Skip to Content

Can an app help reduce sexual assault on college campuses?


While many of us look back on the fall back-to-school season with fond memories, colleges are increasingly acknowledging that the first few months of school can be a dangerous time for female students. Known as the “red zone,” the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving are when students are most likely to be sexually harassed or raped.

As administrators struggle to protect their students, New York and California have introduced laws requiring all schools to adopt affirmative consent policies. Even outside those states, many are championing an “only yes means yes” culture, urging partners to obtain a clear yes at every point of sexual activity. This departure from the old “no means no” model has left some students confused about what affirmative consent actually entails. Could new tech help them figure it out, or even offer some protection?

Most experts say they doubt it, but such technology is coming regardless. The first affirmative consent app, Good2Go, launched last September but was ousted from the Apple store within two weeks. A new suite of apps, We-Consent, debuted in June, and more are already in the works.

From online training modules to apps, each technology has its own approach. Here’s how We-Consent’s eponymous app works: Sexual partners each say their name, their partner’s name, and an explicit “yes” to sex. The app records video of the statements, adds a time-stamp and geo-code, then encrypts the footage and stores it offline. Only law enforcement, university disciplinary proceedings or subpoenas can unlock it.

“It won’t work and it’s totally unnecessary,” George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf says. “You have two young kids, very drunk, hormones raging, in a room, and they’re supposed to whip out their phone and go through this exercise? I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Laura Dunn, a victims’ rights lawyer who founded the nonprofit SurvJustice to assist assault victims, says she worries that We-Consent could even be abused, since anything can happen once the recording ends.

“Do you really want to go into court and say, ‘Well, yeah, I guess I said yes on this app?’” she asks. “Consent is a fluid concept. It can be given, it can be withdrawn, it can exist for part of an act, some acts, not all acts.”

But according to Michael Lissack, who created the We-Consent suite, the app is meant to open a conversation between partners because “sometimes kids need props to help them do that.”

“Whether or not you choose to use [the app], it will have started a discussion,” he says. “It’s a weird thing—I built an app that, if it actually works, won’t get used,” because students will talk about consent on their own instead.

He says he addressed the issue of changing consent with What-About-No, a second app in the We-Consent suite. It uses images and audio to explicitly tell another person “no,” even after a We-Consent video may have been recorded. Then it tells the viewer that a video of them receiving the “no” has been “safely uploaded to the cloud.” Again, the footage is available only for court cases or school hearings.

Chantelle Cleary, Title IX coordinator for the University at Albany and a former special victim’s prosecutor, says the app concerns her. “You may be in a position that’s starting to become scary, upsetting,” she says. “Who’s going to think to grab their phone? And if they do, will that make it more dangerous?”

Lissack says What-About-No is meant for people facing “psychological pressure” rather than physical coercion. As with We-Consent, he says it’s more about sparking discussion than gathering court-admissible footage. So why even have that capability? “Because that’s what causes the conversation,” he says. “Usually fake things don’t work very well.”

He won’t give out exact numbers, but Lissack says he has “a couple thousand customers” so far and is “in discussions” with about 300 schools around the country to adopt the We-Consent suite and offer it to their students.

While What-About-No is available in the Apple store, We-Consent is more complicated to get. Lissack claims that’s because Apple told him it was “icky” and rejected it, leaving him to figure out distribution on his own. Apple has not yet responded to Fortune‘s request for comment.

To download the iOS app, users must join the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence, an organization directed by Lissack. Membership costs $5 per year for students or $4 if you’re part of a group. If a university adopts the app suite, it will pay the institute a flat fee to make the apps available to all its students.

Lissack isn’t the only one working on an affirmative consent-focused app right now. Good2Go creator Lee Ann Allman says she’s been hearing from new people every few weeks who are intent on launching their own versions. Some move on when she tells them about her own experience—the thousands of dollars she lost, the public backlash she faced—but others insist that their product will be different.

Good2Go prompted two partners to affirm their interest in sex and rate their intoxication levels before proceeding. The app stored those records, which could be subpeonaed in the future.

After a launch last September, Apple removed the app from its store. (Allman says the company was concerned with the data collection, not the content.) But even before that, public response had turned negative.

“The part we did not anticipate,” she says, “is that someone might give affirmative consent in one point of time but then they could never go back and retract it. That is really the nub of the issue.”

Allman claims she’s since heard from a developer considering an Uber-like rating feature for sexual encounters. Dunn says she’s often approached to consult on consent apps and consistently declines. Jane Stapleton, a researcher who advises colleges on sexual assault policies and co-directs the Prevention Innovations program at the University of New Hampshire, says she hears from a handful of people every day who are looking to address sexual assault with technology.

Stapleton says she sees companies rushing products to the market without serious testing or evaluation. “I don’t think one app is going to be the answer to the problem,” she says. “And you can’t just put something out there because you think it’s a good idea or you see this as a business opportunity.”

Both Allman and Lissack say financial profit was not their focus, yet John Foubert—president of the nonprofit rape prevention organization One in Four—counters that even nonprofits need to offset their costs, and “we all need to be very careful about making money off of women’s pain.” It may be possible to address sexual violence with online education programs, he says, “but not with apps. Everyone keeps thinking apps are going to solve the world’s problems. That’s silliness.”

Cleary says she hasn’t seen an appropriate tech-based approach yet, but she hasn’t been looking for one, either.

“These apps assume that our students can’t just communicate with each other like normal human beings,” she adds. “Instead of technology, we should be focused on educating our students and our children on what is and is not consent, and how to engage in healthy relationships.”

Correction, September 1, 2015: An earlier version of this article misstated the recipient of the fee for a university to use the We-Consent app suite. It is the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence.

Subscribe to The Broadsheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the world’s most powerful women.