Can VR and presence help stop sexual harassment in the workplace?

[Presence may be a powerful force for addressing the timely and much too common problem of sexual harassment. This story is from Los Angeles Magazine, where the original includes three other pictures; more information is available on the Vantage Point Indiegogo page and in coverage available via the Press page on the company’s website. –Matthew]

Can Virtual Reality Help Stop Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

An L.A.-based entrepreneur and sexual violence-survivor is bringing a fresh solution to life

March 19, 2018
Liz Ohanesian

I’m a silent presence inside a tidy office, observing as one woman and two men work into the evening. The boss enters the room and he’s quickly impressed with the woman’s work. There’s something in the way he’s behaving, though, that’s unsettling. He mentions wanting to take her on an upcoming trip to New York. She says that she can stay with her sister, but he answers that this won’t be feasible. Meanwhile, covertly sent texts pop up on my phone. Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks there’s something strange about this exchange—but how do we respond?

This isn’t your typical anti-sexual harassment training session. It’s Vantage Point, an immersive approach to teaching people how to identify and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace. Unlike videos, Vantage Point—a 360-degree virtual reality experience—thrusts the user into the middle of a scenario, essentially pop quizzing them on whether or not they can recognize harassment as it unfolds, as well as how they, even as a bystander, would handle the situation.

Morgan Mercer, a two-time survivor of sexual violence, conceived of Vantage Point after a conversation about responses to gender-based violence. “It’s almost a failure in society because we’re not really educating people on how to be supportive community members,” she says. Mercer could see that virtual reality has the potential to help people learn to empathize with one another. Moreover, Mercer saw VR as a space where people could confront their own biases.

“I realized that virtual reality quite literally has the ability to place you in another person’s shoes,” she says. “And that, to me, clicked as being the perfect medium to maybe question you on some biases that you didn’t know that you had.”

She spent a few weeks teaching herself how to code, got to know people in related industries, and moved to Los Angeles to get Vantage Point off the ground. The team worked with both experts in the field as well as survivors of sexual violence in the making of Vantage Point.

“There are all of these new models of looking at sexual harassment outside of the quid pro quo definition that sexual violence experts are proposing because a lot of times, it does have to do with invasion of personal space,” Mercer says. “It does have to do with continuous touching. It has to do with the grooming process. So there are all these other factors that play into this.”

If there’s one thing the #MeToo movement has revealed, it’s that, in general, people still have a lot to learn about sexual harassment and assault. How do you recognize warning signs before a situation escalates? How can you be an ally to friends and colleagues? Making Vantage Point has been a learning experience for those working on the project as well.

On set, while filming one of the Vantage Point scenarios, Annie Lukowski, who co-directed and co-wrote Vantage Point admitted, “I didn’t know what the word ‘grooming’ was.” The phrase more frequently comes up in discussions about sexual abuse of minors, where an adult first builds trust with the victim, but understanding the behavior is crucial to preventing sexual harassment in an office setting as well. This is critical for helping others realize when they witness sexual harassment. It’s called “bystander intervention.”

“Sometimes, the person that it happens to doesn’t even really know that it happened, or they’re embarrassed to admit to themselves that it happened, but a bystander saw it,” says Katherine Kendall by phone. Kendall, an actress, publicly accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault last year and is now a spokesperson for Vantage Point. “There are ways to have dialogue. Learning to listen to someone who has been sexually harassed is really key.”

In Vantage Point, there are no easy answers. You might automatically know not to select an answer that shames or blames the victim, but do you pick the answer where you intervene or the one where you lend support regardless of how the victim decides to respond?

After I tried the prototype inside a Culver City workspace, Mercer explained those tough calls. “The last thing that we want to do is make it easy, because it’s not easy in real life,” she said. “It’s not a yes and a no, or a black and a white. Ultimately, there’s a lot of gray area.”

At present, Vantage Point is geared towards sexual harassment in corporate office environments. What you see isn’t necessarily the kind of situation that might play out in a restaurant or on a film set. However, Mercer indicates that this is just the beginning of what’s in store for Vantage Point. There are plans to eventually expand into modules that address other industries.

Mercer says that ultimately she would like to develop a program that can help combat sexual assault on college campuses. There’s a lot of work to be done before Vantage Point do that, though. “We need to make sure that we’re building this with both safety, concern, and care, and that we’re putting thought into every aspect of our product,” she says. “When we get to that point, we can prove that it’s not only effective, but that we can identify what we should do and what we should avoid so that we’re not hurting anybody.”

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