Two researchers at the University of Central Florida were recently awarded a $434,000 grant from the Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Nursing Research to design a virtual reality game to promote sexual abstinence. The project is designed to teach pre-teen girls how to resist peer pressure to engage in sexual behavior. According to Dr. Anne Norris, one of the lead researchers, the ultimate goal is to reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases among young Latinas, who experience higher rates of teen pregnancy than their peers. The game is expected to be ready by spring 2011, when it will be tested on students from select after-school programs. If the game is successful, the researchers will develop separate versions for boys and for teenagers of other ethnicities.
In the game, which is highly interactive, girls don a motion-capture suit that allows them to control an onscreen avatar’s movements. The player then engages in various social interactions, and gains points for turning down sexual advances. “A boy similar in age might approach the person playing the game,” explained Norris, “and ask her to make out or there might be some sexual innuendo.” The researchers intend for the players to be able to practice resisting sexual pressures from peers in an environment that is free of social consequences.
The project is reflective of Florida’s diverse and sometimes inconsistent sexuality education programs. The state’s statute requires that schools teach “an awareness of the benefits of sexual abstinence as the expected standard and the consequences of teenage pregnancy,” but the content of sex education programs are largely left up to the school districts. Instruction on contraception and HIV/AIDS remains optional. Consequently, some school districts have adopted more comprehensive sexuality education programs. However, the official state policy requires that all sexuality education programs teach sexual abstinence until marriage as the expected standard for students.
Researchers hope the game will help reduce Florida’s teen pregnancy rate, which is particularly high among Latinas, though it is an issue that affects demographic groups throughout the state. In 2009, Florida’s teen pregnancy rate ranked 12th in the United States, up from 22nd in 2005. Florida ranks 2nd in cases of HIV/AIDS diagnosed among young people ages 13–19 out of the 34 states with confidential, name-based HIV-infection reporting. However, the program is problematic because it focuses exclusively on abstinence rather than providing different ways for young women to navigate peer pressure. Studies, such as the 2007 congressionally mandated study conducted by Mathematica Policy Research on federally funded Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, have shown that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have no statistically significant impact on young people’s sexual behavior. The Mathematica study in particular found no evidence that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs increased rates of sexual abstinence.
“In this economic climate, we just don’t have the money to waste on programs like this,” comments Jen Heitel Yakush, director of public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. “No matter how new or innovative the project seems, it relies on an abstinence-only-until-marriage formula that has been proven ineffective. We don’t need new technologies that squander researchers’ time and taxpayers’ money on failed programs. We need to invest in comprehensive approaches that we know have a proven track record. Let’s build on what works and stop wasting precious resources on what we know doesn’t.”
 “UCF Gets $434K NIH Grant,” Orlando Business Journal, 26 July 2010, accessed 4 August 2010, <http://orlando.bizjournals.com/orlando/stories/2010/07/26/daily4.html>.
 “Project Information,” National Institutes for Health, accessed 4 August 2010. <http://projectreporter.nih.gov/project_info_description.cfm?aid=7940719&icde=4748571>.
 Elizabeth Alvarez, “UCF Developing Virtual Game about Sex,” Fox 35 News, 26 July 2010, accessed 4 August 2010, <http://www.myfoxorlando.com/dpp/news/orange_news/072610ucf-developing-virtual-game-about-sex>.
 Florida Statutes 48-1003.42, Section 2(n), <http://www.leg.state.fl.us/statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&Search_String=&URL=Ch1003/SEC42.HTM&Title=-%3E2006-%3ECh1003-%3ESection%2042#1003.42>.
 Florida Statutes 48-1003.46, Section 2(a-d), <http://www.leg.state.fl.us/statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&Search_String=&URL=Ch1003/SEC46.HTM&Title=-%3E2006-%3ECh1003-%3ESection%2046#1003.46>.
 Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, “Florida State Profile Fiscal Year 2009,” accessed 4 August 2010, <http://www.siecus.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Page.ViewPage&PageID=1213#_edn13>.
 Chris Trenholm et al., “Impacts of Abstinence Education on Teen Sexual Activity, Risk of Pregnancy, and Risk of Sexually Transmitted Diseases,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 27.2 (2008):255–276.