Although there’s been a recent uptick in the number of college students who feel comfortable enough to report incidences of sexual assault to school authorities, the vast majority of rapes on campus go unreported. That’s typically because navigating colleges’ existing systems can be a traumatizing experience for survivors; as the New York Times reported this summer, many of the students who do file rape reports later wish that they hadn’t.
Jessica Ladd wants to change that. The founder and executive director of a nonprofit called Sexual Health Innovations, which uses technology to advance well being, Ladd is currently raising money for an online tool that will hopefully make it easier for college students to report sexual crimes. Callisto, which Ladd hopes to start implementing this summer, would give survivors more control over the reporting process.
Callisto is designed to allow students to report through an online form, instead of having to make an in-person appointment with a campus official. The form would ask them to document the same kind of information that a school official or police officer would want to know, as well as provide them with a space to upload electronic evidence like text messages, photos, or online screenshots.
“The idea for Callisto was very much informed by my own experience with sexual assault in college, and the reporting process I went through,” Ladd explained in an interview with ThinkProgress. “The process was kind of confusing, opaque, and sort of re-traumatizing. I felt like I wasn’t really believed. I was asked for information that I didn’t know I needed and evidence that I didn’t know I would have to keep around. It was very difficult.”
Once students document their experience with assault, Callisto gives them a couple different options, with detailed explanations about what will happen next depending what they choose to do. They could submit their report to campus authorities, to the local police department, or both. They could decide to save the form as a time-stamped record of what happened, and take no immediate reporting action, in case they want to return to it later. Or they could indicate that they don’t want to submit it unless another report names the same assailant — in other words, if it turns out that their rapist is raping other men or women on campus.
According to Ladd, that last option can help survivors who “aren’t sure whether or not what happened to them counts.” Some students struggle with how to classify their experience of sexual assault, don’t necessarily want the school to take serious action against their assailant, and would only be interested in filing a formal report if they realize that person could pose a threat to the rest of the campus community.
The ability to help schools keep track of repeat offenders — something that’s currently very difficult to do unless students are willing to file a formal report — is something that could be particularly important on campus. According to a groundbreaking 2002 study on college rapists, one of the only pieces of research in the field to focus on perpetrators, the majority of people who commit sexual assault in college do it more than once.
“One thing we realized when we were diving into that data is that if those rapists had been stopped after their second rape, 60 percent of sexual assaults would have been prevented,” Ladd said. “Of course, there’s no guarantee that every college student would use Callisto, or that those who did would all elect to automatically report if there was a perpetrator match. But the potential — that’s huge.”
Ladd is also encouraged by the fact that the reaction to Callisto among sexual assault survivors has been “overwhelmingly positive.” In a small survey that she conducted during the development of the tool, 98 percent of participants who had experienced sexual assault in college said they thought it was a good idea. When Ladd asked them if they would have used it to report their own rapes, most of them said yes.
“I think it’s important to engage and involve survivors in these things, and make sure that your products are really built for real problems. What might be something that you would really use on campus?” she pointed out. Moving forward, Ladd has assembled an advisory board with representatives from some of the top activist and advocacy groups in this space to help oversee Callisto.
Other pieces of new technology designed to tackle the campus rape epidemic — ranging from nail polish to detect date rape drugs to GPS-enabled apps to ensure friends get home safely — have recently come under fire for failing to live up to that standard. With headlines dominated by the statistics about how many students are raped in college, it makes sense that well-meaning innovators want to design something to help ease the problem. But critics say their products often end up unintentionally misrepresenting the reality of sexual violence; for instance, only a very tiny percentage of assaults in college involve the use of date rape drugs.
Some of these pitfalls can be easily avoided by shifting focus. Instead of trying to prevent assaults before they happen, and equipping women with personal safety tools in a world that already emphasizes women’s responsibility be constantly vigilant against the threat of rape, innovators could work on tools to support survivors in the aftermath of an assault.
“Very small things can be done to make that whole process afterward a lot easier, a lot less traumatizing, and a lot more accessible. I would love to see more people working in that area,” Ladd said. “Because if you’re going to ask how we can stop people from raping each other, I don’t know the answer. I wish I did, and if I ever find out, I will tell you. But if the question is, how can we provide more support and more resources to survivors — that’s pretty easy to do, and a lot of it involves the internet.”
On Tuesday, Sexual Health Innovations launched a crowdfunding campaign for Callisto that’s hoping to raise $10,000 to help hire additional staff members. Ladd is already in talks with a few colleges about potentially bringing Callisto to their campuses before next school year, and is also trying to reach out to philanthropists and corporate sponsors who may be interested in supporting her work.