Sexual Violence Prevention -- There's An App for That

Syndicated

In February of this year, George Huguely, an undergraduate at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville was found guilty of the second degree murder of his one-time girlfriend, Yeardley Love, also a student at UVA.

Love's death was the result of what has been characterized as the violent and deadly culmination of a relationship long-plagued by threatening behavior, controlling abuse -- often fueled by alcohol -- and ultimately deadly violence. I live in a nearby city, Washington, DC, where the tragedy of this murder looms large. How, so many ask, could this have happened? Where were the parents? Where were the teachers? Where were the friends? And yes, why couldn't she end it? The effective loss of both children and the impact on their friends, family and communities will be lasting.

This sad story is made only sadder by the fact that what may have occurred between these two people in terms of abuse or the threat of violence prior to Love's death is not especially uncommon on college campuses. This case got a great deal of media attention because these were young, white, privileged individuals. However, every day in the U.S. and other countries, similar situations of unhealthy, destructive and often dangerous relationships and interactions play out on college campuses.


Photo by Devon Buchanan. (Flickr)

To get a sense of the problem, one need only look these statistics from a United States Department of Justice study on sexual crimes, which is often shared by student health centers, such as the one at New York University:

  • One in four college-aged women report experiences that meet the legal definitions of rape or attempted rape.
  • One in five college women are raped during their college years.
  • 11.7 percent of gay or bisexual men and 30.6 percent of lesbian or bisexual women indicated that they had been forced to have sex against their will at some point in their lives.
  • 81 percent of women who were stalked by a current or former partner were also physically assaulted by that same partner.
  • 80 to 90 percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by individuals known to the survivor.
  • 85 percent of rapes are committed by a person the victim knows.

A study conducted by the National Institute of Justice found that survivors of rape knew their attackers: 35.5 of the surveyed rapes were committed by fellow classmates, 34.2 percent were committed by friends, 23.7 percent were committed by boyfriends or ex-boyfriends, and 2.6 percent were committed by acquaintances.

It's important to mention that this study was conducted using the old definition for rape, which until January of this year, was understood as "the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will." Today, the definition of rape makes no reference to gender and includes men, the mentally impaired and any other type of victim who does not or cannot give consent.

In 2000, a study by the National Insitute of Justice found that one in 12 college men admitted to committing acts that met the legal definition of rape -- and it's possible that they may not have realized what that legal definition was and therefore did not feel they had raped. More disturbing, 35 percent of men reported some likelihood that they would rape if they could be assured they wouldn't be caught or punished.

That was twelve years ago, but I doubt the numbers are significantly different given last December's disturbing Center for Disease Control and Prevention report, which found that every minute, 24 people are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States.

In addition, the 2010 CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey and related surveys confirm and expand these findings. Because of a redefinition of rape at the end of last year the FBI anticipates an upswing in the number of identified rapes.

Given the high incidence of this form of violence, it's likely you also have found yourself in threatening situations from which you wished to extricate yourself. Maybe you've been involved in a relationship that was unhealthy and already abusive but difficult for you to leave. Or, maybe, you have a child in college and you worry about his or her ability to avoid becoming part of this staggering statistic. What can you do?

Apps Against Abuse is a program developed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services to encourage young people to develop technologies that will reduce the incidence of sexual violence. Because women have a high rate as targets of abuse -- and particularly at the hands of men they already know -- the challenge was explicitly designed to create opportunities for men to engage in bystander intervention whereby they become actively involved in intervening in a potentially harmful situation.

The first place winner of this challenge was Circle of 6, an iPhone application created specifically to combat the threat of violence and assault. The app, which launched in March, is designed to help men and women create support networks and communities on which they can rely for help in both immediately threatening situations and more entrenched, relationship-based ones.

The iPhone app allows users to reach a pre-selected group of six trusted friends with clear messages in one to two clicks of a button, including a GPS tracker to share your exact location. For example, a woman at a party who may be surrounded by people she does not know, who feels uneasy about her situation or has an instinct that there is potential for harm, can access the app and click to alert friends to call and interrupt her or to come and pick her up. The app also includes two pre-programmed assistance U.S. hotlines but a third slot is available to customize a local hotline of your choosing. While Circle of 6 is targeted for the college market, anyone can use it.

"Talking about sexual violence can be very difficult. As a health educator, I've seen that it's often easier for people to reach out for help from behind a screen," says Deb Levine, Circle of 6 co-creator and Executive Director and Founder of Internet Sexuality Information Services. "Circle of 6 offers a free way to stay safe and support your campus community, with the ease of a few clicks on a smartphone."

"College students today live on their mobile phones, and they move in tight-knit online and offline social networks," says Nancy Schwartzman, Circle of 6 co-creator and Executive Director of The Line Campaign. "Circle of 6 is a tool that meets young people where they are and offers concrete strategies for supporting each other, whether safety threats are coming from intimate relationships or potentially dangerous social situations."

Technology like this enables organizations like Men Can Stop Rape, which work to engage young men to take a more active role in stopping sexual violence, to be even more effective. Over ten thousand people have downloaded the app and three thousand more have signed a Facebook pledge to work to stop sexual violence on campuses.

Soraya Chemaly writes about feminism, gender issues, politics and culture. She has written for The Feminist Wire, BitchFlicks and Fem2.0 among others and has a regular column at The Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @schemaly.

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