According to national data, one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college—a crisis that calls for swift solutions.
States such as California, Louisiana and New York have adopted affirmative consent (“Yes Means Yes”) laws; schools have introduced compulsory consent workshops; and organizations have launched information campaigns.
And now, a new strategy uses technology to help students mediate sexual encounters. The Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence, a Massachusetts-based educational organization, recently released two smartphone apps, “We-Consent” and “What About No,” to video-record sexual consent between individuals and encourage conversations about mutual respect and a partner’s right to set limits. But the approach is being met with some resistance from anti-rape activists and skeptical students.
We-Consent costs $5 each year, and according to its website “creates a seven year encrypted record of a mutual ‘yes’ available only to law enforcement, upon judicial order, or as evidence in a college or university sexual assault disciplinary proceeding.”
Separately, for a one-time fee of $5, the “What About No” app records a time-stamped and geocoded video of a person withdrawing consent.
Both apps are being marketed to university students.
“If enough people in a given college community [use the apps], the basic assumption that you’re just doing things without talking about them will change,” Michael Lissack, the man behind the apps, told the Chicago Tribune.
Since the products’ release, numerous experts have voiced concern over the technology, noting that consent can change at any time and the videos could help abusers get away with rape. Despite that potential danger, all of the 8 students interviewed for this story mentioned some type of appreciation for the apps’ attempt to address the sexual violence crisis.
That doesn’t mean students will use them, however.
“I don’t really see college students using this,” Mandee Simpson, a senior at the University of Mississippi, said. “It just seems silly to me. To stop before sex and open an app to record consent just seems unrealistic.”
Other students echoed her sentiment.
“I do think that the ideas behind these apps are good in a sense, but I’m not sure how effective they would be in reality,” Jordan Lederman, a student at Columbia College Chicago, says. “I think the fact that the apps aren’t free will turn many college students off about it, even though it’s a small fee. I also think that the inconvenience of having to grab your phone in the middle of whatever is going on would be a turn off for people.”
“I think the intimacy of the moment does not lend to the concept of pausing long enough to go through the motions of recording consent,” says Caleb Ezell, a biochemistry student at the University of Mississippi. “Likewise, it would likely be considered a turnoff by most otherwise-willing individuals to have a partner request that you explicitly give consent to an app before engaging in intercourse.”
Sarah Daoud worked as director of Northwestern University’s chapter of Take Back The Night before graduating in 2013. She currently volunteers for Rape Victim Advocates. While she believes that the “Yes Means Yes” movement is a “hugely important” step toward ending sexual violence, she’s wary of these new apps.
“The only thing that can mean yes is enthusiastic consent,” Daoud believes. “But I don’t think these apps quite get the job done. I can see them doing a lot of harm, especially in sexual assault cases. If someone has video of an assault survivor saying ‘yes, I want to have sex,’ and consent was later withdrawn, it’s going to be damn near impossible to prosecute the person who caused harm.”
Lauren Leist, who recently graduated with a master’s degree in political communications from Louisiana State University, agrees with Daoud.
“For better or worse, I don’t see affirmative consent apps becoming a norm on college campuses,” Leist says. “I could see emergency apps documenting lack of consent becoming popular among college women though.”
“Sexual assault is by no means a new issue on college campuses,” Leist adds. “The only difference is that we are talking about it more and that is great for empowering victims to come forward and sparking dialog on how to improve the problem.”
The conversation around sexual consent is evolving rapidly, as definitional terms are hammered out and each campus attempts to establish a workable policy, balancing sexual expression with physical and emotional safety.
“I keep thinking back to when I was younger, even before I was a teenager, and I would watch “Law and Order SVU.” There would be an episode where someone would be raped, and to me it always seemed like such a simple issue: Man forces woman to have sex,” Simpson says. “As I’ve gown up I’ve realized that rape is not that simple. The thing is, I still don’t know what ‘rape’ exactly is. I know that it is definitely being forced against your will to have sex, and that it is having sex without consenting to it—but what exactly is consent? A strict ‘yes’ or ‘no’? Does me fully consenting mean I’m not going to regret it in the morning or feel used?”
According to Daoud, “clean, intentional conversations can become the new norm.” In other words, it’s minds, not communication technologies, that need to be changed. A smartphone app can do little to help prevent sexual assault.
“We should all be paying more attention to changing the culture,” Daoud shared in a follow-up email to Women in the World. “Encourage open conversation about sex, encourage equitable pleasure, dismantle the rape culture that is so active on college campuses (especially in Greek life, where fraternities control alcohol and parties). We need to actively change our thinking around sex, and this app does not do that.”
While a lot of young adults get a bad rap for having their smartphones glued at the hip, it seems the bedroom is one place where they prefer not to take them.