New App Could Help College Students Report Sexual Assault

Survivors of sexual assault face a lot of obstacles in reporting the crime — including the stigma they feel. But a new app puts help at their fingertips.

As a sexual health peer educator at Georgetown, Kathleen Kelley has talked with a lot of students trying to help their friends through the aftermath of a sexual assault. Over and over, she says, students in that position tell her they want to help, but they have no idea what to do. Now a new app may help them — and survivors themselves.

UASK DC, developed by the group Men Can Stop Rape in concert with Washington, DC city officials, will give students at the District’s eight universities a way to access medical, legal, and counseling services geared toward rape survivors easily, from their smartphones. They’ll also be able to find school-specific resources, like information about how to request time off from classes or other accommodations to help them heal. The app also includes a section to help users talk to friends and loved ones who have experienced sexual assault.

Men Can Stop Rape and student groups will be encouraging students to download the free app at the start of the school year, at the same time they put campus safety phone numbers in their phones. And Rachel Friedman, Deputy Director of Men Can Stop Rape, says positioning the app as a way for students to help friends might get more of them to download it. UASK is a resource most students probably hope they’ll never need, and some may be reluctant to download something that feels like planning for a future assault. But Friedman says, “what we can say is, ‘do it for a friend, have this information handy in case someone who you know is struggling with this issue and needs resources.’ That could make a huge difference in someone’s life.”

Kelley also hopes the app will help rape survivors report the crime, something that’s still very difficult for them to do. “Growing up in America,” she says, “I was told it was my responsibility to prevent myself from being assaulted” — but UASK can easily connect survivors with counselors who can help them understand they’re not at fault. And it can help students navigate the sometimes difficult medical and legal processes of reporting a rape, by putting resources right at survivors’ fingertips rather than forcing them to search for them during a time of trauma.

UASK isn’t the first app to address sexual assault. Circle of Six, developed last year, lets users quickly contact trusted friends to request a safe ride home, a phone call, or advice if they’re feeling uncomfortable or unsafe. Nancy Schwartzman, an activist and filmmaker who helped develop Circle of Six, says it’s received an enthusiastic response, with moms downloading it for their daughters and friends recommending it to one another, and she’s optimistic that UASK will have a similar reach. She notes that apps can provide survivors with a level of privacy and accessibility that a computer can’t match: “you have all these resources in the palm of your hand, and you don’t have to worry that someone’s looking over your shoulder.”

According to Friedman, UASK differs from Circle of Six because it’s location-specific, letting students get information tailored to their school. It’s not available for other cities yet, but Friedman says the app would be easy to adapt for other locations. And while a single app won’t solve the problem of sexual assault, Kelley says UASK will start an important conversation. She says a lot of people harbor deep-seated prejudices about sexual assault, like the idea that the victim must have been “asking for it.” But encouraging students to download UASK, and talking to them about its benefits, could help students break down those prejudices before a crime ever occurs. “If people are forced to talk about these issues beforehand,” she says, “they’ll be much more likely to be open to survivors” — and much less likely to blame them.

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