Sexual Safety: There’s an App for That

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Sexual Safety: There’s an App for That

New Apps monitor your period and keep you safe while walking in urban areas (Courtesy).

New Apps monitor your period and keep you safe while walking in urban areas (Courtesy).

New Apps monitor your period and keep you safe while walking in urban areas (Courtesy).

New Apps monitor your period and keep you safe while walking in urban areas (Courtesy).

By Emma McDonald

As April winds to a close, the College wraps up a month of events focused on raising awareness about sexual assault. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and new Health and Wellness Director Barbara McCall launched a series of events throughout the month in order to “recognize and support survivors in our community and create and maintain spaces for healing, allow program attendees to deepen their understanding of sexual violence at global, cultural, community and individual levels, and recognize sexual violence as a topic worthy of time, care and conversation in our community.”

The events included “Meditation for Survivors,” a workshop in which participants were guided through healing visualizations and breathing exercises to quiet the mind, “Sex, Relationships, and Consent: What You Need to Know,” a workshop by Keith E. Smith, the Men’s Outreach Coordinator at the University of Vermont, which discussed sex, relationships, communication, violence and what it really means to have consent, and “B.R.A.V.E. (Be Ready Aware Victorious Empowered),” a personal safety training workshop for both physical and mental empowerment. According to McCall, these events were well-attended and received positively. McCall emphasized the expansion of the sexual assault conversation as one of the goals for not only this month but for the entire year, too.

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five women and one in 71 men will experience attempted or completed sexual assault at some time in their lives, a majority of those assaults happening during college. Though students consistently seek to increase awareness through certain events like “It Happens Here,” Wellness Committee member Casey Watters ’15 points out that the discussion may not always continue after such events.

“The lack of discussion afterwards takes away from some of the immense potential such a powerful event has on this campus,” Watters said.

In the media recently, apps such as “Kitestring” have received attention for their possible efficacy in preventing sexual assault. Kitestring is a “safecall” service (available for use by smartphone and non-smartphone users alike) that will automatically alert your emergency contacts if you do not check in with the app after an allotted amount of time. It can be used generally to get someone from Point A to Point B safely: you know you are going to be walking home alone, so you tell Kitestring to check on you in 15 minutes. Kitestring will then either text you or the app will send you an alert after 15 minutes have passed to make sure you have made it to your destination safely. If you do not answer the text or confirm with the app that you are safe, Kitestring will text one or more emergency contact numbers you gave it with a generalized message or a custom one you made: for example, “Hey, this is [insert your name here]. I’m walking back from this concert to my apartment by myself. If you’re getting this message, I may not have made it back safely. Give me a call?” You can text the app to extend the amount of time you have allotted if you are delayed, and you can add additional secret code words so someone else cannot check in with the app for you. Unlike other safecall apps, Kitestring relies on SMS instead of a data connection or just an app, so it is available to millions more users than other options. Some have suggested it could be used to prevent sexual assault.

But McCall pointed out that apps like Kitestring are far from a perfect solution. “Best practices in bystander intervention education do not rely on apps,” she said. “They are focused on communication between friends and community members to assess risk and act accordingly.”

Former Sexual Assault Oversight Committee Member Fritz Parker ’15 agreed, saying, “While apps like Kitestring certainly have their place, I think it is important that they not distract from the real issue: there are people who don’t feel safe doing something as simple as walking home. These emergency services don’t help us address that issue, only deal with their consequences more efficiently. That’s something, but it’s not a solution.”

GSFS Major, MiddSafe advocate and Feminist Action at Middlebury President Alexandra Strott ’15 highlighted one major issue with the app.

“I’m glad that [Kitestring] exists if it has the potential to help someone out of an uncomfortable or even dangerous situation, or even just to give someone peace of mind on their way from Point A to Point B, or while they’re out on a first date with someone they’ve never met before, for instance,” she said. “I’m a little wary of an app like Kitestring being branded as a solution to rape culture and sexual assault rather than as a precautionary measure. It doesn’t really address sexual assault that occurs between intimate partners or acquaintance rape.”

Watters believes that Kitestring may be effective in more urban areas and thinks there are better ways to address sexual assault on campus, like the workshops and discussions that took place this month.

“At Middlebury, I see our solution more through empowerment and discussion teaching students their rights and resources: to remove blame from the victims in realizing that it is always okay to say no halfway through or change your mind, to stand by a belief that you want your partner to use a condom, even if it may not feel as good and to stress to all students that a maybe is not a yes, and a no is not a maybe,” she said.

Sexual assault is not the only way that sex can introduce complications in the lives of young adults, and the app world has realized as much. Fears of STIs and pregnancy can often add to the stress of college life and app-creators are tapping into this with a variety of apps, primarily targeted toward females, to improve reproductive health and awareness and help optimize (or minimize) risk of pregnancy.

One such app is “Glow.” Originally targeted toward women who were having trouble conceiving, Glow analyzes data on a woman’s menstrual cycle, basal body temperature and medication history to predict when a woman is most likely to be pregnant. Though at the start it operated as an encouragement to try to conceive on certain days, the app now has many different interfaces depending on whether the user is trying to conceive or trying not to conceive, and whether the user is sexually active. For those who are not sexually active, the app focuses on reproductive health tips and provides alerts for the user as to when to expect her next period; for those who are sexually active and trying not to conceive, the app alerts the user at “high-risk” times of the month. All of Glow’s alerts and tips are based on the data provided by the user; the more information the user provides, the more accurate the app’s information will be.

This app is not a substitute for gynecological visits or pelvic exams, nor does it mean that one no longer needs to practice safe sex.

As Strott points out, “Apps like these can be really useful for students who are concerned about becoming pregnant, if it gives them peace of mind, but I think it’s important for them not to use these apps as a substitute for practicing safe sex (whatever that looks like for them) and getting exams and tests regularly.”

Though both of these apps do not provide fail-safe solutions to sexual assault or unwanted pregnancy, they can be helpful tools to use in conjunction with healthy practices, good communication and increasing awareness and education.

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