Rape In Cyberspace

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"A Rape in Cyberspace, or How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society" is an article written by journalist Julian Dibbell, first published in The Village Voice in 1993[1]. The piece was later incorporated into Dibbell's book titled My Tiny Life which recounts his experiences and observations from his time in LambdaMOO, a text-based virtual reality that allowed for multiplayer role-playing games.

"A Rape in Cyberspace" is considered the most comprehensive record of the first virtual rape (or cyber rape) on the Internet and is often cited in the literature and research surrounding the topic[2]. In his article, Dibbell details the aftermath of the attack on the virtual community and its struggle to determine an appropriate punishment for the virtual rapist because, although the act was not technically criminal, the attack negatively impacted the victim's real-life psyche, and called ethical online behavior into question.


screenshot of the LambdaMOO multi-user dimension (MUD) welcome screen from the mid 1990s.https://timeline.com/rape-in-cyberspace-lambdamoo-da9cf0c74e9e

The unprovoked attack described in “A Rape in Cyberspace” took place in the virtual reality of LambdaMOO, a text-based online community which is an extension of MUD, a multi-user dimensions computer game[3]. LambdaMOO is entirely text-based; game settings and avatars are rendered through descriptive text, and there are no graphics or animations to accompany said text descriptions. Players interact with each other, objects and locations by using avatars[3]. Players are given the freedom to customize the text description of their avatars in any way they like, including and not limited to their preferred gender and physical appearance[1].

Summary of Events

The Attack

On a night in March of 1993, a LambdaMOO avatar named "Mr. Bungle" entered Living Room #17, a very popular meeting site on LambdaMOO. There he forced two other players, Legba and Starsinger, to perform violent and explicit sexual acts [1]. Mr. Bungle was able to force these actions upon other players through the use of a voodoo doll, a subprogram that enables the user to override controls so that any statement written by one user can be attributed to another[4]. As a result, an avatar under the control of a voodoo doll may do and say things that the avatar’s original user did not intend or want their avatar to do. Mr. Bungle, with the help of his voodoo doll subprogram, was able to manipulate and control the actions of Legba and Starsinger - forcing them to have sex with his avatar and each other. Moreover, he forced Starsinger to violate herself with a knife. [1]. The attack lasted until someone summoned a wizard named Zippy, a player with administrator level access, who was able to cage Mr. Bungle. The caging caused Mr. Bungle to lose access to the LambdaMOO community without the deletion of his avatar or account, thereby ending his attack on the community that night, but not fully eliminating his online presence.[4].

Community Response

The actions committed by Mr. Bungle violated the community norms that had been established within LambdaMOO, eliciting outrage from the community and its members[5]. The day following the attack, Legba posted a statement on the in-MOO mailing list, a form in which members could talk about and debate issues important to the entire community[4]. Although she was still confused about how she should feel after the attack, Legba did call for some kind of repercussion in her statement:

"I’m not calling for policies, trials, or better jails. I’m not sure what I’m calling for. Virtual castration, if I could manage it. Mostly, [this type of thing] doesn’t happen here. Mostly, perhaps I thought it wouldn’t happen to me. Mostly, I trust people to conduct themselves with some veneer of civility. Mostly, I want his ass.”[1] - Legba

The user behind Legba later confessed to Dibbell that she wrote her statement with tears streaming down her face due to the trauma she experienced from her virtual rape[1]. Later, Legba called for Mr. Bungle to be "toaded", or to have his account and avatar removed from LambdaMOO permanently. However, Legba did not have the technological capacity to toad Mr. Bungle from the community and needed the assistance of a wizard to remove Mr. Bungle from the database. At this point in time, the LambdaMoo community did not have any formal organizational structure in place and primarily ran on a "majority rules" decision-making process[6]. Despite the international support Legba received, the community quickly became divided on how to best handle the situation[6]. Three days after the incident, LambdaMOO users gathered to discuss the fate of Mr. Bungle. In the middle of the meeting, much to the community's surprise, Mr. Bungle joined the conversation to justify his behavior; he explained that his actions were simply consequential to the virtual reality and had no implications in real life[1]. Mr. Bungle left the discussion soon after his explanation was quickly met with hostility. Despite a lengthy conversation, the users were unable to come to a resolution, displaying that the online community was in need of an effective method to resolve disputes between members.

Consequences of the Rape

After the meeting, a wizard named JoeFeedback weighed the arguments and decided to take action upon himself. He quickly and silently removed Mr. Bungle from the LambdaMOO database, thus eliminating the existence of Mr. Bungle altogether[1]. Despite the avatar being kicked off, whoever was under the virtual identity of Mr. Bungle did not experience any kind of punishment. A few days later, the user returned to the platform in the form of a new character named Dr. Jest, but quickly left the site and has not been seen since[1]. It remained clear that Mr. Bungle's user could easily return to the online community as a new avatar, and then be able to potentially carry out virtual rape (or other acts of aggression) until said avatar was punished. This cycle could, theoretically, continue unless the community effectively addressed the issue. The actions of Mr. Bungle had an everlasting effect on LambdaMOO; by forcing a diverse group of users to come together to form a community with its own rules and regulations. As a result, LambdaMOO's main creator Pavel Curtis set up a system of petitions and ballots where users can put any topic up to a popular vote and in which community wizards are required to implement the outcome of the vote[7]. The system helped to create a government for the community and provided ways to protect against acts of violence on the site[7].

Ethical Implications

Cyber Harassment

In terms of the resulting emotional trauma, the Rape in Cyberspace is an extreme form of harassment and/or abuse. Other forms of online harassment include physical threats, stalking, as well as sustained and sexual harassment. These forms of online harassment are increasingly common on anonymous forms of social media.[8] Anonymity often leads to stereotyping, harassment, depersonalization, prejudicial attitudes and other hurtful behaviors due to a user's reduced sense of accountability and liability.[9] Anonymous, online harassers are thus harder to hold responsible for their actions since they are not easy to track. For that reason, online harassment requires a change in code, or a revision to a platform and/or online community's rules and regulations. In short, online harassment and similar behaviors are affordances[10] of the platform or online community, per Danah Boyd. The design, architecture, code and functionalities of these platforms and/or online communities allow for this behavior: the level of anonymity, Mr. Bungle's "voodoo doll" subprogram, and LambdaMOO's lack of a central governing body (and ineffective community rules) all contributed to this violent act of cyber harassment.

Virtual Evil

Much of the debate surrounding the incident is rooted in the fact that the action of rape was done in a virtual environment. Even though the user controlling Mr. Bungle is morally responsible for actions performed by his avatar, it is harder to define what degree of disciplinary response is appropriate due to the supposed lack of tangible harm.

In his article, Dibble debates the difference between real life and virtual reality. He argues that the world of LambdaMOO is not completely real nor completely make-believe but exists somewhere in between. The people who exist in this virtual reality behind the avatars still have complex thoughts and emotions[1]. He brings to light the ethical question: what are the effects of virtual reality on real life? Further, can virtual harm create harm in real life? The actions committed by Mr. Bungle on that night in March was a case of virtual rape: sexually explicit behavior forced upon one virtual character by another in a virtual environment. It was clear that the incident had real-life effects on the users who were victims. [3] Avatars can be viewed as virtual representations or extensions of real-life people and, in some cases, a truer representation of self when society views their certain characteristics of their person as negative or odd [11]. Since avatars are an extension of their real-life counterparts, any harm done onto the avatar affects, to an extent, the user who created the avatar. This can be clearly observed in the case of Legba and Starsinger who were deeply distraught and consequently suffered post-traumatic stress from Mr. Bungle's actions against their avatars.

In addition to causing real harm to the victims, this incident could also caused harm to the offender by allowing him to develop vicious behaviors. When philosopher Shannon Vallor discuss about online virtue ethics, she argued that the architecture of virtual communities and the behaviors enabled by them can lead to either the development of virtues or vices as users engage in online activities. In many cases and scenarios, virtual reality and online identities can offer a preview or window into the intentions or thoughts behind the user's mind in real life. This virtual space offers an outlet for obscene and violent behavior as do many other forms of online video games. [12] This supports the argument that when online avatars conduct unethical activities online, the user controlling the avatar is more likely to adopt such behaviors in real life.[13] Therefore in this incident, as much as the user behind Mr. Bungle is responsible for his action, LambdaMOO's design flaws that allowed him to take control of other players' avatars with relative ease and the lack of appropriate system response also need to be accounted for their effects on both the victim and offender.

Online Anonymity

The events of the cyber-rape also bring up the ethical dilemma of increased cyber-bullying permitted by hiding behind screen names. Cyber-bullying is common because perpetrators feel anonymous by using an online username or avatar to commit harmful acts. This anonymity allows them to act inappropriately with few repercussions. The growing community of online users makes it harder to hold offenders responsible. In order to punish users who commit harmful actions, platforms would have to collect more personal information upon creation of an account, which brings up another ethical dilemma of privacy for users. Where to draw the line between protection of personal privacy, and collection of adequate information to be able to track down a user that needs to be held accountable is debatable. However, the moderators and executives behind these social networking platforms and online communities do have the ability to punish, limit and/or prevent such harmful actions. Recently, there has been significant discussion surrounding Reddit's facilitation of hate speech. The platform boasts a seemingly infinite amount of subgroups (called subreddits), each made up of - or followed by - anonymous users. This anonymity clearly contributes to the presence of hate speech and subreddits dedicated to hateful content. The debate[14] is over whether or not the company would be limiting its users' free speech by banning these subreddits and implementing effective strategies to prevent hate speech and/or establish some method of holding offenders accountable. Seeing as anonymity is a crucial affordance or function of the platform that likely cannot be phased out - the company must address the resulting issue of online harassment through other methods.

The ability for cyber rapists to often get away with what they do or being able to hide behind a screen name creates an issue within the person who is perpetrating the crime. The kind of response that cyberbullying and cyber assault receive (or the lack thereof), empowers these people into thinking that they can get away with the things they are doing. People who commit cyber rape or cyberbullying probably have some mental issues or very troubling personality traits that might make them more susceptible or willing to do these acts in real life under the impression that they will have very little of no consequence at all for their actions.

Privacy and Autonomy

Protection of online privacy often refers to the disclosure of personal information without consent being prevented. In this case, personal information was not violated, but the autonomy of the users was restricted if not fully removed from them. As Mr. Bungle took full control over the other two characters, the users autonomy and control over their avatar and online character was stripped from them resulting in unethical behaviors. When one's autonomy is undermined on the virtual space, it removes "one’s ability to manage the public presentation of [their] self-identity," resulting in a violation of privacy and lack of control over public perception. [15]. The two victim users on this platform were stripped of their autonomy over their avatar and therefore were unable to manage the presentation of their self-identity within the virtual space resulting in a lack of information privacy.

Censorship and Content Moderation

The act of cyber rape carried out by Mr. Bungle raises the question of how does a place like LambdaMOO, or even a place like Sims, control and provide consequences to users that commit inappropriate behavior that breaks the barrier of virtual and real world? Censorship or content moderation could be a valuable solution. A good example of site that executes this action well is Club Penguin. Club Penguin did not allow for users to post about certain topics, use certain words or phrases, as well as limit certain actions. Once a user broke the agreement (to not do these actions), they were promptly removed for varying amounts of time. As Kay Mathieson defines it, censorship is to "restrict or limit access to an expression, portion of an expression, or category of expression, which has been made public by its author, based on the belief that it will be a bad thing for people to access the content of that expression." [16]. Censorship is regularly viewed in a negative sense because its goal of restricting access to certain information or expressions. If we put the cyber rape carried out by Mr. Bungle in the context of the real world, he/she breaks a real law and would thus have their ability of expression revoked and sent to jail. By adding a method of banning or temporary access restriction, massive online role playing games could police and enforce policies better that makes the virtual world safe for everyone and avoid creating real world problems for users lifes. It will also make it more similar to the real world if such methods of censorship were put into place.

Online Identity and Mr.Bungle's Consequentialist Defense

The cyber rape that Mr. Bungle committed in LambdaMoo presents a case about consequentialism that classical utilitarianists like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill would find abhorrent. In the aftermath of the horrific act, users gathered to determined how they would address the issue. Mr. Bungle eventually joined the conversation and attempted to defend his actions by simply saying that his actions bore no consequence, because he did no actual harm to the users themselves, but rather their avatars. Oliver Haimson, who wrote about about how social network sites allow for individuals to portray a more "authentic" self online than their off-line identity would also disagree with Bentham and Mill. [17] Although Haimson's focus is on Facebook and their policy of enforcing users to enter "real names", he discusses how this debate on online identity began in the world wide webs earliest days, which would cover LambdaMoo.

Mr. Bungle believed that he did no harm to the two users involved, but it is evident that while he may not have committed the physical act in his cyber rape, he did inflict emotional damage on to them. This is due to what Haimson says is because like Facebook, LambdaMoo was a place where people can be their authentic selves. LambdaMoo was one of the earliest social network sites where one could go to have a "sense of self without being one self" as Sherry Turkle describes. [18]

The argument made again by Mr. Bungle would also be refuted by the classical utilitarianists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Bentham would respond by saying that Mr. Bungle erred in his consequentialist defense, because under utilitarianism the person should always make the decision which provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. [19] Instead Mr. Bungle only considered himself and the pleasure which he derived from the cyber rape he committed. The victims of his heinous act in no way benefited from his behavior and even the greater community that was not involved directly felt the adverse effects of his terrible actions.

External Links


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Dibbell, Julian. "A Rape in Cyberspace." The Village Voice. 21 December 1993
  2. Fenech, Melissa Mary. "Questions about accountability and illegality of virtual rape" (2009). Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 11046. https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/etd/11046
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Danaher, John. “The Law and Ethics of Virtual Sexual Assault.” Research Handbook on the Law of Virtual and Augmented Reality, 21 Dec. 2018, pp. 363–388.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Johnson, Laurie. “Rape and the Memex – Laurie Johnson.” Refractory, 30 May 2011, refractory.unimelb.edu.au/2008/05/22/rape-and-the-memex-laurence-johnson/.
  5. Kiesler, Sara & Kraut, Robert & Resnick, Paul & Kittur, Aniket. (2012). Regulating Behavior in Online Communities.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Mnookin, Jennifer L. “Virtual(Ly) Law: the Emergence of Law in LambdaMoo: Mnookin.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 1 June 1996, doi.org/10.1111/j.1083-6101.1996.tb00185.x.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Brennan, Linda L., and Victoria Johnson. Social, Ethical and Policy Implications of Information Technology. Information Science Pub., 2004.
  8. Wheeler, Carolyn. Katz, Marshall, and Bank. "Victims of Anonymous Online Harassment Suffer Serious Consequences", January 30, 2018. https://www.kmblegal.com/employment-law-blog/victims-anonymous-online-harassment-suffer-serious-consequences
  9. Wallace, Kathleen. "Online Anonymity", 2008. https://umich.instructure.com/courses/273552/files/9617526/download?download_frd=1
  10. danah boyd. (2010). "Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications." In Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (ed. Zizi Papacharissi), pp. 39-58.
  11. Spence, Edward H., et al. “Virtual Rape, Real Dignity: Meta-Ethics for Virtual Worlds.” The Philosophy of Computer Games Philosophy of Engineering and Technology, 2012, pp. 125–142.
  12. Vallor, Shannon., 2009. "Social networking technology and the virtues", Springer Science+Business Media, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10676-009-9202-1
  13. Brey, P. (1999). The ethics of representation and action in virtual reality. Ethics and Information Technology, 1(1), 5–14
  14. Robertson, A. (2015, July 15). Was Reddit always about free speech? Yes, and no. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2015/7/15/8964995/reddit-free-speech-history
  15. Shoemaker, David. (2009). Self-exposure and exposure of the self: informational privacyand the presentation of identity. Ethics and Information Technology.
  16. Kay Mathieson, Censorship and Access (2008)
  17. "Constructing and enforcing 'authentic' identity online: Facebook, real names, and non-normative identities" by Oliver L. Haimson and Anna Lauren Hoffman, 2014, First Monday, Volume 21, Number 6 - 6 June 2016
  18. "Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet." by Sherry Turkle, 1995. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  19. "Sweet, William. "Jeremy Bentham". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.