Recent surveys on college campuses show that 83% of students say that “consent agreements” are useful to prevent unwanted sexual contact, 73% say that they would feel more respected if their partner used a consent agreement with them, and 79% say they would feel safer if their partner used a consent agreement with them. These opinions reflect the growing trend of utilizing consent apps and the growing conversation surrounding their usefulness.
The idea behind these apps is that consent is discussed prior to sexual activity so that there are no “mis-interpreted signals” and no misunderstandings. But are consent apps really all students believe them to be?
One of these apps requires that a person enter their name and declare that they are of legal age and understand the laws regarding sexual consent. Further declaration is needed to show that the agreement is being made of free will. There is additional acknowledgement stating, “at this time, I do not intend to change my mind before the sex act(s) are over. However, if I do, it’s further understood that when I say “STOP” my partner agrees to STOP INSTANTLY.”
After digitally signing the agreement, the app asks to have the person’s partner read it over and sign the consent form. The final step is to take a selfie together to show that both are “coherent and willing participants.”
Once agreed upon, the agreement is stored in The Consent App’s “vault.”
Of course, a potential weakness in any of these apps is ensuring that both sexual partners were sober enough to actually consent and not coerced at the time they gave that consent, and even if they were willing participants, that they did not verbally or otherwise indicate they changed their mind. Regardless of what is signed, Louisiana law states, “There is a lack of consent if a person engages in a sexual act with another person by forcible compulsion or with a person who is incapable of consent because he or she is physically helpless, mentally defective or mentally incapacitated, or because of a victim’s age.” Intoxication and under the influence of controlled substances falls under mental incapacitation.
So, does a consent app actually create a situation for mutually agreed upon sexual contact and maintain privacy? Does it do it’s purposeful job to create a situation where there is real conversation about compliance allowing true consent? Or is it an avenue to protect perpetrators?
Regardless of whether or not consent apps prevent assault or create respect, when it comes to consent, technology appears to be influencing the conversation among college-aged adults.
Michelle Drouin, a professor of psychology at Purdue University Fort Wayne, weighs in: “Technology, in general, is really reframing evidence of consent or evidence of sexual activity and some cases sexual assault.”
Sexual consent apps all seem to work a bit differently from each other. One app, LegalFling creates a legally binding agreement, which means any offense is a breach of contract.
The company explains how the app works: You send an encrypted “fling” or a request to a contact or would-be sex partner through a messaging app or text and await the other person’s response. You indicate your boundaries and sexual preferences through the LegalFling app, for example, indicating whether French kissing is OK or whether you’re willing to give and/or receive oral or anal sex.
If the other person agrees, the app generates a “Live Contract,” which the company claims is legally binding, though whether this dynamic document holds up in court depends on the country the encounter took place. LegalFling says you can change your mind, of course, but revoking consent is always done verbally and not through the app.
The agreement is private and verified using blockchain, the digital ledger technology that is the underpinning for cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.
Drouin does see some positives in consent apps such as LegalFling that can serve as “conversation starters,” especially for new partners.
“But again, it has to come with that caveat that we can change our minds at any time,” she says. “This being used as any kind of contract is ridiculous and I don’t think it would be upheld by the law.”
Of course, in a “he said, she said” scenario, having such an agreement could perhaps in a criminal case provide some “reasonable doubt.” But it’s not clear whether these agreements would be admissible evidence.
TheConsent.com app is another choice. It is also confidential and encrypted. It offers three features that the creators feel should assure users’ confidence:
A reporting feature if anything goes wrong called “The Big Purple Button™” that can be pushed immediately.
A pop-up that occurs before every new consent is generated, “Consent can be withdrawn at any time.” Users must press a button “I Understand” to continue.
A resources area for education and prevention with links to organizations around the country.
In the end, consent apps may or may not be “all that.” However, they do address the 18 to 25 year old demographic’s preference to utilize technology and hopefully with that, conversations about what consent actually is will evolve.
“Tech cannot do anything other than help with evoking discussion, helping with prevention or assisting victims with the preservation of their story,” Lissack says. “Consent must be continuous, and short of a chip that can read someone else’s mind, we have no way to use technology other than on a moment-by-moment basis.”
From one perspective, consent apps appear to be created, at least in part, to “false accusations.” However, it’s estimated only 3 to 7% of reported assaults are false leading to the question, do consent apps truly hold a place in preventing sexual assault? Will and can these apps be utilized to actually create a system where both parties discuss what a truly consensual encounter is? Or will it be used as a cover for sexual violence?
So, what is your opinion? Consent apps…yay or nay? We invite you to take our 30 second survey.
*TheConsent also notes that the fee to use the app is primarily there to raise revenue for sexual assault victims and prevention. (“90% of our profits go to organizations around the country to help end sexual violence.”)
1 This story heavily references, including phrasing and quotes, from Edward Baig’s 9/18 article with USA Today: Does ‘yes’ mean ‘yes?’ Can you give consent to have sex to an app?