As Rewire has been reporting, many states and schools are looking toward affirmative consent as one way to deal with sexual assault on campus. This new paradigm is an attempt to shift the standard of judging whether a sexual experience was consensual from “no means no” to the more proactive “only yes means yes.” California and New York now require this standard be used on all college campuses. However, many experts don’t think it’s realistic, and a recent study found that many students don’t understand it at all.
Now, a group called the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence is trying to digitize this standard by releasing an app called “We-Consent,” which records video proof of affirmative consent. The videos, according to the group’s website, will then be kept in a database that can only be accessed by law enforcement or campus officials involved in disciplinary procedures. The creators of the new app believe that it can increase communication and, in doing so, promote affirmative consent.
While I support affirmative consent and very much want to encourage couples to talk about sex before they have it, I think the app is impractical and may cause more problems than it solves.
Here’s how “We-Consent” works. A user puts in their name and a potential partner’s name into the app. (For the sake of this example, let’s say the initial user is a heterosexual man.) He then finds his intended partner and points the back camera on the phone toward her face. The app asks the partner to state her name and then informs her that the user “desires sexual relations.” The app asks her to say “yes” or “no” into the camera and records the video. If the partner says “yes,” according to the group behind the app, the video is uploaded to storage where it is encrypted and kept for seven years in the event that one partner files sexual assault charges. If the partner says anything other than a definitive “yes” (which, the app’s creators say, will be verified by speech recognition), the video is destroyed and the partners are asked to try again. The creators claim that this all takes 20 seconds to complete.
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The theory behind the app seems to be that if couples have to pause briefly to discuss affirmative consent, they will be spurred to have important conversations on the topic that they might otherwise have avoided. Michael Lissack, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence, which developed the app through its Affirmative Consent Project, told USA Today College: “This app cannot prevent sexual assault. The main point is triggering the discussion about affirmative consent … students have their phones with them 24/7 … if [the app] is on their phone, it is one more trigger for the conversation. If it isn’t there, it is harder to get the conversation triggered.”
I fear, however, that this conversational “trigger” ignores the reality of most sexual assaults. An in-the-moment conversation starter might be helpful in situations in which both partners are sober and have good intentions. But on college campuses, for example, many rapes involve alcohol, robbing an individual of their ability to consent. Moreover, some research has suggested that a small group of men on campus are responsible for committing a large number of rapes. These serial rapists are looking for victims, not consent. The app would not help in either of these situations.
The only situations that might be prevented by a video record of consent are those sexual assaults that devolve from a misunderstandings of whether consent was given and for what activities. The goal of affirmative consent—which, again, may only be possible if both partners have good intentions and reasonably clear heads—is to settle any potential misunderstandings beforehand. Such negotiations can sometimes seem uncomfortable in intimate moments. Critics have made fun of videos showing couples “practicing” affirmative consent as awkward and suggested partners need painful questions such as “Can I gently lick your earlobe right now?” or “I would like to put my penis in your mouth, do I have your consent?” Real people don’t talk this way, and we shouldn’t expect them to.
Of course, affirmative consent doesn’t have to look so stilted; “We-Consent” might help in these situations if it were to somehow make these interactions easier and less embarrassing. But in its current incarnation, the app will likely only make it worse. Essentially, a smartphone asks you to smile for the camera and say yes or no to “sexual relations.” I can think of few things more awkward than that.
Unfortunately, it’s not just awkward, it’s imprecise. And that’s also a huge issue. Many cases of sexual assault occur when a couple agrees to initiating a sexual encounter but don’t necessarily agree on the parameters and one partner goes too far without consent. A video made at the beginning of the encounter using vague language like “sexual relations” does nothing to help young people negotiate parameters or understand that consent for sexual behavior is not carte blanche.
Which brings us to an even bigger problem. There is now a video recording of that snapshot in time when the partner said yes. Although it’s unclear from the app’s website how much legal weight such a recording would actually carry, this could help those accused of rape clear their name. But it really isn’t proof that the sex, or all the sex acts involved, was consensual. Especially if we consider the possibility of coercion or force on the other side of the camera.
Real consent is an ongoing negotiation that goes from the beginning of a sexual encounter until the end without threats or coercion. It can be as simple as frequently checking in with your partner and asking “Is this OK?” or “Are we good?” But it can’t be captured in a 20-second video.
“We-Consent” is part of a three-app series. The others, called “What-About-No” and “Changed Mind,” function in much the same way. They allow users to record a firm “no” or a “not now” aimed at a specific partner. These apps may have fewer problems —they won’t, for example, be used to let an accused off the hook via video “proof” of consent—but they are still not the answer.
For affirmative consent to work, it has to be about more than just saying “yes.” It has to be about understanding that when it comes to sexual behavior, you’re not in this alone and if your partner is not into it (whatever “it” is), you stop. It has to be about realizing that you might not be able to tell if your partner is enjoying themselves unless you ask, and being comfortable enough to ask. It’s about accepting that if your partner is too drunk, they can’t consent. And, it’s about respecting the fact that at any point after the “yes” can come a “no” or a “not now,” and that once you hear that, you stop.
We do need to teach college students the importance of obtaining consent before sex, but first we need to teach them what consent really looks like. When we do, they will realize that it’s much more than saying “yes” into a camera phone.