By Meg Bernhard June 11, 2015
To some people, the idea for an iPhone app designed to let students record video statements of agreement before engaging in sexual activity sounds like a bad joke. Or perhaps just a well-intended overuse of technology.
But Michael Lissack has come up with a set of such apps, and he defends them as a way to reset the conversation around sex on the campus.
His creation, called We-Consent, is actually three apps — one that lets students document mutual consent to a sexual encounter by video-recording a conversation about it with the cellphone’s camera, and two "no" apps that record an individual watching a message on the phone that clearly states "no," so there is a record of that individual having received the message.
Mr. Lissack, who is executive director of the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence, said the videos are encrypted and unhackable; they don’t save onto a user’s phone, but they are stored in an offline database. The only time the videos can be viewed is when there is a legal reason to disclose them, such as a court proceeding or university adjudication.
Right now, the two "no" apps are available through the App Store on Apple's iTunes, but the yes app is accessible only on the apps’ website. Mr. Lissack said that Apple considered the yes app "icky."
Mr. Lissack said he got the idea for the app last fall, during debates about the new sexual-assault policy at Harvard. For Mr. Lissack, "there had to be a better way" to ensure that both people involved had consented to sexual activity.
He said he hopes the apps will facilitate more open and clear discussion between partners about engaging in sexual activity, and will mitigate any prior confusion.
The Chronicle talked with Mr. Lissack to learn more about the app. An edited and condensed transcript of the conversation follows.
Q. Just asking for consent during sexual activity is difficult enough. Wouldn’t bringing in a phone make things even more complicated?
A.From my perspective it works as follows. The current societal standard is no means no. We are asking for that standard to change. That means, if you’re asking us to put it in computer language, the default assumption is being reset. That requires work. If you merely depend on the conversation itself with no props, that is harder than if you provide a context which makes it easier. The purpose of these apps is to create or help create that context.
Q. Do you really think that when people are about to become intimate, they’re going to reach for their phone and go through these processes?
A. If both parties agree to have a conversation, then the objective has already been reached. What is it that’s going to cause the conversation to happen? Having it on the phone is a cause for the conversation. Whether or not they actually use the app is not the same as the fact that it’s there, because it’s the fact that it’s on the phone that changes the context.
Q. What do you mean?
A. People [in college] have their phones within two feet of them at all times. Let’s be blunt. If one or both of you know you have this app on your phone and you know that you're supposed to be engaging in this discussion, and you know that unfortunate things may happen after the event that cause people to re-evaluate, which is part of the importance for both sides if they respect each other of actually having the conversation — it’s just easier to know the prop is there.