Virtual Reality Technology Offers Opportunities to Address, and Perpetrate, Sexual Harassment in New York City and Elsewhere

Virtual reality (VR) technology has been a feature of science fiction for some time. The technology is quickly advancing, although it has not reached the level portrayed in books and movies. Devices are now available to consumers that allow them to play VR games, both alone and with other players online. VR technology may prove to be useful in educating people about preventing sexual harassment in the workplace, and also in the recovery process for survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment. New York City is home to numerous technology companies exploring the benefits of VR technology. Unfortunately, VR has also presented further opportunities for some people to engage in New York sexual harassment. Participants in online VR games have reported numerous instances of conduct that would meet any standard definition of sexual harassment, and even assault, if it occurred in the real world. These alleged incidents might not directly involve employment statutes dealing with sexual harassment, but they demonstrate how deeply ingrained the attitudes that often lead to sexual harassment are in our society.

Employment statutes like the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. This includes sexual harassment in certain situations:  when a manager or supervisor makes sexual conduct of some sort a condition of employment, and when unwanted sexual remarks and other conduct are pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment. Employers have a legal responsibility to make reasonable efforts to investigate and remedy reported sexual harassment, and they could be liable for failing to do so. These statutes could apply to sexual harassment in “virtual” settings if an individual’s job requires them to participate in VR activities. For consumers using a company’s VR services, the service provider’s legal duty is not quite as clear, but they still have responsibility for their customers’ safety.

Current VR technology involves the use of a headset that allows a user to view the virtual setting in three dimensions. The headset responds to the user’s head movements, and additional controllers might reflect the real-world movement of the user’s arms, hands, and legs. The result can be a remarkably immersive environment, which has demonstrated benefits for various types of training and education. Some employers conduct sexual harassment trainings using VR technology, based on research suggesting that people retain more information from interactive VR programs than from live speakers or videos. VR applications might also help people who have experienced sexual assault and sexual harassment deal with trauma and related issues.

Part of the benefit of using VR for sexual harassment trainings is that it immerses trainees in scenarios in which they must confront possible sexual harassment, rather than merely presenting hypothetical scenarios. The same technology, unfortunately, can also create situations in which sexual harassment can occur without a professional trainer to guide the participants. Numerous VR users have reported incidents ranging from inappropriate comments to inappropriate touching, such as by groping their virtual avatar’s intimate areas. No actual physical contact occurs, of course, but the impact is not much different than if it occurred in real life. These actions underscore the apparent belief of many people that, even in a computer-generated space, they are entitled to other people’s—particularly women’s—bodies.

The employment attorneys at Phillips & Associates advocate for employees, former employees, and job applicants in New York City, helping them assert their rights in claims of sexual harassment under local, state, and federal employment laws. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case, contact us today at (212) 248-7431 or through our website.

More Blog Posts:

Lawsuit Alleges Retaliation by University in Upstate New York for Reports of Sexual Harassment, New York Employment Attorney Blog, May 23, 2018

Sexual Harassment Alleged by Professional Sports Cheerleaders in New York and Around the Country, New York Employment Attorney Blog, May 8, 2018

Survey Reveals Rampant Sexual and Racial Harassment Among Space Scientists, New York Employment Attorney Blog, April 10, 2018

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