Virtual Reality Training for Sexual Harassment?

Screenshot of male avatar in virtual reality simulation. Image courtesy of Southern Methodist University

Most women have dealt with unwanted sexual advances. In fact, one national survey estimates that 65 percent have experienced some form of street harassment. But a study out of Southern Methodist University found that teenage girls were less likely to report being sexually victimized after undergoing assertive resistance training in virtual reality.

While virtual reality is routinely used to train soldiers or treat anxiety disorders, training of this nature is new.

Virtual simulations "seem to be more immersive than face-to-face role plays," said clinical psychologist Lorelei Simpson Rowe, the study's lead author. "The participant is not thinking any more about being in a room in a psychology study with other people around," she is "focused on what she is seeing through the glasses and what she's hearing."

The study included 78 female students aged 14 to 18 from an all-girls urban high school. First, all were asked to fill out questionnaires related to their experiences with sexual violence and victimization. Next, the girls were split into two groups; 42 participated in the "My Voice, My Choice" (MVMC) training program, while 36 remained in the control group and received no training.

Each 90-minute training session was led by a female facilitator and included two to four young women. The group first discussed what assertiveness means and what it looks like, and then the bulk of the training was practicing these skills in virtual simulation.

"A lot of times when women engage in verbal standing up for themselves, it is very hard because we are pretty much socially conditioned to be agreeable," said Kelli Dunlap, a doctor of psychology, JoLT fellow at American University and self-proclaimed huge gamer. "The idea of being in an environment that is building and practicing those skills so that you can take them into a real world scenario, I think that can be really helpful."

In the simulations--a series of three role plays--a male actor would control a virtual avatar's movements and voice in real time, allowing for a responsive experience. By pressing certain keys, the actor could make the avatar react in a variety of ways, such as smiling, frowning, throwing up his arms and turning away. The actor could also speak on the avatar's behalf--acting angry or hurt when his advances were denied, but also scaling down his attempted coercion when the girls seemed to master assertiveness.

Screenshot of male avatar in virtual reality simulation. Image courtesy of Southern Methodist University

In the first and "easiest" of the role plays, the avatar tries to convince the participant to give him her phone number or go out with him when she doesn't want to.

In the second situation, the avatar pressures the participant to drink and dance with him at a party, or is overly persuasive and doesn't listen when she declines to have sex after a few dates.

In the last and most severe situation, the avatar aggressively tries to get the participant to have sex with him, cornering her and threatening her physically. The avatar never appears to touch the participant in any of the scenarios.

The study found that girls who went through MVMC suffered half the rate of sexual victimization in the three months following the initial assessment than those who did not go through the training. The study also found that MVMC participants who had a history of dating violence--a group that Simpson Rowe says often benefits less from prevention programs--experienced lower levels of emotional victimization in the months following the training.

Dunlap's first reaction upon hearing of the program was that it seemed to place the responsibility on women. "I hope there is a brother program teaching dudes not to be creepy and rapey and make women uncomfortable," she said.

Simpson Rowe sees it differently. "We don't want to support victim blaming of any kind," she said, "so what we emphasize instead are these are skills you can use to protect yourself, like locking your door...but the only person who is responsible for the occurrence of any kind of violence or victimization is the perpetrator."

Simpson Rowe intends to replicate the program for women in college, but she doesn't foresee a similar program being successful for perpetrators.

"One of the challenges with trying to prevent perpetration is that the majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by a small percentage of primarily men who engage in multiple perpetrations," she said. "So, engaging in prevention that is targeted at all men has a tendency to really put people off. And of that small percentage of people who do engage in sexual violence perpetration, and they do that repeatedly, they tend to not be very responsive to efforts to get them to stop."

Though Dunlap was skeptical at first, she later said, "I think [the program] is speaking to the sad reality that for the most part, women are responsible for their own safety. And breaking women out of the idea that they…need to entertain someone because they bought them a drink or they somehow owe men attention just for being men, I think that is a powerful thing that could get across."