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Why an app could never prevent sexual assault

We have a problem with sexual consent and sexual assault in this country, and the blurred lines that exist between them.

Amid college parties rampant with alcohol (and sometimes drugs), campus rape is on the rise. According to a new survey of students at the University of Oregon, 10 percent of all students reported being raped; 90 percent of that group never spoke up about their attack.

Maybe they didn’t even know they were attacked. In her new book, Lena Dunham details her campus rape experience. While drunk and high on Xanax, she heads back to her apartment with a guy named Barry who forces himself on her while she tries to mentally convince herself she wants to have sex with him. However, Dunham never once gives her consent, nor is she even in a state where she can give consent under the law.

We have got to solve the problem of what consent looks like, what constitutes sexual assault and the he said/she said that often follows an accusation of rape. It’s such a complicated problem with no simple solution — although there are some out there who are trying to find one. Enter the (now-defunct) sexual consent app, Good2Go.

The app’s premise was to find a black-and-white way to tackle consent: You find someone you’d like to get busy with, open up the app on your phone and go through a series of steps designed to make sure your encounter is consensual — like answering if he or she is “sober” or “pretty wasted.” (If the latter, you’re told your partner “cannot consent” and are basically locked out.) Otherwise, you hand the app to the other person, who then selects “No, thanks,” “Yes… but we need to talk” or “I’m Good2Go” in response to the proposition.

Following? Yeah, it was ridiculous for several reasons, a big one being no one is going to use an app for consent. It does not even solve the problem of consent, what act you’re consenting to or the he said/she said that may follow an encounter where one party thinks the other has done something constituting rape. While technology has been able to solve many problems, an app will never work.

While brainstorming potential ways to make this work with my colleagues, we couldn’t come up with anything. Schools could make students download an app like Good2Go before they hit campus, for instance — but while schools can make you download it, they can’t make you use it, because they don’t know if or when you are having sex. It’s kind of like taking a class on sexual assault. They can make you take it, but they can’t make you abide by the principles.

I went to the University of Michigan. Before the first day of class as freshmen, we were forced to take a two-session course on sexual assault and sexual harassment. It did not stop the problems that riddle nearly every university. Notably, during my time there, a rape case involving the football team’s kicker surfaced and wasn’t investigated until four years after the incident. Charges were never officially filed by the victim, but following guidelines, the college still should have thoroughly looked into the complaint. The university quietly expelled him to wash their hands of it, but still landed on the U.S. Department of Education’s watch list of 55 schools under investigation for their handling of sexual assault.

I sympathize with everyone involved in solving this problem, and I agree that college is a horrible landscape for monitoring sexual assault. But an app is not the solution. Until a gadget can make a person use their moral compass, it’s not going to work.

At its heart, consent is both complicated and very simple. Sex is a big deal. It’s an intimate act. And consent comes down to an issue of character and morality. If you have to go through a massive ordeal to figure out if a person is consenting, or if they have their wits about them just enough to give consent, you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing. You should want the other person to be wholly present in the act, and not filled with shame or regret afterward. It’s necessary to be fully aware of the reasons you need to wait to have sex, instead of looking for the one reason to forge ahead.

The missing ingredient is trust. Do you trust the person you’re with? Can that person trust you? Trusting someone and allowing someone to put trust in you is an unspoken agreement, and it’s one to take very seriously. And for now, that’s what we have for consent: communication and trust. It will not stop the problem, but maybe focusing on those two key ingredients will slow it.

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