The Problem with Sexual Consent Apps
Not only are they far from sexy, which can hamper use, they miss the mark on discussing what consent actually is.
Image: Exey Panteleev/Flickr
The past few years have seen a dramatic shift in the national conversation about sex and consent, with "no means no" giving way to "yes means yes," and affirmative consent legislation taking statehouses by storm.
But even as affirmative consent becomes the law of the land, there's still a lot of confusion about what, exactly, it means—and a handful of enterprising app designers are hoping to offer some clarity on the matter.
One example of what app-enabled affirmative consent could look like? SaSie, a new service that claims to set "the gold standard for affirmative consent" by helping students stay in compliance with their school's sexual conduct policies. Like We-Consent and the now defunct Good2Go, SaSie offers a vision of sex where no one has to worry about whether or not their partner is into it—and college kids can get it on without fear that they'll be slapped with accusations of a consent violation a few days, or weeks, after the fact.
It points to a much deeper issue with these apps: A complete misunderstanding of what affirmative consent is supposed to be about.
If you're wondering how an app manages to achieve that lofty goal, the short answer is contracts. More specifically, the app allows soon-to-be sex-havers to digitally sign a seven-point contract full of legalese like "from this point on, it shall be the responsibility of the parties listed in this Agreement to determine a clear way to communicate permissions and limits with each other, both before and during any sexual encounter they have, whether now or in the near future" (and if that doesn't make your panties wet, I don't know what will).
According to SaSie's marketing, consent is as easy as opening an app, reading and signing a lengthy contract, snapping photos of both of your IDs, and then saving it all to a password protected file (which is all the proof I need that truth really is stranger than fiction). How the app guarantees that the agreement really was signed by two consenting adults—and not, say, someone pressuring their partner into clicking yes on an agreement, or a particularly devious person trying to fake a yes—isn't particularly clear. But that's only the beginning of its issues.
It doesn't take an advanced understanding of sex and consent to notice one of the biggest problems with SaSie and its peers: they're unbelievably unsexy. We-Consent may swap contracts for video declarations of consent to engage in sex, and Good2Go relied on a multi-step questionnaire that cleared users to get their freak on, but each of these apps treats consent as a perfunctory task to check off before getting to the real fun and games.
Even for someone deeply committed to affirmative consent (like, say, me), it's hard to work up enthusiasm for the idea of reading through a bunch of legalese and signing a contract prior to hooking up with someone. It's not that talking about sex, or verbally securing consent, is inherently unsexy—it's just that framing consent as a legal obligation, rather than a sign that everyone's on the same page and excited about boning, seems deeply misguided.
And it also points to a much deeper issue with these apps: Namely, a complete and total misunderstanding of what affirmative consent is supposed to be about. As Jaclyn Friedman, editor of Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape, notes, "People think about consent in terms of 'I need to cover my ass so no one can accuse me of rape.' And honestly, when you're approaching consent from that angle, that's a really rapey angle… it's about covering your butt instead of actually showing up for your partner."
Consent isn't a checkbox, it's an ongoing conversation about whether everyone's into whatever happens to be happening at the moment. And unlike these apps, it actually has the potential to be sexy, fun, and deeply intimate. As Friedman says, "It's not legalistic. It's actually just about treating your partner as an equal human being"—a concept one would hope most sexually active people are pretty on board with.
And there's a deeper problem than the fact that these apps present consent as a total boner killer: there's no real reason to believe they actually work. Sure, SaSie users sign a binding agreement that indicates they understand consent—including that consent can be revoked—but no one's prevented from breaching that contract, and it's unclear what recourse a user might have if their partner ends up raping them after signing a contract that promises they won't.
At best, SaSie is a way of introducing couples to the concept of consent in the world's most boring way; at worst, it's a way for rapists to "prove" they had a blank check to do whatever they pleased with a partner.
None of which is to say that technology can't be used to educate about consent. In fact, there's already an app on the market that has the potential to do far more good for cause of affirmative consent than any pre-sex contract—though tellingly, it's marketed as an app for intimacy and exploration, not one about "proving" the presence of consent.PlsPlsMe is designed to open up discussion around expectations and desires in the bedroom.
Unlike Sasie or We-Consent, PlsPlsMe doesn't create documentation of the existence of consent. Instead, it presents couples with a fun quiz that asks if they'd be interested in exploring, say, blindfolds or bondage or butt sex or any number of other kinks. If both partners indicate a mutual interest in an activity, the app sends out an alert; from there, they're encouraged to begin a fun conversation about what they're looking for in the bedroom.
True, PlsPlsMe doesn't guarantee consent, because, well, it's basically impossible for any app to actually do that. But with its focus on conversation, exploration, and a positive attitude towards talking about what we want out of sex, it does put users on a better path to understanding what, exactly, affirmative consent is all about. And in a world where talking about sex, and clearly communicating our wants and needs, is still depicted as awkward, unsexy, and a total mood killer, the very basic lesson that communication can be fun and sexy is vastly more important than any legally binding pre-sex agreement.