Nancy Schwartzman survived a rape. One of the things she remembers from her ordeal is the sense of bewilderment and powerlessness that struck after the event.
“I remember having to make really hard decisions. Should I stay where I was with the rapist and get him to drive me home in the morning, or go out into an unfamiliar neighbourhood in the early hours of the morning, which would also be dangerous?” she says.
Ten years later she built a mobile phone app — Circle of 6 — that helps give people better options should they find themselves in a similar situation. Circle of 6 allows users to pick six friends who they can message quickly if they find themselves in a dangerous situation. The app allows them to send pre-written messages such as: “Come and get me. I need help getting home safely” to this group, with just two touches of the phone.
The app was one of the winners of the 2011 Apps Against Abuse challenge launched by the White House in the US, and has been adopted by a number of universities in the US, including Williams College, University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Houston, for their students. The US Air Force advises all of its first-year cadets to use it.
Universities are looking at apps like these that offer help to rape victims, as they come under pressure to tackle an epidemic of sexual violence on campuses. Nearly one in four college women say they are sexually assaulted during their time at university, according to a report released late last year by the Association of American Universities. The first six weeks of college, between student orientation and Thanksgiving break in November — known as the “red zone” — are especially dangerous for first-year students.
Even the recent Academy Awards acknowledged the problem of campus rape, with Lady Gaga’s song “Til It Happens To You” from The Hunting Ground, a documentary about campus rape nominated for an Oscar. Joe Biden, US vice-president, introduced the song at the ceremony with a speech about the need to end rape culture.
But, as The Hunting Ground powerfully shows, many campus assaults go unreported, and even when they are, they may not be handled well.
A 2014 report by the US Senate Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight, found that out of a sample of 440 colleges and universities, 40 per cent had failed to conduct a single sexual violence investigation in the previous five years. Last month, Harvard became the latest university to face a lawsuit from a student over alleged mishandling of a sexual harassment case.
The threat of lawsuits is pushing universities to take action, and apps are some of the tools being considered, alongside more conventional measures such as education programmes and the installation of emergency call boxes around campus. Loyola University in Chicago opted to create its own rape assistance app in 2014, in response to concerns about campus assaults. The Here for You app is not focused on prevention, but at giving students information about the help and resources available to them if they are attacked.
“It is about meeting students where they are at, which is on their mobile phones,” says Stephanie Atella, Loyola’s Wellness Centre health educator.
About 40 per cent of US colleges failed to investigate even one sexual assault in five years
Universities have also adopted apps that link students directly to campus police in order to help prevent attacks. Lifeline Response, for example, allows users to alert the police directly, giving their geographic location, when they are in trouble.
The company says the app, which has been adopted by more than 100 universities, has so far prevented 25 assaults. Other apps, such as EmergenSee, stamp images captured by the user with the date and time, so they can be used in a criminal investigation.
Apps such as Guardly and the YWCA’s Safety Alert, for example, let off loud noises when phones are shaken while at the same time sending emails and texts to notify friends.
Meanwhile bSafe uses GPS to allow friends to track your movements remotely when you are on a date or jogging alone. One of the simplest apps, Kitestring, works off text messages, sending notifications to check if you are all right and notify your emergency contacts if you do not respond within a set amount of time.
However, Katie Russell at Rape Crisis UK urges caution with these apps. She notes that women are often raped by people they had trusted, and that drugs and alcohol can impair a victim’s ability to activate the alarm. “We should be careful about making too many claims. They can potentially give a false sense of security.”
Loyola’s Ms Atella says she is not aware of anyone who has used an alarm or prevention app to ward off an attack.
Ms Schwartzman does not dispute this. “Would Circle of 6 have helped me on the night of my rape?” she asks, “It would not have prevented it, but it would have helped me afterwards.”
One of the biggest benefits of anti-rape apps, she says, may be that they raise awareness.
Focus groups at Williams College, which was the first campus in the US to pilot Circle of 6, indicated that there was a change in overall student behaviour following introduction of the app.
“It sets a baseline of saying that abuse is not OK, and that you should have more trusted people in your network.”