Sex ed in Second Life

Could a virtual island teach students about real-world sex?

By Catherine Price

Published July 31, 2007 7:00PM (EDT)

One of the items mentioned in passing in yesterday's roundup warrants a little more commentary: the fact that the virtual-reality game Second Life is offering sex ed.

Here's the quick back story. A group of educators going by the name Education UK bought an island in Second Life to provide a "safe" location for United Kingdom-initiated virtual education. They held a contest for educational projects, the prize for which was a free community land grant (i.e., free real estate). The winner was a proposal from the University of Plymouth in Britain (with help from Susan Toth-Cohan from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia) to build a region in Second Life to educate students about contraception and sexual health.

The result is an area in Second Life where visitors can learn about sexual health just by exploring. There's a screening room for movies about HIV/AIDS, an outdoor classroom where students can watch presentations from sex educators, a newsstand that updates itself every 10 minutes with the top two sexual health stories from Yahoo News, an interactive game/quiz area where students can test their knowledge, and a "sky box" where visitors can have one-on-one sessions with counselors. There's even a vending machine where visitors can buy virtual condoms. The goal, as the explanatory video puts it, is to help students learn how to prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancies, and promote equitable sexual relationships. I, for one, think that's pretty cool.

It'd be easy to dismiss this as just an isolated project in an imaginary world, but I think it has great potential as a mainstream educational tool. First of all, people learn best by experience, and I'd argue that freely wandering around the island, choosing topics that you find interesting in a setting that feels like a video game, is likely to be more educational than watching a teacher put a condom on a banana. Second, provided that a school had a computer room and Internet access, sitting kids in front of a keyboard is a hell of a lot cheaper than creating individual sexual education programs. And third, creating a virtual world devoted to sex education allows a lot more exposure to different views toward sex than does a traditional classroom environment -- for example, you could have an area on the island devoted to teaching students about abstinence, and another talking about how to use condoms correctly. The result, I'd argue, would be a far more balanced education -- or at least one that more people could agree on -- than a traditional classroom environment, where one point of view is often pushed more than another.

I suppose it's idealistic of me to suggest that the true purpose of sexual education should be to help guide students toward healthy, safe sexual relationships instead of arguing about whether sex is morally right or wrong. But if we were to agree upon that as a goal, using a virtual experience like Second Life could be an inexpensive, effective and, dare I say it, fun way to educate students about sex.

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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