VR as a Tool to Prevent Sexual Offenses

On: October 24, 2018
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About Bianca Crichigno

How VR technology began

Virtual reality’s origins, via Semantic Scholar

According to an article by Refinery29, 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men report having experienced some form of sexual assault or harassment in their lifetimes (Ohikuare). With 2017 being the year of trailblazing campaigns such as #MeToo and “Time’s Up,” it is undoubtedly clear that the long-standing debates regarding sexual harassment, assault and violence have become a global movement. The explosive nature of this charge has largely been due to the ease with which social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter have enabled victims and survivors to come forward with their stories as well as like and share similar experiences. In doing so, a shift has occurred — from the physical realm to the online one. Taking this into consideration, one has to wonder if technology has the potential to act as a  preventive tool on the whole, or if new tech-based attempts are inherently solutionist.

We propose one such technology to study this through virtual reality (VR). With its ability to place individuals under the same conditions as real life scenarios, VR provides users with a 90 percent knowledge retention rate compared to other programs (Rio). Taking the advantages that such technology can bring into discussions around sexual assault prevention, we attempt to explore the role of VR as a tool in generating empathy and promoting awareness for both men and women. We likewise discuss the implications of empathy generation through VR and outline potential challenges that we may encounter by means of our intervention. Finally, we investigate the potential applicability of this technology within the realm of education, specifically through a new VR setting that enables teenagers (ages 12-18) to visualize themselves as involved parties of sexual offenses at a typical high school scenario.



Before delving into the topic, it bears mentioning that, as with any fast-advancing technology, VR is likely to be shaped and altered by new important additions to its computational nature in the very near future. The technology that this paper is analyzing, in other words, might well be significantly different moving forward, hence posing a unique set of challenges within the research-backed possibilities discussed here. In an effort to counter such limitations, we have attempted to examine VR through a theoretical lens rather than analyzing the now-burgeoning technology for what it currently is nowadays. The hope here is that the research adds to the already rich range of possibilities afforded by the technology.

Within that aim, it is similarly important to note that some of the psychological concepts and ideas discussed in this paper are fairly wide-scoped and somewhat subjective. A concept like empathy, for instance, is not only one that cannot be measured but is also an idea that is inherently subjective among different entities. We have consequently sought to focus more on examining VR from an experience-inducing viewpoint rather than study it from the purview of the emotions that many feel are the key towards unlocking unbridled societal possibilities for the virtual technology.

It likewise bears mentioning that the paper is wary of the cultural relativist layer that any social possibilities for VR must take into account. To put more succinctly, cultural norms, particularly those related to the intimate nature of sexual relations, are very diverse across the world, and thus completely acceptable sexual behavior in one part of the globe might be viewed much less favorably in other regions. All of which has driven us to zoom out and go more general in our analysis of VR’s use in sexual offense prevention.

Another limitation that we ran into within this study of VR is simple accessibility to the technology. Virtual reality technology is not only currently very expensive around the world, but is also somewhat limited in its uses to particular settings such as gaming, to name one of its select mainstream industry uses. We have therefore focused on VR from an almost purely literary sense in this paper, and not from any witnessed firsthand experience studies of the technology’s use.


Narrowing the gaps: two eyes, same picture

Sexual offenses, generally defined here as unwelcome sexual advances, are always some of the most notable societal problems that researchers seek resolutions for. In order to propose our own solution, we have attempted to start with an understanding of the psychological foundations behind these acts in an effort to shed light on a general inherent theme relating to their nature: misinterpretation.

Kristen N. Jozkowski states that “men and women report some differences in how they indicate and interpret consent from their sexual partners. Such differences may result in misinterpretations of cues and miscommunications, which could, in turn, result in unwanted, coercive, or even assaultive sexual acts” (12). Tony Ward believes that the misinterpretation of victims’ interaction is typically part of the offenders’ cognitive process (20).

These communication gaps could be seen as some of the bigger causes of sexual misdemeanors. A natural possible solution to that might be to narrow down these thought variations. And what would be a better way to eliminate cognitive discrepancies than to see things directly through another person’s eyes? This is where VR really comes in handy.

Even though VR is a simulation of the physical world, it allows users to break certain limitations of reality and accomplish things that cannot be easily done in the real world as we know it. This is what makes VR so unique and different from other media forms. VR helps users experience real-life situations through a strong illusion of presence that impacts users’ behaviors. There are two key technological mechanisms that allow for this within the technology:

  • Place illusion: “The strong illusion of being in a place in spite of the sure knowledge that you are not there” (Slater). The illusion of presence is given when the user is able to move the body in a natural way. Such process makes the brain understand that it is in a real place even when knowing that it is not physically there (Slater and Sánchez-Vives 5).
  • Plausibility illusion: When there are reactions that occur in response to certain events that correlate with the users’ actions and refer directly to them (Slater). This setting is credible when the interaction of objects and people meet the expectations of the occurrence in question.


Existing efforts of applying VR to sexual offense prevention act as another essential support for our research. Despite the relative newness of the technology within sexual behavior modification, examples of its use thankfully abound.

A notable case, for instance, comes in the form of Vantage Point. Founded by Morgan Mercer, a two-time survivor of sexual violence, the company specializes in using VR to provide workplace sexual-offense-prevention training to employees.

Vantage Point’s VR program consists of placing users in virtual workplace settings where sexual offenses are taking place among colleagues, who are actual human actors within the program used. In this simulation, there are three possible modes of interaction: identification of sexual harassment, bystander intervention and individual response training (how to react when you are sexually harassed). By introducing a collaborative nature to these situations, Mercer affirms that the program is not only capable of taking into account contextual and hard-to-detect nuances of common sexual harassment situations, but also has the capacity to effectively increase knowledge retention among users (Try Vantage Point).

Vantage Point is currently carrying out pilot research of a “bystander” module with other companies and currently plans to roll out the service publically by the end of 2018 (Rio; Holpuch and Solon).


VR as a shortcut to empathy

The “Virtual Human Interaction Lab” at Stanford University has been attempting to determine if VR can be an empathy inducer for the last 15 years. This research unit was founded by the professor of communication Jeremy Bailenson, who believes that the answer cannot be an unequivocal yes. He claims that there is no direct causality between the technology and the relatively abstract notion of empathy. VR, he argues, instead creates an “experience” with long-lasting effects due to its immersive nature. This, in turn, can be used as a means to generate empathy, which is also dependant on how the virtual setting in which it is used is designed as well as the social issue that it is attempting to tackle.

In an experiment that Bailenson conducted, entitled “Empathy at Scale,” he showed that it is possible to instigate the long-lasting effects of increased pension savings by showing users older versions of themselves in virtual mirrors. In doing so, Bailenson reasoned that the main scope that VR experiences need to be analyzed through is whether their effect is strong and long-lasting. Here, Bailenson leans on another similar popular idea of his, one which focuses on the connection between aggressive behavior among adolescents and violence in video games. His argument both within VR and in video games, in essence, boils down to a strong focus on end results.

This prioritization of ends above the means, so to speak, has perhaps predictably been met with contestation. Researchers Zendle, et al, for instance, conducted research that found that there is no correlation between violent behavior and increased “realism” in games (Behavioural Realism and the Activation of Aggressive Concepts in Violent Video Games). All of which serves to add to the ongoing debate on the link between the correlations that VR finds and actual causality. While we are not attempting to answer this conundrum with this paper — our emphasis revolves more around the technology’s opening up of possibilities — these viewpoints still bear mentioning in our minds within any future research into VR’s possible societal uses.

What is important to note, notwithstanding, is that there are tangible correlations between VR and behavioral modification. While it is not possible to currently determine causality with any scientific certainty, in other words, it is still important to note that ongoing VR research has shown that the technology is effective in helping users change their thinking, which as we know is a vital first step towards changing behavior.

Another noteworthy example of such capability is “Clouds Over Sidra,” a film experienced through VR where users are able to follow the life of a 12-year-old refugee in a camp in Jordan after fleeing the Syrian Civil War.

Hollis Kool, a researcher at Stanford, drew on Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying “the medium is the message” in an effort to explain VR’s structural basis as a media medium within projects such as “Clouds Over Sidra.” In his work, Kool wonders about what would happen, in ethical terms, if the camera and the journalistic elements used within such VR films are taken out of the equation. He argues that VR would “reduce the sense of mediation” in that it increases the feeling of users being themselves within their experiencing of a particular situation (Kool 5). To put simply, when medium-based elements are taken out from the experience, the technology could be seen as one that tackles issues head-on and thereby eliminates any perceived distance within these difficult-to-imagine scenarios. This might naturally carry with it obvious ethical implications. It would be easier, after all, to forget that you are looking at someone’s created narrative if what you see seems and feels real on a deep emotional level. Kool goes further to describe his VR experiments on children to be ones that went on to be remembered as real experiences after their conclusion (6). This, thus, presents an important factor to keep in mind when dealing with young people in sensitive situations through VR.

The research by Bailenson and Kool point towards VR being potentially effective in social contexts, albeit with two important caveats: actual causality cannot currently be determined and ethics must be very much kept under consideration. Done with care, though, the research presented suggests that VR has a capacity for visually putting someone in another’s seemingly literal shoes, which in theory, opens up a wealth of potentially desirable possibilities for its use in sexual offense prevention.


VR and adolescent sexuality

Human sexual development mainly occurs during puberty, a time when several biological, psychological and social factors play an important role in cognitive maturation (Merric, Omar and Tenenbaum). During this phase, the perception of sexuality can be affected by several external factors — such as the attitude of parents, peer relationships and sociocultural influences — that collectively determine the foundational attitudes of an individual (Kumar Kar, Choudhury and Pratap Singh 71).

In adolescence, one of the most common situations that a teenage may suffer from is peer exclusion. In fact, some studies based on brain scans suggest that the brain reacts to this rejection as much as it responds to threats to physical health or food supply, with social rejection often being perceived as a threat to existence in of itself (Dobbs). Taken from that lens, teenage sexual behavior could be seen as being directly related to crucial elements of belonging that often end up shaping an individual’s fundamental character. This is consistent with Sigmund Freud’s view of adolescence as an expression of torturous psychosexual conflict.

During puberty, teenagers are heavily affected by the neurotransmitter dopamine and the hormone oxytocin (The Teenage Brain: Why It’s OK That Teens Just Want to Have Sex, Drive Fast and Act Crazy). Put together, these influences affect the brain’s reward system and sensation of empathy considerably. This naturally plays a great role in explaining the commonplace nature of sensation-seeking behavior among teenagers, with sex oftentimes being a considerable avenue for exploration.

Therefore, adolescents are usually exposed to their first sexual interactions at that time. A study by the American Association of University Women illustrates that, albeit in an admittedly less-than-positive light, in a study that found that 48 percent of students between the ages of 12 and 18 had been sexually harassed, with physical harassment being the most common form (Hill and Kearl 2).

Considering the potency of VR’s behavioral modification features and the sheer number of sexual harassment that occurs during the high school period, it might as such be worthwhile, and possibly very much necessary as well, to attempt to use the technology as a sexual education tool.

In doing so, a hypothetical program could rely on the development of a virtual reality program portraying a setting that seems familiar to students, and one where sexual interactions are often common. Such setting could be, for example, a typical high school party where students would be able to virtually interact with one another from different perspectives, all with a chief purpose of identifying offensive behavior and possible timely solutions.



While VR is a technology that has existed since 1962, the way that it has been constantly re-imagined and repurposed not just for entertainment, but also for industries ranging from medicine to space research has inspired us to explore how it can be applied to a social issue such as the prevention of sexual offenses. Through enhanced retention and deep learning, VR succeeds the most by enabling users to picture themselves in imaginary scenarios that are very akin to real life. And this is why we have developed our intervention as a somewhat new VR application that is primarily concerned with newly sexually active adolescents. While we are aware of the complex ethical considerations that our study brings to the table, in addition to the logistical economic constraints involved, we believe that bridging together teenage psychology with VR technology may result in an efficient educational apparatus for issues that are complex in their makeup and have never quite been properly addressed.

Most importantly, we have determined that bridging the cognitive gaps that exist between different groups of people — men and women, sex offenders and their victims — is crucial to promoting gender sensitization. It is also worth pointing out that as the period between the ages of 12 and 18 is when the human brain develops mature reasoning, applying our intervention to this group could demonstrate lasting effects with regard to cultivating empathy. Finally, in the current climate of sexual harassment and assault, targeting the next generation of men and women is crucial in achieving something that has been seemingly impossible to reach for decades: a common ground of universal understanding where all groups of people regardless of gender, race and age can live in a world that is built on empathy.




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Holpuch, Amanda, and Solon, Olivia. “Can VR Teach Us How to Deal with Sexual Harassment?” The Guardian. 1 May 2018. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/01/sexual-assault-training-program-vantage-point-virtual-reality-video-games>.

Hill, Catherine, and Holly Kearl. Crossing the line: Sexual harassment at school. American Association of University Women. 1111 Sixteenth Street NW, Washington, DC 20036, 2011.

Jozkowski, Kristen N., et al. “Gender differences in heterosexual college students’ conceptualizations and indicators of sexual consent: Implications for contemporary sexual assault prevention education.” The Journal of Sex Research 51.8 (2014): 904-916.

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Slater, Mel, and Maria V. Sanchez-Vives. “Enhancing our lives with immersive virtual reality.” Frontiers in Robotics and AI 3 (2016): 74.

Slater, Mel. “Place illusion and plausibility can lead to realistic behaviour in immersive virtual environments.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences364.1535 (2009): 3549-3557.

“The Teenage Brain: Why It’s OK That Teens Just Want To Have Sex, Drive Fast And Act Crazy.” Huffington Post. 2012. <https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/03/teenagers-brains_n_1182252.html>.

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Zendle, David, Daniel Kudenko, and Paul Cairns. “Behavioural realism and the activation of aggressive concepts in violent video games.” Entertainment Computing 24 (2018): 21-29.

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