstanding.
Baron and Straus (1989) construct a social disorganization index to measure key elements of disorganization in American society. Among these is the percentage of the population moving from a different state or abroad, the ratio of tourists to residents, the percentage of the divorced in the population, the percentage of the female-headed families with children under age 18, the percentage of the population with no religious affiliation, and the ratio of nonfamilied male housekeepers (p.129). Obviously these elements are culturally dependent and some have no current analog in LambdaMOO, but others, such as transient and tourist populations, immigration, and "nonfamilied male housekeepers," have direct bearing.[A]ny weakening of stability and integration has an emancipating effect on character and allows in varying degrees the development of irresponsibility, unconventionality, and disorganization. Those whose lives involve a considerable amount of mobility and who thus are forced to spend a large proportion of their time among strangers are subject to this effect. They are not controlled by an organized society to the extent that settled peoples are and are thus free to express individuality to a greater extent. (Faris, p.110).
Certainly the extreme degree of mobility within virtual society subjects its inhabitants to this phenomenon.
Faris treats tourists as "temporary migrants" and Cohen and Taylor (1978) "suggest that people take vacations to escape from the scripted roles and routines of everyday life" (Baron and Straus, 1989: 132). Baron and Straus concede that research into the criminogenic character is scarce, but cite additional studies which note vacationers sometimes view themselves as being on a "moral holiday" which allows them to steal hotel property and participate in such activities as gambling, prostitution, fraud, and theft.
Finally, the element of "nonfamilied male housekeepers" is studied in order to measure social isolation among single men. Baron and Straus surmise from the research beginning with Durkheim in 1897 that the "social and psychological consequences of different household arrangements supports the conclusion that men living alone increases the likelihood of personal and social problems" (p.134).
In his study of rape in medieval England, Carter (1985) observes that "strangers to a county like Berkshire probably felt more confident about committing a crime like rape because their identities would not be known. To commit rape and quickly disappear would not have been difficult in thirteenth century Berkshire" (p.59). Nor is it so difficult in twentieth century virtual reality. Because of the high degree of anonymity, the issues relating to transience and displacement are exacerbated in a society where persons can choose permanent transience of identity and corresponding unaccountability.
MacKinnon (1995) suggests that the "personation" of one's self, the authority of the resulting persona, and the consequences of its actions matter only if the existence of the persona matters to the computer user who created it. If the user desires to have a viable persona in virtual reality, then his or her persona must conform to the social structure governing its interactions with others. In discussing possible penalties for Mr Bungle's crimes, the members of LambdaMOO pondered the possibility of contacting his user's university administrators. Deciding that there is a difference between real life and virtual reality crimes, they rejected this option in favor of a virtual reality penalty. "He had committed a MOO crime, and his punishment, if any, would be meted out via the MOO" (Dibbell, 1993: lines 555-557). This decision supports MacKinnon's theory and legba's position that sufficient means for social control in virtual society arise from within the society itself and that no external coercion (from real life) is necessary, but what about cases in which the persona does not matter? Indeed, MacKinnon's theory is premised on the utility for the user of the continued existence of his or her persona. An investigation into the problematics of the punishment of personae is reserved for another project (MacKinnon, 1997b), but for now, there is some evidence that the persona of Mr Bungle did not matter to the New York University (NYU) user who created him.
Many of the personae inhabiting LambdaMOO are permanent and semi-permanent members of its virtual community. They have established for themselves relationships and reputations. Their existence matters to their respective users, and accordingly, they abide by the existing collection of norms, mores, and guidelines known as netiquette. Breach of netiquette takes its toll on their viability (Reid, 1991; MacKinnon, 1995) and serves as effective social control.
The intended permanence of Mr Bungle, however, is in doubt. First, there was his extremely antisocial behavior which would have undoubtedly drawn unwanted community criticism and threatened his virtual existence. Second, there is the remarkable similarity of the Mr Bungle persona to the imagery found in the lyrics and accompanying illustrations to the compact disc album entitled Mr Bungle (Mr Bungle, 1991). The LambdaMOO Bungle was self-described as a "fat oleaginous, Bisquick-faced clown dressed in cum-stained harlequin garb and girdled with a mistletoe-and-hemlock belt whose buckle wore the quaint inscription 'KISS ME UNDER THIS, BITCH!'" (Dibbell, 1993: lines 101-104, capitalization in the original). The album illustrations feature several clown faces with expressions ranging from grinning to grimacing and shouting. The song's lyrics evoke images of carnivals, happy faces, clowns, cotton candy, and children juxtaposed with explicit, graphic, sexual violence and misogyny. Indeed, Mr Bungle's misogynistic antics on LambdaMOO may have been inspired by the lyrics from this album.
Finally, there is his response when confronted by the members of his virtual community and asked for an explanation. He said, "I engaged in a bit of a psychological device that is called thought-polarization, the fact this is not real life simply added to heighten the affect (sic) of the device. It was purely a sequence of events with no consequence on my real life existence" (Dibbell, 1993: lines 617-620). This self-admission that his persona did not matter to him is tantamount to insanity. When utility to the user or a "stake" is absent, a persona lacks accountability for its actions and presents a tremendous social liability. The unmasking of Mr Bungle revealed to the people of LambdaMOO that they were dealing with a virtual psychopath. In much the same way that it is morally difficult to punish children and the mentally incompetent, so too was it difficult for LambdaMOO to continue the fevered prosecution of Mr Bungle. By being informed that they had all been involuntary participants in another user's fantasy circus, they realized that the seriousness with which they had perceived the situation was the springboard for putting the joke on themselves. Perhaps if someone had stumbled upon the album prior to the incident the ruse would have been discovered and Mr Bungle's actions would not have been interpreted as seriously nor incorporated into the consensual reality; rather, the actions might have been rejected as misappropriated song lyrics of questionable taste.
Perhaps the high degree of anonymity, mobility, and voluntary accountability among virtual citizens exposes them to possibly greater consequences of social disorganization than is experienced in real life. Given this, it is easy to understand how the participants attributed the serious interpretation of rape to Mr Bungle's actions. Unfortunately, they inadvertently brought into virtual reality a criminal phenomenon well-suited to thriving under the current technologically-induced conditions. If Faris is correct, the process of social organization will lead to reorganization and virtual society will adapt to the introduction and transmission of rape much as every other society has in the past. But at what cost comes this inadvertent, nonconscious, importation of rape from real life?
Bodylessness and the Technology to Rape
Real life constructions of rape conceive it as an assault upon the body. Legalistic and other definitions of rape tend to include elements of physical force, fear and unwillingness. Admittedly phallocentric, most theorists agree that the act must involve intercourse and that intercourse necessitates some sort of penetration. There is less consensus on whether the penetration can be other than vaginal with other than a penis (Bourque, 1989). This problematizes the case in which a male is the victim. The recognition of male victims of rape and female victims of less conventional forms of rape has driven the construction towards less physical and more generalized notions of body and self.
Kelly (1988) identifies a feminist-derived definition which incorporates rape into one of many forms of sexual violence. Defining violence as "involving damage to the self," Kelly notes that the damage may be physical, emotional, psychological, or material. With "violence" predicated as the result of "violation," the violation can be of the body, of the mind, or of trust (p.39). This broad construction of rape was conceived to remedy a dire situation in real life where rape is increasingly understood to take many forms.
When constructed as violence against the mind, rape moves quite readily from real life to the virtual realm of the "bodyless." Indeed, when constructed as a violation of the mind, the virtual reality-adaptation renders moot the problematic issues of arbitrarily presented bodies and gender indeterminacy. The violation cuts through the veils of representation and stabs at the core. In this way, rape becomes an assault not against a persona, but against the person behind the persona. It is a virtual violation that passes back through the interface and attacks the person where it is real. Seen in this way, one can begin to sympathize with the Seattle woman who presented the persona of legba. She confided to Dibbell that "posttraumatic (sic) tears were streaming down her face"--evidence that virtual rape has real-life emotional consequences (Dibbell, 1993: lines 252-255). It did not matter that her body was a mere representation of her own creation and that her gender was non-female. What mattered is that her persona mattered to her, but even more pressing was the discovery that this new virulent form of rape can penetrate the interface and hurt the user. Whereas Ulrich (1992) touts virtual reality as the ultimate form of safe sex, calling it the "emotional condom of the twenty-first century," the Bungle affair suggests that the virtual reality-adaptation of rape easily defeats that condom and then some.
Stone (1992) warns that "no matter how virtual the subject may become, there is always a body attached" (p.111). She is critical of the virtual reality research inspired by Gibson's writings. The trend, she contends, is to conceive of the body as "meat" destined to obsolescence as soon as "consciousness itself can be uploaded into the network" (p.113). MacKinnon (1995) observes that the association between the persona and user is conveniently but foolishly forgotten and Stone calls the forgetting of the body Cartesian trickery. "It is important to remember," she writes, "that virtual community originates in, and must return to, the physical. No refigured virtual body, no matter how beautiful, will slow the death of a cyberpunk with AIDS. Even in the age of the technosubject, life is lived through bodies" (p.113).
Bringing the Rapist In
Given these considerations, if rape is to be given its due in virtual reality, then it cannot be constructed as an assault against mere virtual representations. To exist in virtual reality, rape must move from the "physical" to the mental. It must shift from the realm of virtual reality bodies, arbitrary as they are, to the realm of the emotional and psychological self. Such a shift raises the issues of nonpresence, primarily, if rape is to exist in the mind, in whose mind must it exist to be present?
To answer this question, one can return to attribution theory and its breakdown of the perception of rape. In the case of virtual reality, rape exists in the minds of the victim (V), the perpetrator (P), and/or the witness-others (O), but in which mind must it exist to matter? To rephrase this question, if rape could only exist in one mind, in whose mind must it exist?
V-dependent rape implies that only the victim is aware of the violation. There are no witnesses and there is no locatable suspect. It is only the word of the victim which gives existence and immediacy to the crime. How does a society adjudicate such a charge? Historically, women victims have not been trusted to supply uncorroborated testimony when the consequences are severe. Suppose the victim attributes acts to rape more broadly than most members of society would. Can society convict on the victim's interpretation alone? Does V-dependent rape account for hypersensitive, insane, or mentally incompetent victims? Socio-cultural history suggests that, given the consequences, it cannot and will not. Finally what about the cases where the victim is not aware of the rape? Consider the scenarios where the victim is drugged or unconscious? If rape is V-dependent, such a rape cannot exist. Surely this example invalidates the case of V- dependency.
The case for P-dependent rape is that if anyone knows that a rape has occurred it must be the perpetrator. This implies that it does not matter if the victim is aware of the violation. She does not need to know that her doctor exploited her while she was under anesthesia or that her psychiatrist seduced her while she was under hypnosis. It does not require witnesses nor does it require exposure via a trial. All that matters is that one person, the perpetrator, have awareness of the crime. But if the victim and others never become aware, does the crime have saliency? What distinguishes P-dependent rape from the perpetrator's fantasies? P-dependent rape is also unacceptable as a construction because perpetrators do not generally prosecute themselves. Indeed, they would not be allowed even if they desired because criminal confessions must often be corroborated. In other words, P-dependent rape lacks salience in the extreme, and because it often requires corroboration, lacks independence.
By process of elimination, the remaining case must be the answer. O-dependency relies upon the public trial, that is, the public-other must decide if a rape has occurred. O-dependency best accommodates the cultural view of rape as a public-involving act. In O-dependent rape, it does not matter if rape exists in the minds of the victim or the perpetrator. The requirement is that it exists in the minds of the witnesses, the jurors, and/or the community. In this case, the others take into consideration the testimonies of the victim and the perpetrator. This conception is a reconciliation of the weaknesses in V-and P-dependent rape conceptions. In the end, the others alone must decide if a rape has occurred independent of whether they know for sure if it has. The trial is the most widely used heuristic for attributing rape in a society. Certainly not all trials resemble the American jurisprudential process, but they all involve elements of weighing evidence in the collective, public mind. In the case of Mr Bungle, the public mind was largely convinced of his guilt without hearing his testimony. Since the crime was committed in the "public eye" in front of many witnesses, it is doubtful that the victims' testimonies were necessary to arrive at their verdict.
And what of punishing the virtual rapist? If rape is a crime against the mind, what good does it do to punish the persona as did the members of LambaMOO? Even in light of his eventual execution, the sentence was handed down to Mr. Bungle and not to the user presenting him. If Mr Bungle's attack penetrated the persona and impacted the woman in Seattle, then the punishment should impact the student in New York. It is ironic, that although the virtual reality-adaptation of rape has real effects, the LambdaMOO people decided that the effects were not as real nor as serious as real life rape. As much as it can be reasoned that virtual reality rape has real consequences, reason also led to the privileging of the body over the mind. Ultimately, the crime was comparably less serious than if Mr Bungle's user had physically raped the woman in Seattle. As a result, the student's virtual reality body was punished, not his own--the mind behind the crime.
But punishing a virtual rape with virtual penalties does not address recidivism by the user. Indeed, the NYU user reappeared in LambdaMOO with a new persona. If virtual rape has real consequences, this cannot be allowed to continue. If punishing the persona through internally-developed social controls is ineffective when the crime has real effects, does it seem reasonable that social controls with real effects are necessary? If so, perhaps the users of LambaMOO should have contacted the NYU administration after all.
Invoking external controls on virtual society requires consideration. Firstly, since MacKinnon (1995) argues that external controls are unnecessary to govern virtual society, is it not a step backwards to rely upon them rather than develop and exercise independent, internal controls? How will continued dependence on external controls influence the development of arguably independent societies in virtual reality? Which external government's view of free speech should regulate speech-as-action among international users of text-based virtual realities? How will the speech-as-action/narrative-as-reality linkage fare in the context of external civil liberty claims of free speech? How about the external controls on pornographic, harassing, and other prohibited speech? Does Mr Bungle's user have the right to speak violently to the person presenting legba? Was legba's user at any time exposed to danger? Will these questions become moot when technology supplants text-as-action virtual reality's with text-less environments? The answers to these questions are contentious enough to consider a reassessment of rape as a crime of the mind. When viewed as a crime of the body, albeit virtually, jurisprudence can be developed internally by the inhabitants of virtual reality. The result is a local, current solution relatively free from the conundrum and political legacies of external-world decision-making processes (MacKinnon, 1997b).
In the end, it seems that the virtual reality-adaptation of rape, even though it is now a construction directed to the mind rather than the body, resembles very much its real life counterpart. The construction accounts for bodylessness, renders gender irrelevant, and captures the severe nature of the offense by penetrating the interface and directly assaulting the person behind the persona. The construction is so compelling that Dibbell writes, "it was hard for me to understand why real life society classifies real life rape alongside crimes against the person or property. Since rape can occur without physical pain or damage, I found myself reasoning, then it must be classified as a crime against the mind" (lines 824-828). But what does this construction of rape do for humanity? What has been gained by conceiving virtual rape in such a way that its virtuality is irrelevant? Why should the people of LambdaMOO set a precedent by reasoning into existence a construction of rape more virulent and harmful than they realize? Is not rape of the body serious enough that it should not be reconstructed when bodies are absent?
Dibbell's sentiments indicate that rather than learning from our mistakes in real life and correcting them in virtual reality, we are headed down the path of worsening our situation in real life by misapplying what we have learned in virtual reality. This is a failing of theorists to avail themselves of the opportunity which virtual reality presents to construct a conception of rape which is less virulent, less dangerous, and less meaningful than its real life counterpart. The goal should be to limit pain and victimization, not chart out ways in which it can grow.
Empowerment through the Conscious Construction of Rape in Virtual Reality
Hilberman (1976) contends that the "ultimate elimination of rape demands a massive restructuring of social values to include a reconsideration of the relations between the sexes." Resonating with the feminist solution agenda, Hilberman believes rape will not be eliminated until sex roles are no longer defined by stereotypical expectations based on sex and power motives. Sanders (1980) claims that the prevention of rape is not about new types of physical arrangements, better street lighting, or monthly community meetings. He calls for a reconceptualization of the rapist. The rapist must be made to appear foolish and this can only be done in terms of what the rapist is in the context of his actions in society (p.143). Further, Sanders wants a reconstruction of the victim in which the victim is at least as dangerous as the perpetrator.
Such reconstructions are difficult to effect in real life, but are relatively trivial to implement in virtual reality. Already it was suggested that other circumstances could have cast Mr Bungle's actions in another light. Similar to the rejection of the non-sensical narrations (legba would have rejected a command to self-immolate), Sanders' call for reconceptualization does not demand much more than this. It is understood that legba and the others initially and responsively felt the violation resulting from Bungle's actions, but just as social learning theory explains the transmission of violence through repetitive exposure, the same process can transmit the absence of violence. The repetitive rejection of undesired elements from the consensual reality fosters an environment hostile to the inculcation of undesirable values. The process begins with conscious, determined reattribution and concludes with a reformulated concept. With respect to rape in virtual reality, a reoccurrence of Mr Bungle-like actions would need to be consciously interpreted as foolish, meaningless, non-sensical, and irrelevant. At first this will be difficult, but it will become easier with time.
The reattribution of undesired sexual acts may draw the criticism of those who believe that this course of action crosses the line between self-empowerment and holding the victims responsible for their own pain. Critics may suggest that this reconception fails to acknowledge the "window of pain between the moment the rape-text starts flowing and the moment a gag shuts it off" (Dibbell, 463- 469). Whereas the critics are concerned with victims of rape shutting their eyes to it, this reconstruction does not permit the acts to be interpreted as rape in the first place. While the "window of pain" is initially unavoidable, the reification of the reattribution process gradually closes the window and eventually shuts it completely. Is it not better to engage upon a project which safeguards the self from the harms of virtual actions?
Is it not better to say, "You can't rape me. I don't have a body" than "I believe rape is an assault upon the mind, and so, even though I don't have a body, you can rape me anyway"? Although we cannot currently break the lifegiving mind-body link of which Stone speaks, we can build protective walls and make the mind impervious from virtual assaults. The interface which generates the persona and the virtual reality should be that barrier to harm, and in the lapse of technology, we must rely upon social construction to ensure it.
This article has sought to criticize the attribution of rape to the events described in the Bungle case. It does this not out of antipathy for the victims; quite the contrary. The current iteration of rape as constructed in LambdaMOO poses serious, real consequences for users of virtual reality and complex problems for virtual reality theoreticians who will be forced to reconcile the consequences with real life power structures. It is hoped that these reasons alone will subject the current construction of virtual reality rape to reassessment.
The task of reassessment implies the guided construction of rape rather than its nonconscious importation from real life. By way of a socio-historical and cross-cultural analysis (MacKinnon, 1997a), it has been established that rape has always been a social construction--one more mutable than commonly believed. Further, the current broadening trend in the real life social construction of rape is making its nonconscious importation into virtual reality relatively easy. Despite this ease, logically rape does not have to exist in virtual reality now; rationally it should not. The importation of real life rape into virtual reality poses complex questions and creates complex problems unnecessarily. It would better serve the interest of virtual society to reconceive rape so as to render it less harmful or even irrelevant.
Controversially, the same challenge is available to real life social constructionists as well. The history of sexuality reveals that anatomy is socially coded in such a way that some body parts are hypervalued relative to others. Assaults involving penis/anus/vagina are socially constructed differently from those involving finger/ear/nose. Accordingly, the victim of the former is constructed differently than the victim of the latter. Whereas after an assault, the latter experiences little if any social repercussions, the former is traumatized, segregated, and introduced into a process specially created to treat the would-be victim. In effect and irrationally so, the process is created to await and treat the persons which are created/destined to be its victims.
The lesson learned from virtual reality enables positive constructionists to short-circuit this process by eliminating previously unconsidered causes of victimization. In other words, whereas most rape theorists focus upon evening the relationship between men and women by proscribing certain activities, an alternative construction considers the removal of the sex from sexual assault by decoding or recoding the anatomy. Because anatomical coding is commonly perceived as immutable, this solution generally is not considered. But in the case of rape, virtual reality has served as a useful tool for re-evaluating rape as a historically mutable construction capable of positive- or re-construction. Accordingly, anatomical recoding can reduce a sexual assault to a physical assault, mercifully transforming the victim of a sexual assault into a non-victimized victim of a physical assault. Granted that reconstructing the value of anatomy is a difficult undertaking, it is yet hoped that the examination of the social construction of rape has shown that social constructions are not as rigid as they seem. Indeed, it is not the constructions which are rigid, but the persons who promulgate them.
I would like to thank David Edwards, Ann Cvetkovich, Julian Dibbell, and Jon Lebkowsky for their comments and support during the revision process and Allucquere Stone and Fay Sudweeks for their patience. I extend my apologies to the scores of persons for whom I have ruined countless dates and parties with the discussion of rape. Most importantly, I wish to recognize and thank my housemate, friend, and colleague, Judd Jeansonne for hours of insightful, energetic, and motivating discussions culminating in this work.
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About the Author
Richard MacKinnon is a researcher and political scientist in the Government Department and Advanced Communication Technologies Laboratory (ACTLAB) at the University of Texas at Austin. He writes and lectures on the politics of cyberspace and the virtual communities within. He is currently writing a book for MIT Press entitled Cybergovernance: Politics among the Disembodied.
Address: Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin, Burdine Hall 536, Austin TX 78712, USA.