Opinion //

Students are right to question the School of  Psychology VR-simulated ‘implied’ sexual assault study

USyd, like many universities across Australia, has an abysmal record of responding to the endemic of campus-based sexual assault and intimate partner abuse.

CW: Honi wishes to advise that the following article contains discussions of sexual violence, and may be triggering for readers. If you have been a victim of sexual violence, consult Our Watch for resources to make a report. Alternatively, contact the NSW Sexual Violence Helpline on 1800 424 017 to receive immediate crisis support.

Honi Soit recently reported on a University of Sydney psychology experiment that uses Virtual Reality (VR) to simulate an implied sexual assault. The article quotes an anonymous student and Women’s Officer Iggy Boyd, who both highlight serious concerns surrounding the ethics of the study and potential impacts on student participants.

In response, the University published a statement providing further “context” for the study. Initially, Honi Soit was accused of publishing “false” information but the statement has since been changed, thanking the newspaper for making amendments advised by the faculty. The current statement outlines the justification for the study as “establishing a scientific basis for accurate and ethical memory recall”, and that the study has been approved by three human ethics committees (two in the US at partner schools). 

They also note the study has undergone a “rigorous review process, and the researchers have protocols in place for appropriately informing potential participants about the study and what is involved, handling distress if it arises, and debriefing and providing support to participants at completion of their study participation for the subjects.” In these vague statements about student support and care, no specifics are provided.

While the University ostensibly believes this is an adequate response, it is ultimately cold, defensive and patronising to students who are right to have concerns about the study. The University provided no references to supporting research or substantive detail to help students better understand this wildly questionable study being conducted on campus.

A primary component of the University’s response was that the study has approval from a human research ethics committee (HREC). However, it is vital to recognise that ethics boards are not infallible. Honi Soit reported in 2017 that a USyd HREC-approved study was retracted after academics felt duped by fake emails sent by researchers to assess ethnic biases of supervisors towards (fake) hopeful PhD applicants. 

Ironically, ethics boards are not required to have an ethicist on the committee. They are composed of various experts on research methodologies and the general field for the study being examined, along with lay people who make decisions based on the information provided by researchers. Novel interventions and methodologies require niche expertise to evaluate. Oftentimes, ethics committees do not have the expertise required for this. Did the committee have sufficient expertise on the impacts of VR-facilitated ‘implied’ sexual assault? Or the systemic issues that plague sexual assault reporting that the study puports to address? 

Virtual reality already has a sexual assault problem. A 2016 article from The Conversation discusses the growing prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in VR spaces. Victim-survivors and researchers have already started to discuss the misconception that VR-based assault is not real. Do we, as a society, understand the phenomenology and ethics of virtual reality enough to have the capacity to approve such a study?

While HRECs provide a layer of ethical oversight, we should still question their decisions. We should welcome, if not encourage, reasonable further questioning of studies and new concerns that arise through recruitment and post-intervention debriefing. Students should not blindly trust that a study is ethical or provides appropriate care for participants just because it has been approved by the University’s HREC. 

The dismissive response from USyd also fails to aknowledge that they have not earned students trust on matters related to sexual assault. USyd, like many universities across Australia, has an abysmal record of responding to the endemic of campus-based sexual assault and intimate partner abuse. 

We still have a mandatory consent module that fails to meaningfully address systemic acceptance of abuse. Like many “wellbeing” initiatives, its primary achievement seems to be ticking a box for the University, rather than meaningfully address the underlying attitudes behind sexual assault. 

Thanks to activists’ enormous efforts to raise the alarm on the University’s failures, changes have been made. These did not come from within the University — they came from the immeasurable efforts of countless student activists to rally for changes. Students are right to be hyper alert to how USyd handles any matter related to sexual assault. 

Recognising their position as an institution that has failed students repeatedly on the issue of sexual assault, the University should have anticipated that this study would raise eyebrows. Accessible information should have been pre-emptively available, rather than putting students in the position of having to put in considerable time and effort into addressing what outwardly appears to be an ethically dubious study that could harm students. 

Finally, the “context” information also failed to mention how the study was conceived. They state that: 

“Sexual violence investigations tend to depend heavily on a victim-survivor’s account of the offence however many victim-survivors are not believed and their testimony discredited in court by defence. Ultimately, this study aims to develop understanding of how individuals remember incidences of sexual violence, and aid in applying the findings to a real-life context – to improve the way traumatic memories are elicited from victim-survivors in interviews.” 

Whether the authors intended this or not, the study aims imply that a core issue for victim-survivors not being believed is the quality of their memories. This ignores the context as the ABC states, “a culture [that] implies women are responsible for men raping them — perhaps they’d been drinking, or maybe they wore the ‘wrong’ clothes and were ‘asking for it'”. It ignores the reality that 1 in 3 Australians believe women make-up rape allegations to ‘get back at’ men. It ignores the reality of how the justice system treats sexual assault victim-survivors

The University did not provide further information on how the aims of the study were developed or the need for this study. Were victim-survivors consulted on the research aims or methodology? Were there any community or stakeholder consultations? How will the participants’ experience of the study itself be collected, if at all? How will the researchers know and/or incorporate the impact of the VR experiment on participants? 

The culture context of a society that does not believe victim-survivors, and the complexity of sexual assault the endless considerations unique to each case are incomparable to a VR scenario. While we can appreciate that the researchers have good intentions for this research, based on this extremely limited information with no further research provided to support their aims, it is difficult to see how this study would have any ‘real-world’ generalisability. 

Unlike the vast majority of other studies at USyd, this topic requires a unique set of considerations. Dialogue can only happen when it is facilitated. Students are told to speak out, say something, talk to someone when something is wrong. 

Creating a culture of disclosure and safety means first — and warmly welcoming this. A signal to me that the University is willing to actively engage with concerns means recognising and thanking the students who are engaging with this issue. We should all recognize that we need to talk about this more. 

This opinion piece was written collaboratively by a former sexual assault counsellor and a student.