Illustration: Shaye Anderson
You’re lingering outside your date’s dorm room and he’s fumbling with his keys. A calculated combination of dialogue options led you to this moment. Moving inside, as you’re shedding your clothes, you look at your date’s pixelated body and wonder: How do I ask his HIV status? Will he be persuaded to use a condom?
A box pops up on the right corner of your screen. It feeds you lines like “Hey, I was just wondering, when was your last STD test?” or “Do you have any condoms?” You choose neither. Pressing forward, you move to the bed. A buzz resonates and the screen freezes: AT-RISK BEHAVIOR, it reads. You are promptly redirected to a 3D tutorial. TRY AGAIN.
Once your turn is over, you remove the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and pass it to your classmate. She places it on her head and the simulation kicks in outside her date’s dorm room.
Is this the future of sex-ed—an immersive, VR driving test for teenaged love?
Two researchers at Emory University, in collaboration with technologists at Georgia Tech, are working to realize their vision of 3D, high-engagement sex education for college-age women of color in the US. Spurred by the high rate of STIs, HIV infections and unintended pregnancies among African-American woman, Emory nursing professor Rasheeta Chandler and nursing program director Henry Ross are laying the groundwork for a VR application that, they argue, could better educate college women of color about safe and problematic sexual behaviors.
“We’re trying to make it like interactive gaming”
Comprehensive sex-ed is proven to thwart unintended pregnancies and prevent the contraction of STIs. But more effective than properly pronouncing Latin anatomical terms is the actual practice of safe sexual behaviors before they’re really necessary. In this sense, sex ed may be a prime candidate for the VR treatment. VR sex ed certainly isn’t a great leap in logic; the Oculus is already on its way to becoming a high-cost porn screening device, with first-person viewpoints and choose-your-own-adventure plotlines already drawing at least a half dozen porn companies to VR. And this is months away from the Oculus Rift’s commercial release date.
The stakes are high for teenagers. If unfurling a dummy digital condom could prevent even a few sexual mishaps, could VR be the answer to poor sex education we’ve been looking for?
Using Oculus technology, users would enter dozens of lifelike scenarios to role-play consent, proper contraception use and other components of safe sex from a first-person perspective.
“We’re trying to make it like interactive gaming,” Chandler told me. “We want to model the virtual environment on descriptions of what happens on college campuses.”
Chandler described a potential VR scenario where a user and her avatar partner are sitting in a dorm room, poised to do the deed, when she’s prompted to decide whether to use a condom. If she opts for contraception, she would have to demonstrate on cyber-genitals how to use it; and, if she fails, she would be rerouted to an educational component in the VR program. There, she reviews step-by-step instructions. Then she’d have a second shot.
Another potential scenario, Chandler explained, would evoke a club setting. A stranger approaches and offers a drink, soon beckoning the user to leave with him. The user would be educated about how to give consent or say “no,” and if it came to it, what resources are available for reporting sexual violence. Ideally, internalizing good judgment through immersive technology would empower victims to report their assault or prevent the contraction of HIV. In Chandler and Ross’s view, VR is the ultimate frontier for HIV prevention.
Innovations in sex-ed couldn’t be more welcome to the sexual health community. Teen pregnancies are more common in states with government-funded abstinence-only programs, although one in two states requires schools to stress abstinence. Only 22 states mandate sex-ed at all. Perhaps this is why, according to data from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 41 percent of teenagers report knowing nothing, or very little, about condoms by the time they graduate high school (with 75 percent knowing nothing about the pill). That’s a year after the average teen loses their virginity. Of the around 750,000 teen pregnancies that occur yearly in the US, only two in ten are intended.
For women of color, Chandler and Ross’s target audience, the stats on sexual health are even bleaker: African-American women account for 64 percent of all new HIV infections among all women in the US. Of any demographic in America, they also have the highest rate of unintended pregnancy.
Illustration: Shaye Anderson
Before turning to VR, Chandler received an award from the National Institute of Nursing Research to study how to tailor HIV prevention for college-age black women.
“Not all [African-American woman] received extensive sexual health education and training during their teenage years unless it involved direct experience,” Ross told me. “We hope that this program will provide the type of intervention that this population has imagined for some time.”
But given that 30 years of public sexual health research remain essentially ignored by many American school systems, would a cutting-edge sex-ed program even be able to find footing in more conservative states where it’s most needed?
Advocates for Youth Director of Sexuality Education and Training Nora Gelperin is optimistic about virtual reality as a venue for sex education. “We know that programs that are able to personalize the risk for young people, to help them understand that they are susceptible if they engage in specific behaviors, are beneficial,” she explained.
Gelperin stressed the effectiveness of sex-ed programs that are not only based on sound health theories, but help students explore their values in a safe environment. An Oculus program, in which users are alone and insulated from reproach from peers or partners, could be an ideal venue, she said.
On top of the safe and apparently private atmosphere inside an Oculus headset, its capacity for emotional immersion could be one of VR sex ed’s greatest assets. Ela Darling, VR cam girl and co-owner of VRtube, one of the earliest VR porn companies, says that instructive porn (videos that teach the ins and outs of various sex acts) is already immensely popular on traditional viewing platforms. Adding a third dimension to educational pornography could also add more dimensions to the sex-ed experience.
“One of the benefits of VR sex is the level of empathy you can evoke in someone,” she said, “by showing them a first-person scenario of how to put on a condom or putting them in the position of someone who has been in a non-consensual sexual situation.” Darling noted that, with traditional sex ed in classrooms, there’s often a wall separating students from the material they’re engaging with. With VR, she told me, “you’re immersed in the world so much that you don’t feel like there’s anyone around you to judge or gawk at you. It’s just you and this world.”
Darling has already taught her VR cam audience how to use KinkLab’s Neon Wand, a fetish sex toy, and how to find the elusive G-spot. She plans on providing lessons in ropework and bondage rigging, which she admits is difficult to learn from 2D images. (A representative from Virtual Real Porn, another VR porn company, confirmed that they have also discussed facilitating educational content.)
“Maybe the last thing you want to do is sit for an hour-and-a-half in a classroom”
Chandler and Ross submitted their proposal to the National Institute of Health last month. If their project receives funding, the future of sex ed could very well resemble something like a VR driving test, complete with a 3D checklist of proper sexual behavior. But for potential funders it might be difficult to invest in a world where students spend most of class waiting in line for their turn with the Oculus, especially when the average school only provides one computer per five students. (For Chandler and Ross’s college-age audience, the ratio is higher).
For now, it’s unclear how the researchers would circulate and scale up the technology should they receive NIH funding. “We're really thinking about the implications on public health,” Chandler said. “We haven't thought about it from a marketing standpoint.”
In VR’s endless capacity to position itself as a blanket solution to all societal inadequacies, the current state of sex ed could be a prime candidate for the “3D immersion” treatment. Intoxicated by the apparently infinite social possibilities for VR technology, however, it’s easy to forget that the American public’s understanding of sexuality is still stuck in an era where slide-flipping View-Masters would be a better technological fit. We live in a time where an Oculus in every classroom seems more viable than a basket of condoms.
Perhaps today’s technology is decades ahead of our social thought. Or, perhaps, if teenagers were given the option to practice safe sex before the need actually arose a decrease in STIs and unintended pregnancies would follow. Once our public health knowledge catches up to our zeal for cutting-edge gadgets, the two forces could in parallel stamp out our harshest epidemics. Or, if school systems ever fully dismiss abstinence-only sex education, it will be against the backdrop of a terraformed Mars.
Ross, however, is confident that his vision for VR sex ed will be disseminated nationally once it gains some momentum. His previous research on African American women’s opinions of virtual reality has convinced him that his target audience will embrace the technology, and more crucially, the opportunity to be more in touch with sexual health.
“Maybe the last thing you want to do is sit for an hour-and-a-half in a classroom,” Ross said. “We hope that this program will provide the type of intervention that this population has imagined for some time.”