We’ve been through this before. Consent apps are not the answer. Consent contracts are also not the answer.
An Australian police commissioner has proposed a consent app as a solution to rising rates of sexual violence in the country, citing COVID-19 as the inspiration behind the idea. “If someone told me two years ago that we would have to sign in our phones every time we sat down at a restaurant, I would’ve laughed at them,” NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller told ABC Radio Sydney. He did caveat that the app might be “the worst idea I have all year” and on that point alone I think we can agree.
This suggestion comes at a time when people in the UK, Australia, and America are having public conversations about violence against women and marginalised genders and the ways in which we can tackle misogyny. In the UK, the suspected kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard has prompted protests and public discourse into the need for societal change. In America, shootings in Atlanta killed eight people, six of whom were identified as Asian women, four of whom were of Korean descent. The shooting, which sits at the intersection between misogyny and white supremacy, prompted conversations about the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans and the hypersexualisation of East Asian and South-East Asian women. In Australia, rape allegations brought against the Attorney-General and against an employee in the office of the Defence Minister, sparked protests after the government issued a milquetoast response.
Consent apps get suggested every few months as a ‘solution’ to fighting sexual violence. But the problem is, these apps seem to fundamentally misunderstand how consent actually works. Not only that, they fail to take into account sexual coercion, and people being pressured to consent to sex.
Sexual consent is ongoing and can be withdrawn at any point. Signing an agreement via an app before engaging in sexual conduct treats consent as a one-off contractual act with no opportunity to revoke consent after signing. Not only do consent apps fail to grasp how consent actually works, they also disseminate misinformation and fuel the modern-day rape myth that consent is a one-off barrier that only happens at the start of a sexual encounter.
Alarmingly, figures show that these ideas are commonly held by people. According to YouGov, a third of men believe a woman can’t change her mind after sex has started.
Jaclyn Friedman, author of Yes Means Yes, wrote that we’ve started to replace old rape myths with modern-day misinformation, including the idea “that consent is just a hurdle you have to clear in order to Get The Sex.”
“That’s where all these consent apps come from. You know, the ones that are introduced every six months or so to great fanfare only to immediately go down in flames because they all imagine a world in which people sit down together in front of a phone before they Have Sex, and then once they’ve recorded themselves consenting that’s that. BOOM. Consensual Sex,” wrote Friedman. “In the process, we’ve forgotten that enthusiastic consent is so much more than a string of legal language — it’s a humanising ethic of sex.”
In treating rape and sexual assault as something that can be ‘solved’ with a legal technicality, you suggest that beyond the point of consenting to sexual activity, anything goes.
Many sexual violence survivors say they feel they wouldn’t be believed because they consented to a date, or some sexual activity before being assaulted or raped. These apps would only add to this existing problem.
In Australia, the number of reported sexual assaults rose by 10 percent in 2020, according to figures from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research — and only two percent of those resulted in guilty verdicts in court. These figures mirror what’s happening in the UK. In the year ending March 2020, 99 percent of rapes to police in England and Wales resulted in no further action.
Whenever we engage in public discourse about violence against women and marginalised genders and, in particular, sexual violence, it’s incredibly frustrating to hear solutions like consent apps being suggested. But it’s not the only out-of-touch solution being put forth. In the UK, the government says it will introduce plain clothes police officers in bars and nightclubs as a way to tackle harassment and assault. The creation of new laws is another idea that’s been proffered, despite the fact that our existing laws are not protecting us against sexual violence.
Whenever these gimmicky consent apps pop up, I always wonder who they’re designed for.
For years, we have been asking for societal change, we have been calling for consent education, we have been wanting men to be allies in the fight against misogyny — which is the driving force behind these violations. Consent apps, police powers, and new laws are just ways of passing the buck and avoiding committing to real, meaningful change in society.
Whenever these gimmicky consent apps pop up, I always wonder who they’re designed for. Because from where I’m standing, it feels like these apps are aimed at preventing someone from being accused of rape, rather than putting a stop to rape or sexual assault.
That’s because our society seems more concerned with the consequences of being accused of rape on a perpetrator’s career than the life-long impact of experiencing sexual violence.
Until people start caring about the latter, nothing is going to change.