When It Comes to Preventing Sexual Assault, Should There Be an App for That?

Michael Lissack developed a smartphone app that lets students make a video record of mutual consent to sexual activity. When the app even triggers such a conversation, he says, “that’s a success.”
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.

Q. A lot of the discussion about the app seems to be revolving around legal issues after the fact, after the sexual activity occurs. I am wondering if that’s the main intent of the app, as opposed to preventing sexual assault or harassment?

A. First off, "preventing" is always an interesting word. If someone is intent on doing it, there isn't an app in the world that’s going to prevent them, other than dialing 911 and hoping that the police get there first. So if you have picked an unfortunate partner who is intent on committing violence upon you, the correct app to use is 911, don’t use this thing. On the other hand, that’s not what most of these situations are about. Most of these situations are about, let’s face it, people being sloppy with one another and deciding to engage in activities that have not been fully discussed.

So what’s the main purpose? The main purpose is to change the conversation. If these apps work the way they should, in a year or two if people go to a frat party, instead of the base assumption being everyone in attendance is available for hooking up, the base assumption will be, if you wish to hook up, talk about it first.

Q. Who is going to be using this app?

A. Our target market for the summer is we are marketing this to every coach of a men’s team.

Q. Why that approach?

A. Who seems to be mostly involved with scandals? Athletic teams and fraternities. The fraternities are not around during the summer, but the coaches are. We’re going to start a fund-raising campaign in a couple of weeks to try to get people to provide money so that any coach that requires his or her team to make use of the app might be able to get it free for their athletes.

Q. In what context would athletes be using the app? Would they already be in a relationship? Would it be after a —

A. Put yourself in the role of a coach. … What’s the easier way to make sure that [a sexual-assault scandal] doesn't happen? You tell your athletes that they are required to use the app. You may have to have discussions with them every few weeks to make sure they're doing it, but from the peace-of-mind side of the coach who’s worried about scandals and stuff, [part of the job] is teaching [athletes] about what affirmative consent is, how to be much more respectful of themselves and their partners, and how to make better life choices. So again this becomes a tool in the arsenal.

Q. One big thing we see in the conversation about sexual assault is intoxication. How do you think the app will account for a yes that’s said when somebody is intoxicated?

A. Well, we’re making a video. If you’re noticeably intoxicated, presumably it will show on the video.

Q. Has anyone tested this app yet, and seen if it worked?

A. Have people tried it with each other? Sure.

Q. Do you think it’s been successful?

A. By definition, if you use the app, you are having a conversation. It is very difficult to use the app in the absence of a conversation. I mean, what are you going to do? It triggers the obvious. Why are we recording this? … Why is this voice asking me if we’re going to have sex? It’s a difficult app to use without a conversation. And the point of the app is the conversation. So by me, yes, anytime anyone’s actually used it means that it’s triggered a conversation, and that’s a success.