Sexual Assault (Smartphone) App

On 13 July 2011, Vice President Joe Biden, The White House Office of Science & Technology Policy and Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a challenge: “Apps Against Abuse” (here’s the press release). The purpose is to provide an incentive for industry to develop “an easy-to-use application that provides a targeted way for young women to designate trusted friends, allies, or emergency contacts and provide a means for checking-in with these individuals in real-time, particularly in at-risk situations. The winning application will also provide quick access to resources and information on sexual assault and teen dating violence, as well as where to go for help.”

I’m in strong support for this action in that there is an immediate need to both raise awareness of sexual violence as well as provide the resources and means to actively prevent or stop it. Both are very empowering things to do. As a staff member of the Margaret Sloss Women’s Center this is one of my primary functions in advocating and providing support for the campus community. Yet as I cast my support the creation of such an app I see trouble from a broader perspective.

As I read the article I realized that the conversation STILL employs the antiquated and limited concept that “sexual violence is something that only men do to women.” Although it’s difficult to know exact statistics this has always been true for the majority of sexual violence. Still, a man is not immune to sexual violence or relationship abuse even if he is heterosexual. Framing the social dysfunction of “sexual violence” in such a way is inappropriately both heterosexist and genderist (or gender conformacist). First, I define heterosexism as the belief that opposite-sex sexuality/relationships is the superior and only valid sexuality. This excludes same-sex sexuality/relationships from the conversation. Second, I define genderism/gender conformacism as the belief that gender conformance is the superior and only valid gender identity and form of expression. Gender conformance is the limiting, binary concept that female-bodied persons must predominantly express femininity while male-bodied persons must predominantly express masculinity. The gendersim inherent to the conversation excludes people whose gender identity and/or expression is not gender conforming. Therefore, the dialogues occurring at the highest level of our government about sexual violence fail to recognize our whole community. As a consequence victims/survivors of sexual violence in LGBTQ relationships as well as heterosexual males are left out and their experiences are denied recognition.

Another area of concern: WHO would this “app” affect? Specifically, WHO has a Smartphone?… those with economic class privilege who can afford one. Also, will the app be accessible for persons with varying physical or mental abilities (audio, visual, or perceptual) or who don’t speak fluent English? Although it certainly could and I hope it will, I doubt it. So although this app is intended to reduce sexual violence on college campuses it has the unintended impact of only targeting a limited, privileged proportion of campus communities.

Lastly and perhaps most important: How does this app challenge our culture’s victim-blaming belief that the responsibility of preventing and stopping sexual violence lies with potential victims/survivors? IT DOESN’T. In no way will this app address the fact that perpetrators of sexual violence are 100% at fault for their crimes. This app joins the vast majority of efforts to end sexual violence that are focused on potential victims/survivors as opposed to potential perpetrators. As such it has the effect of reinforcing the false idea that survivors of sexual violence are at fault for their own victimization.

It probably seems like I hate this “Apps Against Abuse” challenge but like I said before, I’m in support of it. However, I strongly oppose its heterosexist, genderist, and victim-blaming foundations as well as its potential inaccessibility based on socioeconomic status, physical or mental ability, and language. When the rhetoric of sexual violence and the application of practices to end it are not intentionally inclusive of all affected groups we fail to legitimize the experience of those excluded groups. Lacking legitimacy from one’s own government and society is tantamount to dehumanization and reinforces systems of supremacy and oppression. From my experience, creating a program or project that is focused on ENGAGING PEOPLE AS POTENTIAL PERPETRATORS of sexual violence is rarely undertaken because it is very, very difficult. For one, implementation of such action requires a level of skill and charisma that is difficult to develop. More so, interacting with participants who are potential victims/survivors might seem easier than interacting with participants who are potential perpetrators. Consider this: If you advertised your program or project that focuses on potential perpetrators of sexual violence who would be open and willing to actively engage?! Self-identifying as a potential rapist is a psychologically scary and painful thing to do. Being told one is a potential rapist will cause most people to shut down immediately. To see the face of violence in the mirror is not something many people are willing to do. Yet understanding one’s social position in a victim-blaming, patriarchal, rape culture is, in my opinion, the first step we have to take in working to end sexual violence.

Creating this smartphone app is a good idea but it’s just the easy, safe action for the government to push for. Yet in lieu of everything else I’ve considered here it’s just another expression of our governments disinterest in creating foundational, socially just change.


by Dustin Neff
Graduate AssistantEquity & Social Justice Educator
Margaret Sloss Women’s Center –Iowa State University
203 Sloss House
Ames, IA 50011
P 515-294-4154

About Margaret Sloss Women's Center - ISU

The Margaret Sloss Women's Center promotes equity on the Iowa State University campus. Through a feminist lens, the center advocates for individuals and groups; provides support, referrals, community and programming; and maintains a safe space in the Sloss House.

Posted on July 18, 2011, in End Violence Now, Queer, Sexual Assault Awareness. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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