Getting Raped? There’s an App for That

Government Should Fight Abuse With Legislation, Not Applications

Graphic Clement Liu

Last week, the White House endorsed two new smartphone applications they’ve unveiled as part of “ongoing efforts to help better prevent and respond to sexual assault on campuses across the country.”

Hailing Circle of 6 and OnWatch—“a new line of defence against violence,” the U.S. Department of Health & Human Resources, along with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, named both apps as the winners of their Apps Against Abuse contest held last July.

Offering a two-touch system for users to ask for help via text messages and GPS, as well as featuring “a pledge on Facebook to stop violence before it happens”—automatically sent to contacts upon download—the apps will be available for free in 2012.

“[These are] powerful tools to help women and men protect themselves and their friends,” said Vice President Joe Biden, adding the apps allow potential victims to be “more empowered to prevent violence and sexual assault.”

Calling them “innovative efforts to address the issue,” U.S. Chief Tech Officer Aneesh Chopra was also hopeful that, with technological advances like these, “we will invent our way towards a safer society.”

Canned enthusiasm aside, it’s understandable how and why these apps have been positively spun; young people thinking and communicating about their safety net is generally seen as a good thing.

However, some flagrant logistical problems suggest that White House has no damn clue what rape culture on campuses in North America actually entails, and what might be the most effective way of dealing with it.

If this is truly the most innovative effort from the White House to combat a culture of rape and sexual violence, I’m sorry, but it’s just not good enough.

Seems to me that practical steps such as establishing a zero-tolerance campus policy that efficiently processes cases of sexual assault, coupled with continued improvement to legislation and support for victims, might be a far better use of energy, time and money to curb this problem.

The data available on rape law in the U.S. also suggests historic gains have been made since a vigorous overhaul and update of sexual assault policy was implemented in the early 1980s. By 1994, incidents of reported rape declined by 60 per cent in the states, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network’s data.

It’s pretty clear the decline in reported rape has everything to do with a successful implementation of legislation—and not something as inane as an iPhone application.
The fact remains that 15 of 16 rapists will never spend a day in the legal system and, quite frankly, these apps aren’t going to change that—but the White House, through better legal infrastructure, could.

If they were actually serious about these crimes, they’d get back to the drawing board and make a freaking app to do something about their notoriously neglected rape kit backlog and get to work before declaring these dud-on-arrival bits of smartphone software the “innovative” winners.

The other thing it seems everyone in this project failed to consider is where rapes actually happen, and by whom. Can victims really be expected to or able to access their smartphones in time to prevent abuse? Moreover—considering who statistically commits rape in the first place—will they actually be willing to call in the perps?

According to RAINN, 60 per cent of reported sexual assaults in the US are committed by someone known to the victim, and 40 per cent of those are perpetuated by friends and acquaintances.

Is it realistic to assume victims are going to text their college friends if their college friends are the ones committing the sexual assault?

Probably not.

Most infuriatingly, though, is the Vice Presidential rhetoric around “empowerment” of victims, which is based on the backwards logic that we should be teaching people to take
additional measures to keep themselves from being raped instead of, you know, policy and education initiatives aimed at getting rapists not to commit rape in the first place.

This onus on the victim, not the rapist, is unfortunately nothing new and is prevalent in sexual assault policy across the world.

Instead of “empowering” people to prevent themselves from being harmed, the government ought to be disempowering those who rape—by getting rid of the loopholes in the legal system that allow rapists to walk free, ending victim-blaming and -shaming on trial, and getting serious about sentencing.

While the White House’s application intentions may be good, it’s about time that national policy about rape, violence and sexual assault be taken seriously.

There’s no app for that.