Can Virtual Reality Help Treat Pedophiles?


Imagine a man with pedophilic urges sitting in a lab with a virtual-reality headset on, wires from a computer running through the fly of his pants to an unseen device. Visible, both to him and to researchers sitting at monitors nearby, is a realistically rendered playground with a little boy on a swing. The boy approaches the pedophile and shyly introduces himself. Both the man immersed in the simulation and the researchers, who are recording his physiological responses to the virtual child, know the next few moments are key. How will he respond to this temptation?

This may seem like a strange, menacing scene from a Philip K. Dick novel, but some researchers believe virtual reality could become a standard tool for diagnosing — and potentially treating — pedophiles.

The emergence of this technology comes as a shift is underway, at least in parts of Europe and Canada, with regard to preventing child molestation. (Progress is decidedly slower in the United States — more on that in a bit.) While the legal and research climates vary from country to country, researchers and law-enforcement personnel are turning away from overly punitive approaches and toward ones designed to prevent pedophiles from harming children in the first place.

That doesn’t mean scientists are all that far along in determining how to prevent these crimes, of course. In fact, they’re pretty early in the process. But the idea of using virtual reality, an approach spearheaded by psychology professor Patrice Renaud’s team at the Philippe-Pinel of Montreal, is gaining some attention in the research world. 

These environments, the researchers claim, could improve a common diagnostic tool for pedophilia: penile plesthysmography, or PPR. PPR is a procedure in which clinicians attach a device to a patient’s penis, present him with stimuli (often audio) pertaining to underage boys or girls, and then measure the patient’s level of physiological arousal to determine whether or not he is a pedophile. The problem is that there’s a rather high level of false negatives: About 40 percent of the time, the Montreal team writes in the paper, the subject exhibits no physiological response despite the fact that he does have an attraction to underage people.

The researchers think this is because some subjects are able to fake a lack of arousal, or because the current stimuli are not realistic enough. That’s where VR comes in: Combining realistic virtual depictions of young boys with eye-tracking technology could make it harder for pedophiles to feign non-arousal. The researchers have had some early successes with this approach in work with headsets that’s been going on since 2006.

This notion — psychiatric personnel forcing people to sit in a chair, strap on VR goggles, and look at realistic depictions of underage boys — does sound a bit like A Clockwork Orange. But Massil Benbouriche, a Ph.D. student in criminology and psychology who works with Renaud and the lead author of a conference paper laying out the technology’s potential last spring, insisted in an email that  “neither ‘classic’ PPG neither [nor] our ‘device’ is designed to be used as a unique proof, in courts to define sentence or to identify someone as a pedophile.” Rather, “It’s only one of many clinical indicators” that experts will use to make an informed decision about how best to deal with a given client or offender. It’s not perfect, he said — it’s the “least imperfect” way researchers have come up with.

Benbouriche and his colleagues also think VR has promise as more than just a simple diagnostic tool. Down the road, it might help teach offenders how to control their urges — currently, there is no known way to alter a pedophile’s interest in children short of controversial practices like chemical castration. If it can be determined that an offender is “set off” by certain stimuli — boys in jeans, for example — there may be some potential, in the long term, to drop him into virtual environments, present him with those stimuli, and train him to keep his urges in check.

At the moment, this research is unlikely to get much traction in the United States. Because the U.S. has uniquely restrictive “mandated reporter” laws that make it difficult to study sex offenders out in the open, there’s less room for innovative research, and it’s much harder to find study subjects who haven’t already offended — a key population, given that not everyone who is sexually attracted to children acts on that attraction. In addition, some researchers say many offenders are effectively driven into hiding, making recidivism more likely. Compare that to Germany, where Project Dunkenfeld is attempting to draw pedophiles who haven’t offended out into the light so as to develop protocols designed to help prevent them from acting on their urges.

I cannot overemphasize how hysterical the American system has become,” said James Cantor, a leading pedophilia researcher based at the University of Toronto. “It has become so draconian and is hitting this with such a big, dumb, lead hammer, that if anything it’s probably making the problem worse rather than better.”

In other countries, though, researchers will continue looking into a variety of approaches. Given that society is in the earliest phases of figuring out a humane, effective response to the dangers posed by pedophilia, hopefully the investment Renaud’s team has made in virtual reality will pay dividends.