Can an app curb sexual assault on campus?

Can mobile apps truly reduce the number of sexual assaults and rapes that take place on the nation’s college campuses?

Wendy Mandell-Geller was just putting the finishing touches on a mobile app focused on reducing the incidences of sexual assault on college campuses—while also encouraging safer sex—when a new, 5-year study validating her beliefs was published in Adolescent Health, Medicine and Therapeutics. The report suggested that mobile cell phone interventions are an effective mode for delivering safe sex and sexual health information to youth and young adults (19-24 years of age).

“Youth and young adults account for nearly half of the new infections, primarily as a result of risky sexual behaviors,” according to the report, which points to mobile technology as a popular option for delivering safer sex interventions for adolescents. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 78 percent of teens now have a cell phone and almost half (47 percent) own smartphones. One in four teens (23 percent) has a tablet computer, and 93 percent have a computer or have access to one at home.

And while the report also outlined some key limitations of delivering safe sex information to youth (e.g., the fact that some of the higher risk groups may not have access to smartphones), it did validate Mandell-Geller’s assumption that mobile technology could be effectively combined with safe sex information and consent tools.

The Consent App

In May 2016, she launched a Title IX-compliant sexual education consent tool that gives college students a new, digital tool to instantly give and receive sexual consent. YES to SEX aims to help mitigate and deter unwanted sexual situations by educating young adults on how to confidently say “yes” or “no”; verbally accept a “no”; and make the safest sex protection choices. The app is available as iOS and Android (and is also available online).

“YES to SEX is just one part of the safe sexual consent movement; it’s the link in the chain that brings everything together and puts it in the hands of the students who are using technology,” says Mandell-Geller, founder, “which is the ultimate way to bring information to this age group.”

The app can also be customized for university use and utilized by all collegiate affiliates and their surrounding communities to educate and keep students safe. “Universities still struggle to completely implement all required Title IX sexual consent resources,” says Mandell-Geller, “the YES to SEX EDU platform helps integrate Title IX regulations related to sexual consent and provides protection to students.”

(Next page: Designing for Title IX; beyond compliance)

Designing for Title IX Compliance

According to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), under Title IX, a school has a duty to resolve complaints promptly and equitably and to provide a safe and nondiscriminatory environment for all students, free from sexual harassment and sexual violence. When a school knows, or reasonably should know, about possible discriminatory harassment (including sexual assault) it must take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred, as well as protect the complainant as necessary, including taking interim steps before the final outcome of the investigation.

Knowing this, Mandell-Geller says she specifically designed YES to SEX in a way that would comply with Title IX and help schools more effectively manage, address, and resolve complaints. That meant creating a tool that didn’t store any personal information, that included a compliant privacy policy, and that incorporated specific verbiage on its “consent facts” page, according to Jake Geller, chief marketing officer and director of collegiate partnerships.

The app uses verbal consent that is encrypted and stored using the same method that the Department of Defense uses, according to Mandell-Geller. “All we take is the verbal consent based on ‘safe words,’” she says. The app’s newest, Title IX-compliant “continuous consent” feature allows users to manage ongoing interactions using safe words (which, in turn, will prompt a partner to stop even after consent has been sent via the app).

Beyond Compliance

Looking beyond Title IX compliance, during the development phase Mandell-Geller focused on creating an app that would allow both female and male users to confidently say “no” to sexual advances and to say “yes” in a safe manner. She also incorporated information and education about safe sex practices and how to make the best protection choices at a time when it counts the most. “I felt that was extremely important,” she says, “considering that young people (between the ages of 15 and 24) account for 50 percent of all new sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).”

And knowing that YES to SEX had to appeal to the digital, “real-time” generation, Mandell-Geller says she focused on creating an interface that would be fast (25 seconds or less) and that required no input of personal information. “Once someone uses the app with a partner, he or she doesn’t want anyone else to be able to see that information at a later date,” says Mandell-Geller. “Finally, it had to be free. I knew no one would want to use it if it costs them money or if they have to put their fingerprints on it (i.e., by registering and paying for it).”

A National Tech Initiative

With one in five women sexually assaulted while in college and more than 90 percent of sexual assault victims on college campuses never reporting the assault, more universities, government groups, and advocacy organizations are doing their part to help curb sexual assault on campus.

“Sexual violence has no place in society and especially no place in our nation’s schools or on our nation’s college campuses,” said Dorie Nolt, press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, via email.  “The Obama Administration has worked with technology experts, students, policy makers, and others through data jams and app competitions to help generate new creative ways to use technology to help address sexual assault on campus.”

Nolt says those collaborations include the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, a “Data Jam,” that brought together technology experts to address the issue; and an “Apps Against Abuse” technology competition. The latter took place in 2011 and challenged software designers nationwide to develop innovative applications for mobile devices that would “enhance the safety of young adults by making it easier for them to contact friends and to access important resources for help, including local police and abuse hotlines.”

(Next page: Can an app really curb sexual assault?)

But Can an App Really Curb Sexual Assault?

While any effort that addresses and/or thwarts sexual violence on campus is clearly a step in the right direction, certain advocacy organizations are concerned about the marriage of technology with sexual consent. “Generally speaking, these developments are rather disturbing,” said Anna Voremberg, managing director at End Rape on Campus (EROC).

“First of all, rape is not sex and so YES to SEX reflects a misunderstanding of the issue at hand and also what we actually need to be doing to prevent it,” explained Voremberg. “It puts the onus on the would-be victim to provide consent in the form of an act. In addition to that, it ignores the fact that rape is often extremely violent. Ensuring that people can consent would actually, in my opinion, have absolutely nothing to do with rape and sexual assault at all.”

Voremberg is also concerned that the app could be used at a later date to prove that someone consented even if they later retracted that consent and/or changed her mind. “More than 50 percent of freshman girls are sexually assaulted on campus,” she stated, “so what happens when someone is drunk and coerced into pressing the button and consenting?”

“Then she’s assaulted and he brings in that app and says, ‘Look, she said it was okay.’ Meanwhile, she had no idea what she was consenting to,” Voremberg continued. “That adds another layer of disbelief that will be applied to a young woman who is already in an uphill battle because of the way society works.”

Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Enola, Pa., is cautiously optimistic about technology’s role in providing clear and confident consent. However, she points out that consent is more than just a “yes” or “no” answer. “It’s about actively listening to and respecting your partner, and having that ongoing communication,” said Palumbo. “In that manner, I think there are ways to use technology as an avenue to make consent very clear.”

Acknowledging that young people are extremely comfortable using technology as a communication tool, Palumbo said a mobile app could also be used to create a more unified front against sexual assault and rape both on and off campus. “We’ve really seen how technology was part of what enabled students to connect with one another across the country, and really join their voices against campus sexual assault,” noted Palumbo. “I think an [app] can be used as a unifying tool in that same way—to mobilize students about campus sexual violence prevention.”

A Positive Impact

Mandell-Geller knows that one mobile app isn’t going to end the high number of sexual assault and rapes that take place on the nation’s campuses, but she’s still determined to do her part. “Whether I can help millions of people or just one person, I just want to be able to make a difference,” she says, acknowledging the fact that the current plans and strategies in place aren’t going to have an instant impact.

“It’s going to take time, but if we can use social media and mobile strategies to communicate with Millennials on their terms—and even before they get to college,” she said, “then maybe we can start making a positive impact.”

eSchool Media Contributors