App Aims To Put A New Face On Sexual Consent

By Kelby Clark, Rutgers University July 4, 2015

From protests to media turmoil, sexual assault was on many student minds during the 2014-2015 school year.

With a new year looming and both colleges and government officials looking for ways to educate students about sexual consent and rape culture, Michael Lissack, Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence, hopes a new smartphone app will encourage discussions about affirmative consent.

“This app cannot prevent sexual assault,” he says. “The main point is triggering the discussion about affirmative consent . . . students have their phones with them 24/7 . . . if it [the app] is on their phone, it is one more trigger for the conversation. If it isn’t there, it is harder to get the conversation triggered.”

We-Consent, released in June, records approximately 20-seconds of video, asking the users for their names and oral confirmation that they want to have sex with the other.

Facial recognition technology is used to capture images of the users while a microphone records their agreement.

Completed recordings are encrypted and can only be accessed by law enforcement officials, a university involved in disciplinary proceedings, or by court order, according to the official webpage.

“You are much less likely to be assaulted if you have a lengthy discussion with somebody about what they can or cannot do,” says Lissack.

Alexa D’Arienzo, a student at Lesley University College of Art and Design, was enthusiastic about the concept — as well as how technology is being used to change the way students think about sexual consent.

“I think that social media is a powerful tool, and I was glad when I heard that there was an app dealing with explicit verbal consent between sexual partners,” wrote D’Arienzo in an email. “Normalizing this kind of consent can only serve to protect sexual partners, so I think it is a step in the right direction to reducing sexual assault.”

The release of the We-Consent app comes at a time when studies suggest students remain divided over what consent truly means.

A recent poll by the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation found that at least 40% of current and recent college students said the action of someone undressing, getting a condom or nodding in agreement established consent for more sexual activity, while an estimated 40% said it did not.

There are signs that some are moving away from the traditional concept of “no means no” to the newer standard of “yes means yes” or affirmative consent.

Lissack thinks that in order to accomplish a move away from “no means no,” a major shift in behavior is required.

“Societal changes do not happen overnight,” he says.

We-Consent, one of a set of three apps aimed at engaging more people in conversations about consent, attempts to change behavior by introducing a digital component to an intimate human interaction. The other apps — What-About-No and the soon-to-be released Changed-Mind — both generate video and audio records of lack of consent.

Those interested can use the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence website to become member of ISCE and gain access to all three apps.

When considering the group of apps, Kelly Connelly, a student at Kent State University, said the introduction of technology into what arguably should be an intimate conversation between partners could potentially only complicate the act of consent.

“You can’t always rely on technology when things can very easily go wrong,” said Connelly. “Sex is a tricky subject, much better understood face to face. That way, you get full, clear understanding,” she wrote in an email.

Brady Root, a prevention education coordinator at the Rutgers University Office for Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance, expressed worry that the app could actually be used to benefit a perpetrator of sexual violence, though she did acknowledge that if it can help people commit to talking about consent before sex, then it is positive step toward violence prevention.

“I fear that this app would provide perpetrators with access to a tool that could actually help them commit assaults by forcing, coercing or threatening their partner into saying yes on camera even if they did not want to consent and then being able to turn to the footage if charges were ever filed,” Root wrote in an email. “When reading about the app it said that any recording that contains the word “no” in the We-Consent app will be immediately destroyed. It would seem to make more sense to me that this footage would be the most important footage to be saved so that a survivor could use this as proof that they did not consent.”

Ryan Wyer, a student at Purdue University, is skeptical about how the app will work in practice, but thinks is will at least raise some awareness about the importance of affirmative consent.

“My initial thoughts upon hearing about the We-Consent app were a hopefulness that this might be a way to help limit the number of non-consensual sexual interactions between individuals,” Wyer wrote in an email. “However, I will admit that my second thought was to be skeptical as to how well such an app would work in practice. There are people horrible enough to violently force themselves upon others, but I feel that there is also a lack of communication between couples about what they feel comfortable doing. I think that such an app would cause more discussion on the topic.”