The World Against Racism Foundation (https://www.endracism.org) studies the destructive consequences when gender identity is treated as a biological given rather than what it really is: a developmental process shaped by interacting social and psychological factors. See our web site at www.endracism.org.
“I feel like a woman in a man’s body”—or visa versa—is a compelling complaint by people who undergo sex reassignment surgery. A new study using virtual reality (VR) technology asks a different question: how much are gender identities shaped by an interactive loop between a person’s self-image, how a person is perceived and treated by others, ands how a person reacts to that social interaction.
In a “body swapping” study by researchers at the Barcelona University’s Catalan Institute of Research and Advanced Studies and University College London, male subjects were equipped with virtual reality headsets enabling them to see the world through the eyes of a life-size female character who reacted to virtual female characters in the experimental interaction. Prior studies showed how VR technology could alter an experimental subject’s sense of place. The powerful effect of this new study altered the sense of self of the men who took on the identity of a virtual woman and reacted reflexively to the new VR reality.
The men reported feeling as though they were in a female’s body—flinching and gasping as she was slapped by another character in the virtual world. “If you can temporarily give people the illusion that their bodies are different, then the evidence suggests it also affects their behavior and the way they think. They can have new experiences: a person who is thin can know what it’s like to be fat. A man can have an experience of what it’s like to be a woman.”
In the study, 24 men took turns wearing a VR headset that immersed them in a virtual room with a fireplace. Some men saw the virtual environment through the eyes of a female character who was sitting down, while others had a viewpoint that was just to the side of her. The study showed how VR technology can blur the line between illusion and reality with regard to gender identity. In one experiment a second virtual female appears to approach the primary virtual female to stroke that person’s shoulders and arms. To reinforce the effect, a researcher in the lab applied the same massage to the experimental subject. In a follow-up experiment, the second character slapped the face of the female experimental subject. In the experiment involving slapping, the men’s heart rate first decelerated and then reaccelerated—which is the way humans usually react to a perceived attack. The more intensely male subjects saw their virtual world through the female character’s eyes, the stronger their reactions.
The researchers concluded that VR technology “can temporarily override top down knowledge resulting in a radical illusion of transfer of body ownership,” while also illustrating that “immersive virtual reality as a powerful tool in the study of body representation and experience, . . . .”
They emphasized the implications for using VR technology to speed the rehabilitation of injured patients who can reconnect with and restore through virtual experience how they use their bodies. However, the implications for understanding the formation of gender identity are also compelling: How we identify as men or women is very much affected by how others perceive and treat us—and how we react to their perceptions and behavior. This is one reason why sex reassignment therapies change not merely the how the body looks, but how the person’s self-image is shaped by social interaction. In other words, gender identity is determined in significant measure, not just by hormones, but by how others perceive and treat us.
For the full study see: Slater M, Spanlang B, Sanchez-Vives MV, Blanke O, 2010, “First Person Experience of Body Transfer in Virtual Reality,” PLoS ONE 5(5): e10564. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010564, .