Virtual reality training program aids in reducing sexual victimization

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Virtual reality still courtesy of SMU.

You’re in the car with a guy you’ve been dating for three weeks. It’s dark out, rain beats down on your window and lightning flashes in the distance. He’s ready to take your relationship to the next level, but you want to wait. He says that if you don’t have sex with him, he’ll break up with you, kick you out of the car and tell everyone that you slept with him anyway. Then, he gets aggressive. This particular situation might seem frightening, but it’s all part of a virtual reality training program.

This scene is one of many from a new SMU sexual harassment training program that has the potential to change how sexual violence prevention is handled. A study piloted by SMU’s psychology department, called “My Voice, My Choice,” found that teenage girls were less likely to report sexual victimization after participating in assertive resistance training in a virtual reality environment. The effects continued over a three-month period after the training.

Colton Donica, an SMU senior who assisted as an actor in the program, described a range of sexually coercive situations, including the one above, which program participants are exposed to.

Simulation training using virtual reality is regularly used to train soldiers, physicians and pilots. However, training that intends to reduce sexual violence is new. The software, designed by study co-authors Ernest N. Jouriles and Renee McDonald in collaboration with SMU’s Guildhall video game department, places the young women in a bedroom with a male avatar.

The training starts with a small group led by a trained female facilitator. For 30 minutes, the facilitator demonstrates assertive resistance, teaching the young women how to make it evident through assertive language that coercion and unwanted advances are unacceptable. Each group then moves to practicing the skills in the virtual simulations.

The participants were 78 females from an all-girls urban high school. In total, 42 girls completed the virtual reality training, while the 36 girls in the control group received no training until the end of the follow-up.

The study found that girls who went through “My Choice, My Voice” suffered half the rate of victimization in the three months following the initial assessment than those who did not undergo the training. After the follow-up surveys, just 10 percent of the participants reported that they experienced sexual victimization, compared to 22 percent in the control group.

“I was surprised at how well it worked,” said Lorelei Simpson Rowe, the lead author on the pilot study and associate professor and graduate program co-director in the SMU Department of Psychology. “Many programs have worked to reduce sexual violence, but it is very difficult to alter rates of sexual violence.”

The study also found that participants who had a history of dating violence experienced lower levels of psychological aggression and distress after the program. Renee McDonald, a professor and associate dean of research and academic affairs for Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, said that she was surprised by how effective the program was for girls who have been previously victimized.

“Usually, sexual assault interventions are less effective for people who have been previously victimized,” said McDonald. “We see this as really promising.”

While the study recently published by the psychology department involved teenage girls, the program will now conduct a trial on campus at SMU. In the long term, Rowe hopes to someday expand the program to men, as men are also victims and not the only perpetrators of sexual violence.

“We also know that women are more likely to be victimized, so we decided to target the population that is most vulnerable from the beginning,” said Rowe.

McDonald said that the program helps participants recognize sooner than they otherwise might when something is moving in a direction they don’t want to go. McDonald noted that this provides them with the ability to stop dangerous situations before they escalate.

“When you first learn to ride a bike or drive a car, remembering to look in the mirror or put your blinker on feels awkward, but after you do it a number of times, it feels automatic and you don’t have to think about it anymore,” said McDonald.

The participants wear virtual reality goggles while they interact one-on-one with the male avatar for about three minutes. The avatar attempts to coerce the participants using a range of tactics, starting with light, yet persistent pressure. It is then intensified with more aggressive dialogue, and the male avatar becomes more resilient to each refusal.

While this sounds intensive, researchers believe that virtual reality teaches these women how to firmly stand up for themselves in the face of coercion. After concluding the simulation, the participants evaluate the footage with the facilitator and group members.

The program places participants in simulations of sexual harassment, driving the participants to learn how to refuse unwanted sexual advances that stretched from mild pressuring to coercion. The intent of the training is to increase the likelihood that they will use these skills in real life.

Dr. Rowe said that women have a better chance of evading a coercive situation without getting hurt if they assertively respond to an unwanted sexual advance. Research indicates that men are more likely to take these responses as real refusals, as opposed to a token refusal.

“Other programs have done this in the past, but what we added was the virtual reality component,” said Rowe.

The advantage of virtual reality is that participants are able to practice these skills in a realistic environment, which Rowe said amplifies the probability that they will apply the skills in real life. Rowe said that the simulation is quite realistic, which gives participants knowledge of how to stand up for themselves if faced with a coercive situation.

Katie Bridges, a senior psychology and English double major who worked on the training as project manager, explained that virtual reality lets participants disassociate the actor, who they know will not touch or harm them, from the potentially harmful situation. This disassociation allows participants to immerse themselves in the situation.

The intention of the program is to teach women assertive strategies so that they have the skills to stand up for themselves in the future. Bridges said that this will teach women, especially those with past experience, strategies of how to protect themselves if they face a sexually coercive situation.

When women try to stand up for themselves, it’s often difficult because they are socially conditioned to be less assertive.

“There is nothing wrong with being polite, but when you’re in a situation where someone is not respecting your boundaries, it’s time to be more concerned about protecting your safety,” said Rowe.

Lauren Jones, a senior psychology major, said that society has made it difficult to stand up against sexual violence due to social conditioning, gender roles and a lack of training.

“My Voice, My Choice helps women feel empowered and I’m proud to go to a school that offers such a program,” said Jones.

About 25 to 50 percent of young women in the U.S. are victims of sexual violence, usually in their teens or early 20s, according to a 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Rowe said that “My Voice, My Choice” is not an answer in and of itself, but rather a part of a larger body of work that needs to be done to reduce sexual violence.

“Society needs to work towards everyone understanding that it’s not okay to pressure people into doing things that they don’t want to do. It just isn’t,” said Rowe. “We as a society need to place more value in that.”

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