VR is helping young people learn about sexual consent

A new VR project in Canada is teaching students all about consent
How VR is tackling sexual consent

I'm sat on a sofa in student digs wearing ripped jeans. There's a rucksack at my feet and an Asian-Canadian guy with his hair in a bun is offering me a beer. He's handsome. He looks a bit like Steven Yeun from The Walking Dead. I like him – at least the female protagonist through which I'm viewing things says as much – but he won't take no for an answer.

This is Do you NO the limit?, a sex education project in Canada inviting 16 - 24 year-old Quebecers in schools and colleges to experience an interaction between a male and a female student, from the latter's perspective.

Created by Y des femmes de Montréal, Stephanie Coronado-Montoya of the YWCA Montreal says the six-minute immersive experience aims to raise awareness on the issue of sexual aggression against women through the use of virtual reality technology.

"We saw that there was a very superficial understanding amongst the youth that we worked with on what consent meant in the context of sexual relations. We thus wanted to develop an innovative way to prompt youth to learn and talk about consent," she told Wareable.

Why virtual reality?

VR wasn't always on the cards for the project but once Coronado-Montoya met with producer and director Emanuel St. Pierre, recipient of the 2013 L'égalité à l'œuvre prize, and saw his film, she immediately took to the idea of using the immersive technology.

Mostly, she said, because it really "permitted participants to see this delicate situation from the protagonist's point of view" giving them a more complete and nuanced understanding of consent. Also, this new technology allowed the YWCA Montreal to reach a lot of participants that, had they used another medium, may not have been reached.

"When young people see this new technology being offered freely, we draw large numbers of participants without having to solicit their participation, purely out of curiosity," she explained. "This is wonderful, because generally speaking, a workshop speaking on consent doesn't necessarily sell itself easily."

Via email Coronado-Montoya showed me correspondence from a nurse at John Abbott College. She writes, "For many years we have struggled to convey this complex and important message. Your use of virtual reality technology has overcome this barrier. I have never seen the number of males at a health event outnumber the female [before]."

Road test

VR is helping young people learn about sexual consent

The interaction starts out harmless enough, there's lots of giggling and typical teenage, flirty fun. It's little time though before the male student makes his first move and from there things change to a much darker tone.

Inside the Gear VR headset, the antagonist's advances are immediate and intimidating. The ceaseless invites to his room and the "I really like you" contrivances underpinned by the intensity of eye contact.

Furthermore, the claustrophobic nature of VR exacerbates the sense of being trapped, with depth perception rendering the apartment's front door very much out of reach, and the body language of the antagonist – physically taking away his affection after the protagonist audibly rejects him – lifelike and confusing.

Fade to credits ("No need for a reason. You can say NO at any point in time.") and there's a bad taste in my mouth. The fact the guy is relentless in offering zero respect, the push-me-pull-me mind games, and the emotional game of chess he's willing to play with your affections just to get you into bed.

I have no doubt that this is a familiar experience for women (of all ages) and as a bloke, I'll admit, I can't entirely relate to it; I've never been in a situation when the value of my presence is solely rated on potential sexual activity (or, at least, when I have, it's been consensual and part of the whole 'let's just meet up and bone' ethos).

It may be a 21st century cliché already but VR really does take you 'inside' an experience, and projects like this prove that VR is not only able to break down physical barriers but can also deconstruct social issues and societal 'norms' that are all too often accepted out of hand.

For an issue as gendered as sexual consent, the lessons learned here are far more human and personal than those offered up in less immersive and more sedate – albeit well-meaning – projects such as the We-Consent app launched in 2015.


Feedback and roll out

Coronado-Montoya confirmed that my experience was mirrored by the males who participated in the project, with many reporting it as a very eye-opening and unsettling experience that really helped them understand consent from a different and challenging perspective.

One male student describing the experience as "beautiful" and able to "improve perspective". Another called it, "fantastic technology for empathising" whilst a female student said how it's "interesting to see that such a trivial situation is far from trivial when you are the participant". Lastly, a second female student commented: "I have always thought that the best way to explain things is by living them. Spread the word, wow!! [sic]"

There are plans to take the project beyond the Quebec province, where it touring this spring, with applications for additional funding currently with various different organisations. Coronado-Montoya said that expansion might have to wait, with funding set to end in April 2017.

"We had high hopes for our project, but its current success has greatly surpassed all of our expectations," she said. "This technology really allows you to place the viewer in another character's shoes and to see the world from their perspective, which lends itself really well to projects seeking to raise awareness on poorly understood social issues."

Keep up with the tour dates and news of Do You NO the Limit? through the project's Facebook page, and on Twitter with the hashtag #doyouNOthelimit or learn more about it at ydesfemmesmtl.org.


What do you think?

Connect with Facebook, Twitter, or just enter your email to sign in and comment.