Virtual Reality Course Would Help Girls Learn To Say No, May Help Prevent Sexual Victimization

A virtual reality course developed by clinical psychologist and video game creators may help teenage girls learn to say no to unwanted sexual advances, say researchers. Initial clinical trials have shown success, and if further studies continue to have positive results, this type of assertiveness training could eventually be a part of sex ed courses.

Southern Methodist University summarized the findings of the study in their blog. The virtual reality program, designed by clinical psychologists Ernest N. Jouriles and Renee McDonald and created with the help of SMU’s video gaming program, the program places teenage girls in a situation with sexual pressure, and helps them learn to say no by practicing assertiveness.

After a 90-minute assertiveness course, the participants are placed in coercive situations, in which a virtual reality avatar sits by them on a couch in a bedroom, and attempts to talk them into activities ranging from simply giving him a phone number to more sexual behaviors.

The program doesn’t attempt to victim-blame. It makes very clear to participants that rape is never the fault of the victim. However, the designers of the course say that the ability to assert oneself and say “no” increases the chances of escaping a situation of sexual pressure.

“There is significant research evidence, however, that girls and women who say ‘no’ firmly, yell, or physically fight back have a better chance of escaping a sexually coercive situation without being raped, compared to those who freeze, cry, apologize or politely resist, which some attackers view as ‘token’ refusals.”

Though there’s no suggestion of aiming similar courses at males to prevent victimization, or at would-be rapists to practice not being aggressors, the course does address the social norm, in which females are expected to comply and people-please, and the skill to say “no” is a valuable one.

The findings of the study are published in Behavior Therapy, but the creators of the virtual reality assertiveness course emphasize that this only represents preliminary testing, and while they look positive, the program needs further testing to determine whether it will truly be effective.

For one thing, while participants seemed to show an increased ability to say “no” to a person in a sexual situation, it’s hard to be certain whether this is attributable to a virtual reality setting — will it carry over into reality?

Another concern is the small sample size for the study. A total of 83 teenage girls participated in the experiment, and though those who participated in the assertiveness training and virtual reality practice reported less sexual victimization during the three-month follow-up period, much larger studies are needed to determine that the assertiveness training was the relevant factor.

With further study, though, a virtual reality program could be a key factor in helping girls learn to say no, and allowing them to practice the skill before it’s needed in a real situation.

[photo credit: dpape]