A study by researchers at Southern Methodist University has demonstrated that teenage girls who learn to assertively decline sexual advances in a virtual reality simulator are less likely suffer long term effects from sexual victimization.
The training program, called “My Voice, My Choice,” allowed “girls to practice being assertive in a realistic environment. The intent of the program is for the learning opportunity to increase the likelihood that they will use the skills in real life,” associate professor of psychology at SMU Simpson Rowe said.
“Research has shown that skills are more likely to generalize if they are practiced in a realistic environment, so we used virtual reality to increase the realism,” she continued. “It is very promising that learning resistance skills and practicing them in virtual simulations of coercive interactions could reduce the risk for later sexual victimization.”
The simulation training is similar to technology used to train soldiers, physicians, and pilots. Small groups of two to four women were trained by a facilitator how to engage in “assertive resistance,” including the use of a firm voice, exhibiting confidence in body language, and clearly stating their limits. They then practiced these skills in the “virtual coercive simulator” designed by the SMU research team.
In it, they would be seated on a bed with a male who engaged in aggressive behavior that escalated in the face of the teen’s resistance. The teens would then review footage of their encounter with the facilitator and the other members of their group.
Renee McDonald, one of the study’s co-authors, said that “one advantage the virtual simulations offer is the ability to actually observe whether, and how, the girls are using the skills in coercive situations that feel very real.”
“This provides girls with opportunities for immediate feedback and accelerated learning, and for facilitators to easily spot areas in need of further strengthening. The value of this advantage can’t be overstated.”
Only 10 percent of the participants in the “My Voice, My Choice” group reported sexual victimization in the next three months, compared to 22 percent of students in the control group. Even those participants in the group who were victimized, however, reported lower levels of psychological distress than their counterparts in the control group.
The program also had a positive effect on girls who had been victimized prior to participating in it, which Simpson Rowe said was “particularly noteworthy, because other violence prevention programs have generally been ineffective or less effective for previously victimized young women.”
The study’s authors pointed out that they are not suggesting that the victims of sexual abuse invite the violence upon themselves.