When Jess Ladd was an undergraduate at Pomona College in Claremont, California, she experienced something that one in four women at US universities go through: sexual assault.
Although she was in a position where she felt able to report the incident, doing so did little to help her recover. “I found reporting almost as traumatic as the assault itself,” she explains.
“I thought that if you told the people who are supposed to protect you, then they’d believe you. It made me realise that what matters isn’t just the assault itself, but society’s response to it – and that’s something we have complete control over.”
Now 31, Ladd’s solution is Project Callisto, a digital tool that makes reporting sexual assault safe and supportive. Currently in use at seven universities in the US, students can fill out a confidential, time-stamped record of the incident via the Callisto website, and then choose whether to report it. It will flag up whether the perpetrator has been named more than once. Developed with the help of lawyers, trauma specialists and sexual violence survivors, Callisto tailors its features depending on each institution’s reporting procedures, which vary.
Ladd is one of a number of women using technology to combat sexual violence. It’s an area where, arguably, institutions have failed – in the UK, one in five women have experienced some form of sexual violence, while an “epidemic” of sexual harassment at universities was recently revealed. When our usual safeguarding systems aren’t doing their job, it’s time to find more innovative solutions. But can tech alone really impact on such a deeply-ingrained problem?
Jacqueline Ros, 26, is the founder of Revolar, a piece of wearable tech in the form of a keyring that lets users send out alerts – graded yellow, amber and red, plus their location – to family and friends when they feel unsafe. She’s tried to make the product as effective as possible by interviewing hundreds of survivors of sexual assault about what would have made a difference to them.
“It started when my sister was attacked twice in her teens,” she explains. “I started thinking ‘What could have helped her?’ Survivors told me that in those situations you’re battling fight, flight or freeze. Many also said that, beforehand, they had an instinct something was wrong but were scared to cry wolf or – and this one breaks my heart – appear rude. So this lets them trust their instincts and speak out safely.”
Other organisations have found that the problem isn’t necessarily a lack of services, but being able to find them. Sarah Zandi, 21, is content editor of Capptivation, which in 2016 released ReachOut, an app that connects survivors to nearby services such as trauma counselling.
What matters isn’t just the assault itself, but society’s response to it – something we have complete control overJess Ladd
Capptivation was founded in 2014, when sexual assault on campus became a big news story in the US. “When the founders started talking about [sexual assault] they realised how little knowledge there was in their peer groups, both about consent and what to do if it happens to you,” Zandi says. “Personally, I can no longer count on both hands the number of people I know who’ve encountered some form of sexual violence.”
However, getting these products launched hasn’t always been easy. “Sexual assault isn’t an issue that’s attracted much attention from the philanthropy community,” says Ladd. “We’ve often had to convince people to broaden the definition of their funding mandate in order to get grants.”
Ros has experienced even more hostile reactions from potential investors. “I had one person tell me that the one-in-four statistic was a myth,” she says.
Society’s blind spot to the issue of sexual violence is also limiting the founders’ efforts to get to the root of the problem. Capptivation runs an education programme designed for schools and military bases, “but I think that institutions often don’t want to interact with the issue as much as they should”, says Zandi. “You have lots of people who still don’t want to admit that it’s a big deal.”
Ladd wants to make Callisto accessible to every woman in the country but that won’t be possible without adequate funding. Expanding the tool would also mean hiring “a competent security team, as it would become a target for hackers”, she adds.
However, Ros is hopeful that Revolar will help sexual assault become a community-owned issue rather than one survivors are forced to deal with alone. “We can use what our customers tell us to paint a picture of what’s going on in the world, because right now a lot of people don’t believe it’s happening,” she explains.
But most importantly, the evidence is already coming in that Revolar is helping people. “What’s really powerful is the number of people who’ve thanked us,” says Ros. “Whether it’s the mother of a transgender child who’s starting college, a domestic violence survivor who says it helps them get up and go to work every day, or someone who was raped as a teenager and has now brought it for their daughter. The technology has been applicable to so many more people than we ever imagined.”