In a maximum security mental health facility in Montreal is a “cave-like” virtual reality vault that’s used to show images of child sexual abuse to sex offenders. Patients sit inside the vault with devices placed around their penises to measure signs of arousal as they are shown computer-generated animations of naked children.
“We do develop pornography, but these images and animations are not used for the pleasure of the patient but to assess them,” said Patrice Renaud, who heads up the project at the Institut Philippe-Pinel. “It’s a bit like using a polygraph but with other measurement techniques.”
The system, combined with other psychological assessments, is used to build up a profile of the individual’s sexual preferences that can be used by the court to determine the risk they pose to society and by mental health professionals to determine treatment.
Not all child molesters are pedophiles (people who are sexually attracted to children) and not all pedophiles molest children, although the terms are often wrongly used interchangeably. In many cases, those who molest children are “situational offenders”, which means their offense is outside of their typical sexual preference or behavior.
“You can have someone who molested a child once but is not a pedophile as such – they may have been intoxicated or have another mental health disorder,” said Renaud, who also leads the Cyberpsychology Lab at the University of Quebec in Outaouais. “We need to know if they have a preferred mode of sexual expression.”
Renaud uses virtual reality for two reasons: first, because it does not involve images of real people, but digital ones, and second, because the immersive nature of the medium allows researchers to measure something closer to natural behavior.
The vault itself is a small room with screens on all sides, on to which are projected animations of naked children and adults standing in natural settings. The research team can generate synthetic characters in a range of ages and shapes and can adapt features like facial expression, genital size, and eye and hair color to correspond with the patients’ victims or sexual fantasies.
Computer-generated characters developed at the Institut Philippe-Pinel in Montreal. Photograph: Institut Philippe-Pinel
The patients sit on a stool inside the chamber wearing stereoscopic glasses which create the three-dimensional effect on the surrounding walls. The glasses are fitted with eye-tracking technology to ensure they aren’t trying to trick the system by avoiding looking at the critical content.
“These guys do not like going through this assessment,” said Renaud, pointing out that the results can be shocking for the patient.
“It’s not easy for someone to discover he is attracted to violently molesting a kid. He may have been using the internet for some masturbatory activities using non-violent images or videos of children – which is not a good thing. But being tested in the lab and knowing he is also attracted to violence may be something that’s very difficult to understand.”
The VR vault used to assess sex offenders Photograph: Philippe-Pinel Institute of Montreal
Renaud acknowledges that the use of penile plethysmography, which involves placing a cuff-shaped sensor around the genitals, is controversial. It’s not only invasive but there is some disagreement in the scientific community about itsreliability in measuring sexual deviancy. Consequently, Renaud’s team is exploring a less invasive alternative: electroencephalography. This uses a cap that reads activity in the brain related to erectile response and sexual appetites.
Renaud believes the same cap could be used to track the person’s empathy response to expressions of pain, fear or sadness in the virtual child victim. “These inhibit the sexual response of non-deviant individuals.”
Some deviant individuals can be attracted to signs of emotional distress.
“If we find that the guy is attracted to children and doesn’t feel empathy for the fact that the child is in pain, that’s good information for predicting behavior,” he said.
Renaud and his team assess about 80 patients per year, including pedophiles, rapists and other sexual deviants assigned by the court for assessment.
Electroencephalography could replace penile plethysmography. Photograph: Philippe-Pinel Institute of Montreal
A tool to help, or a gateway to abuse?
The lab is under intense scrutiny from ethical committees and the police in Quebec. The computer-generated imagery must be encrypted and stored in a highly secure closed computer network inside the maximum security hospital so that the material doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
However, at a time when virtual reality pornography is on the rise, it’s not unreasonable to assume that someone will – if it hasn’t already happened – create virtual reality child abuse images designed explicitly to arouse rather than diagnose pedophiles.
Thanks to advances in computer graphics, such experiences could be created without ever harming or exploiting children. But even if no children are harmed in the making of such imagery, would society tolerate its creation? Could the content provide an outlet to some pedophiles who don’t want to offend in real life? Or would a VR experience normalize behavior and act as a gateway to physical abuse?
Jamie Sivrais, of A Voice For The Innocent, which provides community support to survivors of rape and sexual abuse, said that people have a long history of blaming technology for human problems. He pointed to VHS tapes being used to create child abuse images and predators using internet chat rooms and smartphones to meet and abuse children.
“If the technology exists, there will be people who abuse it,” he said.
“I think this is a human problem. The same criticisms of VR could have (and have been) made about the internet and smartphones, and they are valid criticisms. So as we continue to push the envelope of technology, let’s also continue to expand resources for people who are hurt by abuse.”
Ethan Edwards, the co-founder of “Virtuous Pedophiles”, an online support group for people attracted to children but who do not want to molest them, argues virtual reality could help prevent real-life offences.
Edwards believes that, provided the imagery of children is computer-generated and doesn’t involve any real victims, it should be legal, as should life-size child sex dolls and erotic stories about children.
“I have a strong civil liberties streak and feel such things should be legal in the absence of very strong evidence they cause harm,” he said.
Nick Devin, a pedophile and co-founder of the site, called for thorough scientific research. “The answer may be different for different people. For me, doing these things wouldn’t increase or reduce the risk to kids: I’m not going to molest a kid whether I fantasize or not.”
It’s a view echoed by Canadian forensic psychologist Michael Seto. He believes that VR could provide a safer outlet for individuals with well-developed self control.
“But for others, such as those who are more impulsive, prone to risk-taking, or indifferent about the effects of their actions on others, then access to virtual child pornography could have negative effects and perhaps increase their desire for contact with real children.”
It’s a risk that concerns Renaud, who describes VR child abuse imagery and child-shaped sex robots as “a very bad idea”.
“Only a very small portion of pedophiles could use that kind of sexual proxy without having the urge to go outside and get the real stuff,” he said.
It’s not just child sex abuse experiences that are concerning to Renaud, but violent first-person sexual experiences including rape and even entirely new deviances “like having sex with monsters with three penises and blue skin”.
“We don’t know what effect these sexual experiences will have on the behavior of children and adults in the future,” he said.