Abusers forced to live through domestic violence in new virtual reality program

You’re trapped in a room with your abuser whose eyes track your every move.

He’s berating you, but each time you begin to respond he tells you to shut up. When you divert your gaze, he demands you look at him.

He comes closer and closer, and you’re sure he’ll hit you.

Seconds later, it’s all over.

The scene isn’t real, but the emotions evoked by it are.

It’s this type of profound virtual reality experience experts think can be used to reduce reoffending by domestic violence perpetrators.

Perpetrators of domestic abuse were used in the study.
Perpetrators of domestic abuse were used in the study. Credit: Kittisak Jirasittichai/Getty Images/EyeEm

Barcelona-based company Virtual Bodyworks did a trial over four years with 200 perpetrators of domestic abuse on suspended sentences.

The male offender is asked to put on a virtual reality headset that “transforms” him into a woman, and the abuse begins.

“We’ve developed these scripts over many hours with psychologists to try and get something that might feel realistic and shows varying degrees of abuse, whether it be financial or something more physical,” managing director Charlie Pearmund tells AAP.

‘We put in as much as we can to make it feel like you’re really in the room with this guy’

Their preliminary data shows the chance of reoffending can be cut in half.

That has convinced the government of Catalonia in Spain to extend the program, VRespect.Me, to 600 offenders in 2020.

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Dutch company Enliven Media has a similar simulation, inspired by founder Alex Tavassoli’s experience of domestic violence as a child.

It puts the perpetrator in the body of a seven-year-old and the simulation starts when Dad arrives home late - again.

“That’s supposed to be a happy moment for you - Dad is home - but mother tells you to stay in your room because she needs to talk with your father,” Mr Tavassoli says.

From there, the fight shifts around the house before stopping at your bedroom door where your mother gets slapped in the face.

The program could help fight domestic violence. (File image)
The program could help fight domestic violence. (File image) Credit: Getty Images

She falls to the ground and tells you it’s just another little fight but you can see she’s hurt and crying.

By the time the VR goggles come off, Mr Tavassoli says many of the perpetrators are crying too.

A lot of them were victims of domestic violence as children themselves, he says.

“Most parents when they hit their children, they know they are doing wrong. But when the children are not being physically hurt, they tend to think the impact isn’t that big.”‘When the children are not being physically hurt, they tend to think the impact isn’t that big’

‘When the children are not being physically hurt, they tend to think the impact isn’t that big’

The pilot, tested on 20 perpetrators, showed that after the experience 80 per cent were able to stop a fight or avoid starting one when a child was present.

The Dutch Ministry of Justice will roll it out this year as mandatory training for some domestic violence offenders.

Australian versions

Both companies are keen to create Australian versions. But there are licensing costs and the simulations run on the Oculus Quest, a professional-grade VR headset which sells for over $1500 AUD each.

Queensland University of Technology criminologist Dr Bridget Harris says cost shouldn’t be a barrier.

“It’s something like $26 billion that domestic and family violence costs the country each year, and the money the government spends on it is just not significant,” she tells AAP.

She envisages the programs being used for further police training and bystander intervention training as well.

“It could help people understand what the dynamics of violence look like, what coercive control looks like ... what trauma looks like.”


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