Ever since the MeToo movement began, debate around consent has been a hot topic and these days, even app developers are stepping in with some possible digital solutions. But is taking things high-tech really the way to address such sensitive issues?
The most recent app, called uConsent, offers what the developers call a digital handshake between two consenting sex partners before they get busy. After both download the app– which is free, one person makes a request, and the other grants it with thumbprint verification. This may sound like an awkward way to kill the mood but Cody Swann of Gunner Technology says it doesn’t have to.
“Without getting too graphic, if I were using this application, I would use it as part of foreplay," Swann said. "I would make it kind of a sexy thing, say, I’ll tone it down a little bit, like ‘hey, I really want to kiss your neck…”
UConsent joins at least a half a dozen apps that claim to draw the lines of affirmative consent in the digital space. Some have been met with sharp criticism– arguing these apps could be used against victims of sexual assault. Swann stresses that uConsent is not a legally binding contract but instead sees it as a tool to foster communication among their target audience—college kids. But Tufts University senior Erin Viola isn’t so sure of the idea.
“It's a very simplistic view of consent, which I think is very problematic,” Viola said. “Consent is an ongoing conversation.”
Viola is president of Tufts University’s Action for Sexual Assault Prevention advocacy group and says she’s happy that technology is being used to push the conversation of consent into the mainstream, but she’s skeptical people will use apps like uConsent.
“I think it's pretty unrealistic to expect people to use them especially because in the moment I don't think people are going to whip out their phones and be, like, ‘do you consent to this act?’” Viola said.
She’s also concerned that the thumbprint verification makes it easy for would-be perpetrators to take advantage of someone who’s unconscious. Swann of Gunner Technology says they’re already working on changing this verification process to a voice system.
“Making the interaction through your voice assistant, like, ‘Google or Siri, I consent to X.’ You would basically be telling your phone what you’re consenting to. It would have your voice and so no one else could get into your phone without you.” Swann explained.
There’s a learning curve to all of this and many of the other consent apps out there have similar challenges. But Alison Morano of the Affirmative Consent Project sees these apps as a step in the right direction. Her organization does sexual assault prevention work with college campuses across the country.
“The apps I think are a great conversation starter. I don’t believe talking about it ruins intimacy. I think it makes it stronger. I think it creates a bond of trust,” Morano said. “But just the fact that you have an app and somebody even talks about it does the first step in what it’s supposed to do, which is promote conversations.”
And for a generation that’s attached to its smartphones, it might feel more natural to chat over an app but Boston University’s School of Public Health Emily Rothman says if you feel you need an app for something as intimate as sex, there may be a bigger issue.
“Let's pretend this were my friend. I would say to them, ‘how do you feel good about yourself if you need to depend on an app to tell you whether what you're doing with your partner is OK? What's going on for you that you're unable to read some of these cues or to communicate with them?’ That to me kind of signals there's a problem.” Rothman said.
Or perhaps a sign of the times. And one that Swann compares to any disruptive technology.
“I’m old enough to remember when everyone said condoms would ruin romance. Now condoms are a normal part of sexual activity.” Swann said. “Anything with sex and tech, it’s always like, ‘I can never imagine doing that.’ I agree it’s weird but it’s weird because it hasn’t been done before.”