Apps Against Abuse Challenge Could Arm Women with Tools to Prevent Sexual Violence

Earlier this year, leaders in the field of domestic and sexual violence met with representatives from top tech companies, members of the White House, and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for a brainstorming session. The goal was to find a way to take the potential of technology and channel it towards domestic and sexual violence prevention. Out of that brainstorming session came the Apps Against Abuse challenge, which kicked off in July. Apps Against Abuse is a competition being put on by the Office of the Vice President and HHS, encouraging independent developers to create a smartphone app that will represent a new way to help fight domestic and sexual violence.

Ideally, the app will be useful for anyone concerned about being victimized in the present or future, but the focus is squarely on college-age women. The press release for the competition cites that “Nineteen percent (nearly 1 in 5) of women report experiencing sexual assault while in college.” It is an oft-cited figure, almost to the point where it’s easy to forget how shocking it is. Smartphones are ubiquitous on college campuses – social networking is a way of life. The marriage between a smartphone app and sexual violence prevention on college campuses seems to be an obvious one.

Putting the idea into practice is much more nuanced. How does someone actually prevent domestic or sexual violence with a smartphone? HHS is suggesting that developers use the social network and the constant connectivity of smartphones to the outside world to make it possible. According to the criteria for judgment on the official page of the competition, points will be given for social media integration and real-time check-in, in addition to privacy and safety controls and connection to professional domestic violence resources. While these judging criteria represent guidelines more than expectations, a reliance on social networking is where the competition and competing developers could run into trouble.

The press release states that developers “will be charged with creating 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.” That makes sense, but it’s easy for developers new to the field of violence prevention to be unaware of a crucial piece of information. According to a 2002 study from the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assualt, 77% of completed rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. The image of the craven-eyed man hiding in the bushes at night is largely a mythological one, while the actual threat could be one of those trusted contacts.

While that would be a worst-case scenario, it opens up further criticism of the competition and its focus on social networking. Stephen Montagna, the violence prevention communications coordinator at the Wisconsin Council Against Sexual Assault (WCASA), expressed his concern about the direction Washington was taking with the Apps Against Abuse competition.

“[The Apps Against Abuse competition] doesn’t constitute prevention as we define it,” Montagna said. He spoke about the failure of the competition to promote a cultural shift. Education, both of potential victims and potential perpetrators, about the realities of domestic and sexual violence need to be at the heart of any program directed towards violence prevention, according to Montagna. “[The competition] is useful, but it doesn’t change the discussion.”


Montagna raised another, more pressing concern. Knowing that most rapes are committed by people known to the victim, an abusive partner who could perpetrate violence would likely have access to the victim’s phone. In these situations, the app could backfire in the worst way, provoking an act of violence rather than preventing one.

Cindy Southworth, founder of the Safety Net Technology Project based in Washington, D.C., participated in the brainstorming session that led to the creation of the Apps Against Abuse challenge. She stressed the importance of privacy and security through transparency, saying that developers need to “Make sure that when someone chooses to download or use that app they have full notice of what they’re downloading. That way, a victim whose phone might be monitored by an abuser would know if I download this, it’s going to show up.” Users of the app need to be empowered to make informed decisions just as much as they need to be protected from potential acts of violence.

When that transparency is present, an intervention-based app could become a potent way to combat all forms of sexual violence. The app might not be right for everyone, but Judy Benitez, Executive Director of the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault, doesn’t think it needs to be. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” Benitez said, “every dynamic between victim and offender is a little bit different, and what it is helpful in one situation is going to be detrimental in another one.” Benitez takes a more holistic view of the app’s place in the fight against sexual violence – “The only thing that is really harmful is when people say you should always do this or that in a crisis. If [the winning app] just adds to people’s toolbox, that’s great.”

Top tech developers might not be keyed into the best or most well-researched methods of violence prevention, or be familiar with the security and privacy controls needed, but that’s not where the value of the Apps Against Abuse competition lies. Combining expertise in different backgrounds is what is at the heart of this challenge.

Southworth thinks the fact that many participating app developers don’t have a background in sexual violence crisis management can be a good thing. She said, “I am always excited when someone who has never answered a hotline or trained a community group on domestic violence learns about the prevalence of these crimes. Those technologists get really creative ideas about how technology can be helpful.”

The developers won’t be flying solo throughout the whole process, either. The apps submitted as entries are not expected to be completed products – after the judging process, the winning development team will work with leaders in the field of sexual violence to make sure that the finished product is appropriate for the marketplace and for potential victims.

Social networking, though it figures heavily into the listed judging criteria, isn’t the only thing the Apps Against Abuse challenge is looking for. Raising awareness about the problems and destroying some of the crippling myths that persist about sexual and domestic violence is just as vital to the success of the competition, according to Benitez. She says that, “Just having people work on it and thinking about it, hearing about it in itself is helpful.” It gets a new group of people involved and active in a persistent social problem – adding to the “toolbox” of human resources in American society.

Submissions to the competition are due on October 17th. Until then, developers are encouraged by HHS to get a head start on addressing privacy and security concerns, making sure their apps are compliant with federal regulations including COPPA and HIPAA. Developers also need to be careful to not push intervention too far past what would be advised by professional resources. Southworth said, “I want application developers to think very carefully about making sure that we’re not using technology as a direct counseling mechanism without thinking through all of the nuances.”

Optimism is high for the entries into the Apps Against Abuse challenge. Southworth looks forward to the results of the competition, saying, “I think it’s fabulous to be partnering with the technology field to see what creatively we can do together.” Benitez sees hope in the fresh new perspective of the technology-minded community, in part because they lack that background in crisis prevention. “Folks that work [with domestic and sexual violence] every day are very familiar with it and used to thinking in specific terms, but it’s not aimed at them, it’s aimed at just plain folks who are being victimized,” she said. Come October, those plain folks might be looking at another key resource in the struggle against violence – the likes of which haven’t been seen yet.

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