Safety Sync: The Danger of “Affirmative Consent” Apps

Aug 22nd, 1970

Marian Firke Program Coordinator (Prevention and Education) The development of so-called “affirmative consent” apps, and in particular the We-Consent app, represents a disturbing trend. As with any other major headline issue, sexual assault is now being capitalized on by unscrupulous corporations seeking to turn a profit. The app makers claim that their goal is to “encourage discussion about affirmative consent between intended sexual partners.”[1] However, a quick review of the app’s functions reveals that this is a disingenuous claim. From the app makers’ website:
“The app asks the first user for his/her name and then the name of the intended partner. It then instructs the user to find the partner and point the back camera of the phone towards that partner’s face. The partner is asked to state his/her name and is then informed that the original user desires sexual relations. The partner indicates “Yes” or “No.” In the absence of a definitive “Yes,” the app will destroy the videos and ask that the users try again… If one party says “No,” the video record self-destructs.” [2]
Let that sink in for a minute. If the person states that they do not wish to engage in sexual relations, the video evidence is not saved. Video evidence that could demonstrate later that consent was not given is not considered worth saving. Why does the app destroy records of users who say “No”? The makers claim that this is to encourage conversations about “affirmative consent.” But the vision of affirmative consent that this implies is one where “Yes” is the only acceptable answer. This is wrong. To put it bluntly, questions about consent must be real questions—ones where the asker is interested in and listens to any answer, even if it not the desired response. The makers have also released an app called “What About No” that seems at first glance to respond to some of these concerns. It records a user telling a partner they do not consent, then asks the user to turn the phone towards that person. It plays a brief audio message, including “No means no,” and then informs the second user that it has recorded video of them hearing the response. However, this app is even more unwieldy to use than the “We-Consent” app. The advertising materials for this app suggest that it helps in communication and helps to stop sexual assault—but in reality, this type of app provides a false sense of security. This kind of app faces many of the same challenges as protective orders when it comes to stopping sexual violence in the moment. While protective orders are an important step in the legal process, in the face of sexual violence they are ultimately just a piece of paper. Similarly, an app is just a bunch of pixels on a screen. Having faith that either will guarantee physical safety in the face of someone who is bent on harm creates false expectations and promotes dangerous situations. The app also does a poor job of modeling questions about consent. It asks a single question: whether the second user is interested in “sexual relations” with the first user. This reflects a serious lack of awareness about consent. Consent is given for specific activities. For example, consent may be given for oral sex, but not vaginal intercourse, anal sex, or reciprocal oral sex. This would still be a form of “sexual relations,” and so when asked, one party might say “yes” to those sexual relations when they do not consent to additional forms of contact. The question is not specific enough to be meaningful. When positioning an app as a supposedly educational tool to aid in conversations about consent, doing so in such a boilerplate fashion does more harm than good. If the app maker had really intended to make something to start conversations or educate the public, there are many features that would be far more useful than those provided. For example, the makers could provide a variety of suggestions for how to ask for consent, including sufficiently specific questions about particular activities. (For example, “Do you want me to touch your ____?” or “Would you like it if I _____?”) They could include information about signs of nonconsent, such as freezing, incapacitation, and lack of enthusiasm. They could even test users’ knowledge and learning by including interactive quizzes that assess their ability to recognize consent and nonconsent. The app could even include contact information for rape crisis centers, counseling, and educational programs in the user’s area. It’s not impossible to make an app that encourages conversation about affirmative consent. The makers have just very seriously failed to do so.   We have received reports from colleges in Maryland that the app is being marketed to athletics departments under the tagline “$5 and no scandal.” This is shameless. If the app is built to protect anything, this advertising campaign reveals it to be the interests of individuals and institutions facing sexual misconduct charges. But in fact, they are not served by the app either. The “evidence” collected by the app—which some individuals might rely on as a way of defending their actions after the fact—is entirely meaningless. The app sets up the misconception that if consent is recorded at one point in an interaction, one party then has carte blanche to do what they like for the rest of the interaction regardless of the wishes of their partner. This too is wrong. Consent is a continuous process. Much as consent must be given for individual sexual activities, consent must also be given for the entire duration of sexual activity. Consent can always be withdrawn over the course of an interaction, and any activity that takes place after that consent is withdrawn is nonconsensual: in other words: sexual assault. A “yes” recorded at 10:02 PM has no bearing on whether there was consent at 10:15 PM—or indeed, even at 10:03 PM. A recorded “yes” should never be seen as “protection” against sexual assault charges. (Indeed, who would think to record video of their partner’s consent except for someone planning to commit acts that their partner might object to? One wonders if it actually suggests premeditation on the part of the user.)   The app clearly cannot serve potential victims, since its options literally erase any trace of protest and provide only the feeblest alternative for voicing nonconsent. It also cannot serve those accused of sexual assault, since the “consent” recorded represents a single moment in time and is therefore meaningless. It is obvious, then, that the only party served is the maker, who is profiting off of fear-mongering and false promises. A true “affirmative consent” app would operate in an entirely different paradigm.  
[1] We-Consent, LLC. "Our Mission." http://protectequalsrespect.com/#!/pageMission [2] We-Consent, LLC. "We-Consent App." http://protectequalsrespect.com/#!/pageApp
  This article appeared in the Summer 2015 Issue of Frontline.

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