These Are the Tools That Are Changing the Conversation About Campus Sexual Assault

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According to a 2014 Justice Department survey, 80% of college women who have been raped or assaulted don't report the crime to the police. The reasons many don't are undoubtedly individualized and complex but many boil down to a single, upsetting observation: These systems rarely result in punishment of assailants and frequently re-traumatize survivors.

But survivors and activists refused to allow these broken systems to prevent them from receiving justice. Instead, they're looking to alternative pursuits of justice — including creating their own technological tools, like Callisto and Circle of 6, which guide survivors, especially those on college campuses, through the experience of an assault or otherwise violent or traumatic experiences.

The existing systems rarely provide justice for survivors. Studies confirm that survivors rarely lie about experiencing assault: According to the FBI, only 2-8% of rape allegations are false. Yet, police officers — like many others in the broader culture — frequently doubt survivors' claims of assault and often even blame survivors for the crimes committed against them. 

Campus administrators perpetuate similar behavior, according to survivors. For example, when activist Annie Clark reported her assault at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she wrote in a Huffington Post piece, an administrator asked, "Rape is like football, if you look back on the game, and you're the quarterback, Annie ... is there anything you would have done differently?"

Source: Pexels
Source: Pexels

The prospect of facing such attitudes prevents many survivors from initiating the reporting process at all, let alone actually achieve some form of recourse.

"One of the largest barriers to reporting on campus was the physical act of having to walk into an administrative or campus security office," Tracey Vitchers, Callisto's director of development and operations, told Mic

Callisto is a college sexual assault recording and reporting system that allows sexual assault survivors to fill out an online record of their assault and save it as a time-stamped document. While conducting initial research, the Callisto team found that many survivors felt their college websites offered little information about the reporting process, leaving survivors uncertain about details like with whom they'd talk, what they'd be asked and the overall extent of the reporting process.

"They were concerned if they went in they might not be believed, they might be blamed for their assault that the person sitting across the table from them may not be as supportive as they might like," Vitchers said. "Telling a complete stranger about this really traumatic experience in your life was really prohibitive to a lot of students."

A solution that prioritizes survivors' needs. But new technology is allowing survivors to bypass potentially dissuasive responses and an otherwise hostile system by empowering them to report their experience in a specific way and at the rate best for them.

Source: Circle of 6
Source: Circle of 6

Callisto also allows survivors to seek recourse in the most empowering way. Although psychologists confirm survivors of trauma deal with their experiences in different ways and may misremember details of the event, many still interpret changes in survivors' stories as lies. By allowing survivors to create time-stamped, secure accounts of traumatic events, Callisto empowers them to "really sit down and think about the details and write down as much or as little as they can remember" and avoid the pressure of being forced to verbally recount the event in its immediate aftermath, Vitchers said. 

Callisto also allows survivors to come forth together: 40% of the tool's users opt into a "matching" feature, which only submits their report to their school should another individual submit a report naming the same assailant.

Circle of 6 is a sexual assault prevention app that launched in 2012 and has 350,000 users in 36 countries, according to Schwartzman, allows users to choose six contacts to whom they can send pre-programmed SMS messages for a ride, to interrupt a problematic interaction and the option to seek external help — was also deliberately designed to allow survivors to "decide safely with their friend what they want to do and confidentially scroll through the app to see the resources on their campus and ... then make educated, informed decisions," the app's creator, Nancy Schwartzman told Mic, adding that the app will never "default push someone to do something they don't want to do" like automatically alerting police or other authorities. 

This technology not only creates a more personal experience, but also a simpler one that better fits into survivors' daily lives.

"College students do everything online," Vitchers said. "Why not give them an opportunity to create a record of their assault online that's secure, that's trauma-informed and that really empowers them to have options about what they choose to do with that information."

Working toward prevention. While Callisto addresses reporting, technology has also been harnessed to work toward improving daily campus life, which is still largely seeped in rape culture. Circle of 6 does not just benefit individuals in danger, but works to foster a broader culture of prevention among bystanders. The most important aspect of Circle of 6 may be the "social element" for which it is named — the ability to designate any six personal contacts from whom an individual can seek help in the midst or aftermath of an attack. 

In fact, the most-used aspect of Circle of 6 is a button that alerts a user's circle that "they need to talk," Schwartzman said. Students find this button provides a crucial "shorthand" for help in the context of a culture where "language around assault and consent and coercion is still confusing and messy." 

The decision to include a friend in one's circle at all "strengthens relationships, fosters conversation and raises awareness," Schwartzman said. Other aspects of the app work to "turn bystanders into upstanders," she added, like an "interruption button" that asks members of a user's circle to come interrupt an uncomfortable or potentially dangerous interaction.

"It really gives an opportunity to step in and intervene and do something," Schwartzman said. "I think a lot of people want to do the right thing and are just not sure how and also didn't know," she added, noting that once individuals are taught to intervene in this way, they frequently apply the skill to other situations — even when not alerted by an app.

Source: No Red Tape Columbia/Facebook
Source: No Red Tape Columbia/Facebook

But technology is hardly the ultimate solution. No matter how well-meaning or designed, however, technology can't prevent sexual assault, Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, deputy director for Know Your IX, told Mic. Apps like Circle of 6 essentially "aims to limit or alter the behavior of potential victims, without addressing the behavior of perpetrators," she said. "If we want to end rape, we need to change the behavior of rapists. That is the only way to eradicate this pervasive, painful violence." 

It's a reality Schwartzman acknowledges.

"Obviously the only thing that can prevent rape is for a rapist not to rape," she said. But in the meantime, technology like Circle of 6 is creating a better experience for survivors and laying the groundwork for more systemic, preventative solutions.

These apps not only accomplish this by calling into question the detrimental attitudes at the heart of existing, ineffective systems, but also in terms of revealing previously obscured elements of this phenomenon — like when and where assault most frequently occurs on campus — through the data they collect. Although Callisto is still in the midst of its first year of operation and only at two colleges — the University of San Francisco and Pomona College — Vitchers and her team hope to gather data surrounding patterns of perpetration from which administrators can learn. For example, should Callisto receive spikes of reports surrounding holidays like Halloween or events like football games, students and administrators might plan accordingly, she said. It's data that might hopefully be incorporated into existing systems to make documenting and prosecuting assailants more effective and be used to prevent assault from happening in the first place.

Ultimately, such technological developments are not the be-all-end-all solution to prevalent rates of campus sexual assault. But they certainly seem to be a necessary, and game-changing, start. As Schwartzman said, administrators and other authorities need to "wake up and realize that a little bit of prevention goes a long way."