Using VR to create understanding and empathy with victims of sexual harassment and assault. My Interview with Morgan Mercer, CEO of Vantage Point.
Morgan Mercer and the team at Vantage Point are looking to eradicate sexual assault and sexual harassment, with the help of virtual reality. The team says that existing educational programs fail in several way to truly help victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Morgan Mercer has started a crowdfunding campaign for a virtual reality tool to help people combat the issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment faced by many in campuses and the workplace.
After finding out about this project I contacted Morgan to help answer many questions I had. Questions I hoped would help me to have a better understanding and a level of empathy with victims of sexual harassment and assault? Please support Morgan's project and check out the interview I did with Morgan below with my Questions in bold.
My story in not one that involves sexual harassment and assault directly, however
being in a relationship with someone who has deal with this can create many
situations that are tough for both sides. How does Vantage Point help create an understanding and a level of empathy with victims of sexual harassment and assault?
● Last November, in Monaco, I sat at a speaker dinner after a TED event. The men and women were remarking on how most people truly don’t know how to respond if somebody comes out and says “this happened to me”. It’s not that friends, colleagues, and family members have malicious intent and want to respond negatively - it’s just that often times, most friends, colleagues, and family members don’t know how to respond and how to be supportive. We need to better train users on the emotional and psychological impacts assault and harassment can have, and on how we can be better and more supportive communities that know how to respond when victims find the courage to speak out.
Why is Vantage Point needed now and why is VR the platform you chose?
● Vantage Point was always needed - we just didn’t have the technological capabilities to
offer it. I wish somebody had created more effective educational programs before my
team and I decided to work on this, because it would have saved me and a lot of my
friends from situations none of us wanted to be put in. We hear women coming out, and
men coming out, and members of the LGBTQIA community coming out, and everybody
coming out about their stories, but we offer nothing more than condolences. We offer no
steps forward to change the culture, we offer no plans to restructure these social
structures and systems we have developed and perpetuated over the course of history -
through silencing, and normalizing, and through subliminal bias. Vantage Point
effectively tackles all of these problems. We teach communities on how to be more
empathetic, and we humanize the program and show both the local and global agency of
a user’s decisions as it pertains to the sexual violence landscape. We train users on how
to respond, and how to intervene, and these trainings are more effective than the
existing solutions. The equation I can make there is that it’s like doing an aviation
simulation rather than acting out flying an airplane with a designated pilot. If we can
leverage technology to make humanity a more empathetic and understanding species,
and glorify all of the positive traits of humanity and create social systems that don’t allow
room to justify the negative ones, then why wouldn’t we? Virtual Reality (VR) as the
platform of choice almost just seemed like a no-brainer to me. You have VR being
leveraged for training across every other field for the use cases of neurorehabilitation,
and stress reduction, and empathy-oriented experiences, and narrative journalism, and
PTSD therapy (which, by the way, 94% of rape victims develop PTSD), and aviation
simulations. When you look at that, and look at our program, it’s not like we’re
announcing some new unorthodox use case of VR. Sexual violence (including sexual
assault and sexual harassment) is just such a taboo topic that others haven’t really
approached it in this way - saying “okay, so we see that it works and all of these things
VR has helped create significant advances in are in some way tied to sexual violence -
so let’s use it to create more effective educational training tools to combat sexual
violence too.” We envision a future where all sexual violence (assault, harassment)
training and educational programs are conducted in VR.
Recently noted tech journalist Robert Scoble had several individuals bring to light
cases of sexual harassment and assault against him. Scoble responded in a blog
post by vilifying the accusers and saying what he did was not harassment. Scobel went as far as saying that the accusers were jumping on the bandwagon.
What are your feelings on this? What is the definition of sexual harassment?
● I don’t think sharing what I actually think about this is appropriate for an article that
anyone can reference later - because I have many negative things to say about anybody
who views harassment within that context. This honestly infuriates me. First of all
#MeToo is not a bandwagon - it’s the opportunity for those of us who have been silenced
all our lives to have a voice. That’s the equivalent of referencing any major movement in
the course of history aimed at giving a marginalized group a voice as “joining the
bandwagon.” If you don’t want to see #MeToo in the news, change society and the
culture leading to widespread sexual violence. Second, the ability to make or break a
career is not what qualifies sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is being made to feel
that you’re relinquishing something that you don’t want to give or offer - it can be direct
pressure, or it can be coercion. Leveraging power over somebody’s invulnerability is
harassment. Sexual harassment is being vulgarly cat-called on the street - could
somebody on the street make or break my career? Probably not. Is it sexual
● In my definition, sexual harassment is the blatant use of power to make derogatory
statements or to take a degrading stance towards an individual with sexual undertones.
This can come in the form of statements about somebody’s body, whether or not
someone is dressed appropriately, or pressure or coercion to do something that you
otherwise wouldn’t do. Power can be in the form of physical power, power within the
context of the relationship (boss, employee), or power relative to the situation.
Why are these assaults many times viewed as accidents and things like party culture and alcohol used as excuses?
● Assaults are not viewed as accidents - minor incidents are normalized and those who
experience them tend to label them as accidents because it makes it easier to digest - to
believe that somebody’s intent was not to harm you. It’s just like any other human-to-
human experience where you have personal boundaries and emotional context - it’s
easier to forget it and move on from it if you assume the person’s intentions weren’t to
hurt you and that they simply didn’t know better. It shifts the blame off of the person, and
towards something external like a lack of understanding. Using the term accident is a
scapegoat to save a person from his or her actions - but not in the sense of wanting to
save the person, more so in the sense of needing to be able to process it for yourself.
Because those who are victims of assault, or who have been harassed, know that it’s not
in their favor to speak out and up. It leaves you feeling like you really can’t do much
about the situation - because where do you go? Especially when most of the time, the
person assaulting you or who has or is harassing you holds the power and is leveraging
that power against you? If you can shift the blame away from the person, then you can
more easily process the situation as a victim. It’s almost something that we have to do,
because harassment and assault happens on such a minute scale on a day-to- day
basis, that to even process those instances, you almost have to automatically forgive
people otherwise you walk around carrying feelings of resentment and anger towards
the subset of people who assaulted and harassed you.
● Party culture and alcohol are used as excuses again as scapegoats. We as a society
don’t want to acknowledge that we’re failing. If a classroom of students fails an exam, we
don’t look at the number of students who were involved in extracurriculars, we look at
the educational system. If we look at demographics and socio-economic status, these
factors are taken into account within the context of the available educational programs
and the access students have to these programs (access meaning various things). We
know that if students failed, it’s because we failed to prepare them - no matter what other
factors can be taken into account, and we know to look at the various factors preventing
them from accessing the education available and we look at the education available to
identify if it’s comprehensive and to dissect whether or not the system’s structure aligns
with the goals. When we look at things like party culture, we don’t want to identify
ourselves (as a society) as failing in some way - so we shift the blame. But if we really
wanted to change the problem, we would look at the existing educational tools, and at
the effectiveness of these tools, and at how comprehensive these tools are. Are we
educating people based upon real-life situations? Are we truly giving them the best
training tools we can? Are we teaching people empathy, are we teaching people about
EQ, and about these human qualities that we tend to take out of the picture when we
dehumanize topics such as assault and harassment by shifting the blame to alcohol and
party culture? Let’s teach people to be responsible community members - and to look
out for one another even in the event that alcohol is present. Let’s teach people consent.
Let’s teach people to take accountability for the fault of the individual and fault of society
rather than shifting the blame to “party culture” or “alcohol”. This is why my team and I believe education and training is truly the only thing that can combat all aspects of the
sexual violence landscape.
Many times it seems like men are not vocal enough to help prevent situations. Danny Bitman formally of Upload said he only recently addressed the sexual harassment situation that happened there due to not wanting to percieved as not "one of the boys" during his time at Upload. Though he eventually spoke out against Upload can you speak on this "one of the boys" mentality that exists?
“One of the boys” situations arise when you have men with a subliminal or outwardly
sexist outlook at the helm - because ultimately, how do you report to HR when HR
reports to the CEO? True prevention is not allowing companies such as Upload, and
dare I say even Uber, to go through these situations and exit unscathed. When
responsibility and action can’t happen within the organization at the departmental or
organizational level, it’s our responsibility as a community to hold companies
accountable. “One of the boys” situations arise when companies know they can get
away with certain behavior, and individuals within the company really can’t take action
because you’re literally going head-on with a company that a) likely has more power and
money, b) in a society where the victim is questioned and not the individual truly at fault
c) where our social systems don’t support the reporting of harassment and assault at
such a large-scale level. Though I’m relatively new to the VR community, I do
understand the intricacies and understand the role Upload played for many - from my
understanding it was a connecting thread and a source to share and learn about
information. What I would hope, and what I do hope, is that in the future communities
such as the VR community, the tech community, the finance and VC communities, etc
will be less lax on sanctioning companies at fault, rather than ignoring the issue on a
company/organization-based level and leaving it to individual members of the community
to stand behind victims. From my understanding, the VR community supported those
who spoke out against Upload, but most large companies and organizations were
scared about crossing Upload due to the influence and power Upload had. I apologize if this is a miscalculation, as it’s based off of what I’ve learned from asking around, but in
my opinion: why are you continuing to give Upload power and influence when something
like this comes to light? Fear translates to power for the other party. Stop living out of
fear. As a company, as an organization, take responsibility and speak up. Support your
community, don’t support other companies who are at fault. This relates to all companies
and firms with scandals similar to this one.
You state on the crowdfunding page that Vantage Point is working to create attitudinal change and re-shape existing biases. In your view what are these existing biases?
● These questions are heavy. Biases depend on the individual, and there are so many -
but I would say that biases include: that the individual wanted it - especially if they choose not to report it or chose to continue talking to their assaulter after the fact (as I actually did); that the individual was acting in a suggestive way so the perpetrator had
reason to believe that the victim was asking for it; that if the victim had been suggestive
via social media or in a historical setting, that the victim must be at fault rather than the
perpetrator (as you see with the case of the woman raped when arrested by NYPD and
the default response was to reference provocative photos she had posted on her social
media accounts and to question her sanity); that if the victim didn’t report it, she or he
was okay with it; that if it happens in a relationship, it doesn’t count as assault or
harassment; that men can’t be victims of assault and harassment; if the victim spent time
with a person in lieu of ignoring warnings from others, that it’s the victim's fault for not
listening to warnings others gave; that it was the victim’s responsibility to make sure they
didn’t put themselves in a compromising situation (as I have also been told on numerous
times). Often times, the intent of the victim is questioned, not the intent of the
perpetrator. It’s not necessarily malicious, it’s truly just that there is a lack of empathy
and education around the topic and most people truly don’t know how to respond - so
they say the first thing that comes to mind without realizing the lasting impact it can have
on a victim. What would you say if a close friend said she or he had been harassed or
assaulted? Do you know how to best respond? Probably not.
What are core user groups Vantage Point will help?
● Vantage Point really does help all core user groups. We educate communities on
responding with empathy - including friends, families, colleagues of victims. Through this
education, we also train users on biases which helps to create a better understanding of
reactions and responses around the topic, as well as long-term impacts that actions can
have on victims and we provide insight into why victims may act a certain way in
response. Further, through creating empathy around the topic, we hopefully create a
better understanding of the role the individual has on changing the overall landscape.
We encourage users to play an active role in changing the landscape - by speaking out
and stepping up when colleagues and friends make inappropriate comments, by
watching out for one another and taking a level of responsibility for each-other. We hope
that users will walk away from our program and be able to self-identify with a role that
wants to go above-and- beyond rather than simply “not harassing” or “not assaulting”. We
need to ensure that our experiences are trauma-led and survivor centric and are non-
triggering, but we do hope that users (through empathy) will be able to create a better
connection to the narrative and will understand that a single joke or one action can have
a lasting impact on a person - and will start to be more conscious of their decisions and
How will Vantage Point help teams to prevent issues from ever happening?
● Vantage Point’s goals are the reduction of sexual violence (harassment and assault),
building more empathetic communities, and increasing the individual’s awareness of his or her role in changing the narrative and landscape. First and foremost, we hope that users will walk away from our program with consciousness in decision making when related to the lasting impact a joke or an action can have (through survivor narratives and creating an individual connection to the global narrative). Second, we will help users to understand that responsibility must be accounted for both as an individual and at a social level - and that holding each other accountable is truly the only way we can change and prevent this issue. Third, we will help users understand how to support one another most effectively, given a series of situations that may and commonly do arise. Fourth, we will train users on responding with empathy - which empowers communities and teams who otherwise might want to be supportive and likely just don’t know how, to know how to best provide support for victims (verbal support, intervention, and reporting). We’re empowering users with the knowledge necessary to know how to respond, how to report, what’s not appropriate behavior; we’re equipping communities with the knowledge necessary to identify how to play an active rather than a passive role in changing the landscape - and how to do it safely; we’re equipping communities with a better sense of empathy and understanding around the topic. Through this comprehensive educational approach that relies on empathy, education, and thus greater responsibility, we should be able to prevent issues from ever occurring. We want a universal understanding that harassment and assault should not occur, rather than this sort of universal understanding that harassment and assault should or would not be reported if it occurs.
We do want to provide a comprehensive solution and support for victims of harassment and
assault, and we do feel that it’s our responsibility so we do (as a company) have plans to set
aside an annual fund geared at assisting survivors and victims with costs associated with
pursuing criminal justice, medical fees, counseling services, etc. For instance, there are likely
many individuals who would want to report but can’t afford legal support and don’t know where to find affordable services without potentially risking her or his job. Aside from education and training, we want to be able to help communities with this and provide financial support and connection to support services to help address secondary and tertiary issues that arise surrounding harassment and assault.
How can the media help to solve these issues?
● The same way that companies and communities can - never stop speaking out, don’t
live out of fear, and always stand up for what you think is right rather than what you think
the most compelling or readable topic is. Media is meant to be a source of information
for the masses, but it’s also supposed to be the beacon of light through which
marginalized voices can be heard. Don’t silence those whose voices you’re meant