In season 3 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Kimmy goes to a college party for the first time, and a boy asks her to sign a contract before they’re about to kiss. Consent has become more widely discussed on college campuses, but there’s still a lot of confusion on the topic.
Talking about consent in college is important: 1 in 5 college women experience sexual assault and the majority of assaults go unreported, according to the New York Times. In 2014, the Obama administration released a list of 55 colleges and universities under investigation for their handling of sexual assault complaints.
In response, many colleges began adopting policies of affirmative consent, meaning that consent is to be voluntarily granted by all people engaging in an act. In other words, colleges are adopting a policy of “yes means yes” rather than “no means no.” With these new definitions of consent, many students are afraid of accusations of sexual assault while others are worried about being victims of it.
How Consent Apps Work
SaSie is an app that lets people consent to sexual acts with a contract. You open the app with your partner, read and sign a contract, take photos of your IDs, and save the contract with a password.
This may seem odd, but its intention is to foster dialogue about sex and to encourage affirmative consent on college campuses. James Martin, a representative from SaSie, explains:
The contract in our app says, in essence, that each student agrees to respect the ongoing nuances of each other’s consent, and that they agree to gain and grant affirmative consent from each other on an ongoing basis, follow their school’s affirmative consent policies while conducting their relationship, and communicate with their other partner the second that consent changes. The parties agree that when that consent changes, they will terminate the contract with the other party using our termination button to end the contract.
The organization Empowering Victims has created a trio of apps designed to be used as conversation starters in the ongoing debate over consent: We-Consent(which has users record videos of themselves consenting), What-About-No(which has users show their partners a video of a police officer telling them “no” while being recorded), and I’ve-Been-Violated (which has people record video and audio of themselves to “collect evidence” after an assault occurs). These apps aren’t meant for practical use—instead, they provoke discussion.
“What we have as a goal is to foster an environment and set of behaviors where assumptions are not made, but instead there is a dialogue between the prospective partners,” said Michael Lissack, Executive Director of Empowering Victims. “The goal of [our apps] is to encourage and ‘nudge’ such dialogue into taking place.”
The Problems With Consent Apps
Apps that ask you to document consent, like SaSie, can be misleading rather than helpful in building an understanding of what affirmative consent means. And according to Jaclyn Friedman, author of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Sexual Power, even the conversation-starting Empowering Victims apps are wrong-headed.
“I’m all for fostering dialogue about consent — it’s a big part of my job— but these apps are fostering a wrong and dangerous conversation, one that posits consent as irrevocable once given, and applying to any and all sex acts someone might want to force on you, once you’ve consented to ‘sex’ as a concept,” says Friedman. “Pushing that idea is more dangerous than not talking about consent at all.”
There’s also the possibility that someone might be coerced into giving consent on the apps (since there really is no way of proving otherwise) and that the documentation could then be misused as defense in sexual assault cases.
Consent apps also put a lot of responsibility on people to make it clear when withdrawing their consent. Friedman says:
Juries tend to look for any reason to disbelieve victims, and ‘they didn’t say no/fight hard enough’ is one of the most common reasons. In reality, victims often freeze up and say nothing. Under this standard, participants have no responsibility to pay attention to their partner’s body language or participation levels.
If their partner has consented to something and then freezes up or disassociates and is just laying there, according to this contract, it’s cool to keep doing whatever to them. This is barbaric, and it’s not how affirmative consent works.
It should be noted that consent apps aren’t prevalent on college campuses. “When I talk with college students about them, often I have to explain what I’m even talking about,” says Friedman. “They don’t seem to be that pervasive yet, and I hope they never become so.”
An earlier version of this post evaluated apps created by Empowering Victims on their stated aims rather than their intent, which is to foster conversation, and misnamed the organization that created them.