Culture, Society & Family Health & Medicine Learning & Education Mind & Brain

Teen girls report less sexual victimization after virtual reality assertiveness training

Study participants in the “My Voice, My Choice” program practiced saying “no” to unwanted sexual advances in an immersive virtual environment

Simpson Rowe, SMU, victimization, sexual coercion, virtual reality, Jouriles, McDonald

Teen girls were less likely to report being sexually victimized after learning to assertively resist unwanted sexual overtures and practicing resistance in a realistic virtual environment, finds a new study.

The effects persisted over a three-month period following the training, said clinical psychologist Lorelei Simpson Rowe, lead author on the pilot study from Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

The research also found that those girls who had previously experienced dating violence reported lower levels of psychological aggression and psychological distress after completing the program, relative to girls in a comparison group.

“The virtual simulations 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,” said Simpson Rowe, an associate professor and graduate program co-director in the SMU Department of Psychology. “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.”

The training program, called “My Voice, My Choice,” emphasizes that victims do not invite sexual violence and that they have the right to stand up for themselves because violent or coercive behavior is never OK.

“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,” said Simpson Rowe.

She cautioned, however, that the research is preliminary and based on a small sample: 42 in the “My Voice, My Choice” condition and 36 in a control condition. Future research is needed to establish the benefits of the program across different age groups and populations, for example, college versus high school students.

The study’s strengths included its randomized controlled design and a high participant retention rate among the 78 teen girls in the study.

The virtual-reality simulation component of “My Voice, My Choice” utilizes a software program developed by study co-authors Ernest N. Jouriles and Renee McDonald in conjunction with SMU’s Guildhall video gaming program. Jouriles and McDonald are clinical psychologists in the SMU Psychology Department. Jouriles is professor and chair. McDonald is a professor and associate dean of research and academic affairs for Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

“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,” McDonald said. “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.”

One question that remains for future research is whether the practice in virtual simulations was the operative factor that reduced sexual victimization, Simpson Rowe said.

“We need to determine if practice in a virtual setting is the key factor in making the intervention effective, or if other factors, such as being encouraged to stand up for themselves, led to the outcomes,” she said.

The researchers reported their findings, “Reducing Sexual Victimization among Adolescent Girls: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Trial of My Voice, My Choice,” in the journal Behavior Therapy. The article is published online in advance of print at

Females who firmly resist unwanted advances stand a greater chance of escaping a sexually coercive situation
The current study builds on decades of earlier related studies by a broad range of researchers.

– About 25 to 50 percent of women in the U.S. are victims of sexual violence, usually in their teens or early 20s, according to a 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Justice. While many sexual violence prevention programs have been developed, few have been rigorously evaluated and even fewer have been shown to actually reduce sexual victimization.

– Historically, risk-reduction programs teach skills to identify and escape threats, and are typically targeted at females. Usually they only have small-to-moderate effects on victimization, or don’t succeed in any reduction.

– 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.

– Simulation training using virtual reality is used routinely and successfully to train soldiers, physicians and pilots. Extensive research has shown that skills learned under stressful or dangerous conditions similar to those occurring in real life are more likely to generalize to the real world. The real-world context, in the case of the current study, is sexual coercion or unwanted sexual advances.

Small groups met with trained facilitator, provided peer feedback
Participants were 78 female students in 9th through 12th grade from an all-girls urban high school.

The teens were randomly assigned to either the group that received the “My Voice, My Choice” training or to a wait-list control group. In total, 42 girls completed the virtual reality training, while 36 were in the control group that received no training until the end of the follow-up.

“Although young women are aware of the risk of sexual violence, they don’t always view that risk as relevant to themselves and aren’t always eager to sit through a 90-minute program,” Simpson Rowe said. The girls were thus provided gift cards to a local store for their time.

Training started with a small group of 2 to 4 young women led by a trained female facilitator. For 30 minutes the facilitator explained and modeled assertive resistance, teaching the girls how to make it clear that sexual coercion and unwanted advances are not acceptable, such as using a firm voice tone, showing confident body language, and stating their limits (e.g., “I don’t want to have sex with you, so stop asking me”).

Each small group then transitioned to practicing the skills in the virtual coercive simulations.

Variety of scenarios are simulated in a virtual bedroom
“In the small group setting, there was usually some nervous giggling or shyness at first, but the girls became really engaged when they practiced the skills in the virtual simulations,” Simpson Rowe said.

Through virtual-reality goggles connected to the computer with the simulation software, each girl viewed a male avatar seated next to her on a couch in a virtual bedroom. The avatar’s speech, facial expressions and movement were manipulated via computer by a male actor. The girls interacted with the avatar in a variety of simulations which were observed by the facilitator and other group members.

The young women then took turns practicing the “My Voice, My Choice” skills, reassured that they could stop at any time and would never actually be touched. Each participant engaged in three 2- to 3-minute simulations.

Simulations started with less intense scenarios, where the male was mildly pressuring, such as asking repeatedly for the girl’s phone number. Scenarios escalated to increasingly more severe situations, such as verbally coercing the girl to kiss him, becoming increasingly aggressive in speech, and being more persistent in the face of resistance.

Following each simulation, other group members and the facilitator provided feedback to each girl on how she could increase the effectiveness of her response. Suggestions included using a firmer tone of voice, and refusing without apologizing.

“The students really gave one another good feedback about how to improve,” Simpson Rowe said. “And once they went through the training they told us it was so valuable they’d recommend it for everyone.”

Reports of multiple episodes of sexual or physical victimization uncommon
Each month for three months afterward, the girls completed an established and well-validated 25-question survey, the Conflict in Adolescent Dating Relationships Inventory, to assess occurrence of any sexual, physical or psychological victimization. They also completed a measure of psychological distress.

Results showed 22 percent in the control group reported sexual victimization during the three-month follow-up period, compared to only 10 percent in the “My Voice, My Choice” group.

“My Voice, My Choice” did not reduce rates of physical victimization. However, among those girls who had higher rates of previous dating violence victimization, completion of “My Voice, My Choice” was associated with lower rates of psychological victimization — being yelled at or called names, having a boy try to frighten or spread rumors about her — and lower rates of psychological distress.

That finding indicates the “My Voice, My Choice” training could also reduce the risk for psychological victimization and distress among girls who have been previously victimized.

“This finding is particularly noteworthy because other violence prevention programs have generally been ineffective or less effective for previously victimized young women,” said Simpson Rowe, who also heads the Couples Research Lab at SMU.

The research was funded by the Timberlawn Psychiatric Research Foundation, Dallas. — Margaret Allen

Follow on twitter at @smuresearch.

SMU is a nationally ranked private university in Dallas founded 100 years ago. Today, SMU enrolls nearly 11,000 students who benefit from the academic opportunities and international reach of seven degree-granting schools. For more information see

SMU has an uplink facility located on campus for live TV, radio, or online interviews. To speak with an SMU expert or book an SMU guest in the studio, call SMU News & Communications at 214-768-7650.

Culture, Society & Family Earth & Climate Economics & Statistics Energy & Matter Fossils & Ruins Health & Medicine Learning & Education Mind & Brain Plants & Animals Researcher news Technology

2010 a year of advances for SMU scientific researchers at the vanguard of those helping civilization

From picking apart atomic particles at Switzerland’s CERN, to unraveling the mysterious past, to delving into the human psyche, SMU researchers are in the vanguard of those helping civilization understand more and live better.

With both public and private funding — and the assistance of their students — they are tackling such scientific and social problems as brain diseases, immigration, diabetes, evolution, volcanoes, panic disorders, childhood obesity, cancer, radiation, nuclear test monitoring, dark matter, the effects of drilling in the Barnett Shale, and the architecture of the universe.

The sun never sets on SMU research
Besides working in campus labs and within the Dallas-area community, SMU scientists conduct research throughout the world, including at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, and in Angola, the Canary Islands, Mongolia, Kenya, Italy, China, the Congo Basin, Ethiopia, Mexico, the Northern Mariana Islands and South Korea.

“Research at SMU is exciting and expanding,” says Associate Vice President for Research and Dean of Graduate Studies James E. Quick, a professor in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences. “Our projects cover a wide range of problems in basic and applied research, from the search for the Higgs particle at the Large Hadron Collider in CERN to the search for new approaches to treat serious diseases. The University looks forward to creating increasing opportunities for undergraduates to become involved as research expands at SMU.”

Funding from public and private sources
In 2009-10, SMU received $25.6 million in external funding for research, up from $16.5 million the previous year.

“Research is a business that cannot be grown without investment,” Quick says. “Funding that builds the research enterprise is an investment that will go on giving by enabling the University to attract more federal grants in future years.”

The funding came from public and private sources, including the National Science Foundation; the National Institutes of Health; the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Education and Energy; the U.S. Geological Survey;; the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; Texas’ own Hogg Foundation for Mental Health; and the Texas Instruments Foundation.

Worldwide, the news media are covering SMU research. See some of the coverage. Browse a sample of the research:

CERN and the origin of our universe
cern_atlas-thumb.jpgLed by Physics Professor Ryszard Stroynowski, SMU physics researchers belong to the global consortium of scientists investigating the origins of our universe by monitoring high-speed sub-atomic particle collisions at CERN, the world’s largest physics experiment.

Compounds to fight neurodegenerative diseases
Synthetic organic chemist and Chemistry Professor Edward Biehl leads a team developing organic compounds for possible treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s. Preliminary investigation of one compound found it was extremely potent as a strong, nontoxic neuroprotector in mice.

Hunting dark matter
Dark%20matterthumb.jpgAssistant Professor of Physics Jodi Cooley belongs to a high-profile international team of experimental particle physicists searching for elusive dark matter — believed to constitute the bulk of the matter in the universe — at an abandoned underground mine in Minnesota, and soon at an even deeper mine in Canada.

Robotic arms for injured war vets
Electrical Engineering Chairman and Professor Marc Christensen is director of a new $5.6 million center funded by the Department of Defense and industry. The center will develop for war veteran amputees a high-tech robotic arm with fiber-optic connectivity to the brain capable of “feeling” sensations.

Green energy from the Earth’s inner heat
The SMU Geothermal Laboratory, under Earth Sciences Professor David Blackwell, has identified and mapped U.S. geothermal resources capable of supplying a green source of commercial power generation, including resources that were much larger than expected under coal-rich West Virginia.

Exercise can be magic drug for depression and anxiety
Psychologist Jasper Smits, director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at SMU, says exercise can help many people with depression and anxiety disorders and should be more widely prescribed by mental health care providers.

The traditional treatments of cognitive behavioral therapy and pharmacotherapy don’t reach everyone who needs them, says Smits, an associate professor of psychology.

Virtual reality “dates” to prevent victimization
SMU psychologists Ernest Jouriles, Renee McDonald and Lorelei Simpson have partnered with SMU Guildhall in developing an interactive video gaming environment where women on virtual-reality dates can learn and practice assertiveness skills to prevent sexual victimization.

With assertive resistance training, young women have reduced how often they are sexually victimized, the psychologists say.

Controlled drug delivery agents for diabetes
brent-sumerlin.thumb.jpgAssociate Chemistry Professor Brent Sumerlin leads a team of SMU chemistry researchers — including postdoctoral, graduate and undergraduate students — who fuse the fields of polymer, organic and biochemistries to develop novel materials with composite properties. Their research includes developing nano-scale polymer particles to deliver insulin to diabetics.

Sumerlin, associate professor of chemistry, was named a 2010-2012 Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow, which carries a $50,000 national award to support his research.

Human speed
Usain_Bolt_Berlin%2Csmall.jpgAn expert on the locomotion of humans and other terrestrial animals, Associate Professor of Applied Physiology and Biomechanics Peter Weyand has analyzed the biomechanics of world-class athletes Usain Bolt and Oscar Pistorius. His research targets the relationships between muscle function, metabolic energy expenditure, whole body mechanics and performance.

Weyand’s research also looks at why smaller people tire faster. Finding that they have to take more steps to cover the same distance or travel at the same speed, he and other scientists derived an equation that can be used to calculate the energetic cost of walking.

Pacific Ring of Fire volcano monitoring
E_crater1%20thumb.jpgAn SMU team of earth scientists led by Professor and Research Dean James Quick works with the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor volcanoes in the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire near Guam on the Northern Mariana Islands. Their research will help predict and anticipate hazards to the islands, the U.S. military and commercial jets.

The two-year, $250,000 project will use infrasound — in addition to more conventional seismic monitoring — to “listen” for signs a volcano is about to blow.

Reducing anxiety and asthma
Mueret%20thumb.jpgA system of monitoring breathing to reduce CO2 intake is proving useful for reducing the pain of chronic asthma and panic disorder in separate studies by Associate Psychology Professor Thomas Ritz and Assistant Psychology Professor Alicia Meuret.

The two have developed the four-week program to teach asthmatics and those with panic disorder how to better control their condition by changing the way they breathe.

Breast Cancer community engagement
breast%20cancer%20100x80.jpgAssistant Psychology Professor Georita Friersen is working with African-American and Hispanic women in Dallas to address the quality-of-life issues they face surrounding health care, particularly during diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

Friersen also examines health disparities regarding prevention and treatment of chronic diseases among medically underserved women and men.

Paleoclimate in humans’ first environment
Cenozoic%20Africa%20150x120%2C%2072dpi.jpgPaleobotanist and Associate Earth Sciences Professor Bonnie Jacobs researches ancient Africa’s vegetation to better understand the environmental and ecological context in which our ancient human ancestors and other mammals evolved.

Jacobs is part of an international team of researchers who combine independent lines of evidence from various fossil and geochemical sources to reconstruct the prehistoric climate, landscape and ecosystems of Ethiopia in particular. She also identifies and prepares flora fossil discoveries for Ethiopia’s national museum.

Ice Age humans
Anthropology Professor David Meltzer explores the western Rockies of Colorado to understand the prehistoric Folsom hunters who adapted to high-elevation environments during the Ice Age.

Meltzer, a world-recognized expert on paleoIndians and early human migration from eastern continents to North America, was inducted into the National Academy of Scientists in 2009.

Understanding evolution
Cane%20rate%2C%20Uganda%2C%2020%20mya%20400x300.jpgThe research of paleontologist Alisa WInkler focuses on the systematics, paleobiogeography and paleoecology of fossil mammals, in particular rodents and rabbits.

Her study of prehistoric rodents in East Africa and Texas, such as the portion of jaw fossil pictured, is helping shed more light on human evolution.

Culture, Society & Family Health & Medicine Mind & Brain

Mad? Sad? Glad? People with severe mental illness can’t easily “read” their partner’s feelings; but there may be help

For a healthy couple in a romantic relationship, getting along can be hard enough. But what if one person has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression?

Adding severe mental illness into the mix can make it even harder to keep a relationship healthy, happy and satisfying, say psychologists Amy Pinkham and Lorelei Simpson, both assistant professors in the Department of Psychology at Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

A new research project by Pinkham and Simpson aims to understand how relationships function where one person has been diagnosed with a severe mental illness. Their study takes a close look at how couple relationships function when one partner has difficulties with the important social ability called “social cognition.”

Failure to understand emotional cues

Lorelei Simpson
Amy Pinkham

Social cognition is the ability to understand social information and accurately read and interpret another person’s feelings, to understand their perspective, and then respond appropriately.

Social cognition is commonly lacking or deficient in people with severe mental illness, say Pinkham and Simpson. For example, an ill individual may think their partner is angry when in fact the person is unhappy.

Understanding these deficits could lead to treatments to address social cognition deficits within relationships, say Pinkham and Simpson.

Pinkham and Simpson hope to develop programs for people with severe mental illness to help them improve the social skills critical for them to maintain a happy relationship.

“Understanding a partner’s viewpoint and emotions is key to many relationship skills,” says Simpson. “The social cognition deficits among people with severe mental illness may help explain their greater risk for relationship distress.”

More episodes of domestic abuse
People with severe mental illness tend to have more episodes of intimate partner violence and greater relationship discord, say Pinkham and Simpson. It’s possible that deficits in social cognition may play a role in these negative outcomes, they say.

Over the next few months, the researchers will recruit 60 couples from ethnically diverse backgrounds between the ages of 18 and 65. They will compare social cognition deficits and relationship functioning in couples in which one partner has a severe mental illness to couples in which neither partner has severe mental illness.

The researchers will assess the couples and analyze the data over the next 12 months. The Texas-based Hogg Foundation for Mental Health has awarded the psychologists a one-year, $15,000 grant to fund the study.

Study may provide treatment roadmap

More SMU Research

TIME: “Is exercise the best drug for depression?”

WIRED: “DARPA’s Beady-Eyed Camera Spots the ‘Non-Cooperative'”

London Times: “Should Oscar Pistorius be allowed to compete in the Olympics?”

Pinkham and Simpson say they expect to find that impairments in social cognition do detract from a couple’s efforts at a happy relationship.

They hope this initial study will improve understanding of the problems leading to relationship distress that are commonly seen in these couples.

They also expect that the study will lead to longitudinal and treatment studies that will enable them to develop recommendations for treatment and therapy that can help people with severe mental illness overcome the deficit.

“In the last five years, several treatment programs have been developed that show considerable promise for improving social cognitive abilities in individuals with a severe mental illness. If we find that social cognition does contribute to relationship satisfaction, we may be able to extend these same treatments to couples therapy,” says Pinkham.

Pinkham has expertise in social cognition and has investigated social cognitive impairments in people with severe mental illness for the past 10 years. Simpson’s expertise is with couple relationship functioning, couples therapy and couples facing severe mental illness.

About 6 percent of people in the United States suffer from serious mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Due to newer, more effective medications, as well as advances in behavioral therapy, more people with severe mental illness are able to function at higher levels, including maintaining long-term relationships like marriage, say the psychologists.

First study of its kind
However, the illness still takes a toll on people with severe mental illness and their relationships with others. Improving their ability to function is essential for better quality of life, say Pinkham and Simpson.

Over the past 20 years, researchers have studied severe mental illness and social cognitive impairment. But this will be the first study to examine the role of social cognition in how couple relationships function when one person has severe mental illness, say Pinkham and Simpson.

Much of the research on severe mental illness has focused on treating symptoms. But treating symptoms doesn’t necessarily give them skills by which to improve their relationships, say Pinkham and Simpson.

The Pinkham-Simpson study is one of 12 Texas research projects to receive funding from the Hogg Foundation, which was founded to promote improved mental health for Texans.

“Academic research is an important tool in our quest to understand the complexities of mental health,” said Octavio N. Martinez Jr., executive director of the foundation in announcing the awards. “The Hogg Foundation selected these projects because they address issues that profoundly affect people’s lives.”

Related links:
Amy Pinkham
Lorelei Simpson
SMU Department of Psychology
Hogg Foundation for Mental Health

Culture, Society & Family Mind & Brain Technology Videos

Practicing assertiveness skills on virtual-reality “dates” may help women prevent sexual victimization

avatar-01-web.jpgIt’s a stormy night when a young man offers a young college woman a ride home. First he makes friendly small-talk. But then he becomes sexually aggressive and angry.

Can she get out of this situation without getting hurt?

While this could be a real experience for many women, in this case it’s virtual reality. The purpose is role-playing in a psychology laboratory at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Although realistic and scary, the role-playing is nevertheless a safe way to teach assertiveness skills to young women so they can resist sexual victimization, according to new research.

Read: “Can Virtual Reality Teach College Women Sexual Coercion and Rape-Resistance Skills
Read: “Extreme reality: Women avoid sexual assault in virtual zone

A pilot project in which women practiced assertiveness skills reduced sexual victimization considerably, say researchers Ernest Jouriles, Renee McDonald and Lorelei Simpson, psychologists in SMU’s Department of Psychology.

The researchers tracked participants in the assertiveness program over three months and found that women in a control group were sexually victimized at twice the rate of those who had practiced the skills.

New research in which women practice their newly learned skills on a virtual-reality “date” holds promise for making the program even stronger.

Jouriles, McDonald and Simpson will present the research in November at the annual conference of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

Between 25 percent and 50 percent of American women will experience sexual coercion or sexual assault during their lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Those in their teens and early 20s are at particularly high risk, research shows.

The toll on victims ranges from depression and anxiety to drug abuse, psychiatric symptoms and chronic medical conditions.

“Sexual assault prevention programs for young women are widely available,” says Jouriles, professor and chairman of the SMU Department of Psychology. “However, only a few have been scientifically evaluated. Although some of these programs have been shown to change young women’s knowledge and attitudes about sexual assault, they have not generally been shown to prevent actual assaults.”

SMU psychologists Ernest Jouriles and Renee McDonald.

Jouriles and McDonald designed the virtual reality program in collaboration with students and faculty at The Guildhall, SMU’s graduate-level video-game design program. They worked with Simpson to develop the assertiveness training program and are currently using the virtual-reality technology to enhance women’s practice experiences when they learn assertiveness skills.

To participate, a young woman wears a head-mounted display and earphones that allow her to navigate a make-believe sexually risky environment. It immerses her in a setting that feels genuinely threatening. She faces off against an avatar controlled by a live male actor, who delivers the dialogue and controls the speech and actions of the virtual date.

The department’s 10-foot-by-12-foot laboratory room is furnished with two adjoining bucket seats and a couch to replicate either the front seat of a car or a party setting.

Similar to a multi-player, interactive video game, the sophisticated head-mounted display streams computer-generated, 3D images. The perspective is first-person, which tracks and changes with the wearer’s head position. Earphones surround the wearer with the sounds of pounding rain and music from the car radio.

SMU psychologist Lorelei Simpson.

The woman experiences the make-believe environment from a seat next to the avatar. In a 10- to 12-minute role-play, the actor challenges the young woman’s assertiveness by gradually escalating the conversation from small-talk and flirtation to verbal sexual coercion and anger. The avatar’s lips move in sync with the actor’s speech, and his facial expressions and movements, such as changing the radio station and drinking beer, make the virtual interaction more natural.

Research by Jouriles and McDonald published in 2009 found that young women who practiced navigating the virtual reality environment had a stronger negative reaction to the sexual threat than did participants in conventional role-playing without virtual reality technology.

Although the study didn’t evaluate the reason for that difference, Jouriles and McDonald hypothesized that the virtual environment makes it easier for participants to become immersed in role-play. It’s possible that women in a conventional role-playing environment feel more self-conscious or that the situation is more artificial than women interacting with an avatar, which results in more guarded responses, they said.

McDonald is an associate professor. Simpson is an assistant professor.

Related links:
SMU Profile: Ernest Jouriles and Renee McDonald
Ernest Jouriles
Renee McDonald
Lorelei Simpson
SMU Department of Psychology
SMU Guildhall
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences