sex & relationships

Say ‘no’ to We-Consent

Halimah Manan explains why the We-Consent app isn’t good enough. (TW: mentions of rape)

The emergence of We-Consent marks the second time a sexual consent app has been launched in the past year. One of a collection of three apps designed to “open discussion” about sexual consent on university campuses, it claims to advocate for “affirmative consent” between intended sexual partners. While it may appear to be a vital step in expanding the conversation on consent, the reality of the app is highly concerning.

For those who aren’t aware, affirmative consent is the ‘yes-means-yes’ variety of ‘no-means-no’. This emphasises that only a definitive ‘yes’ will suffice for, and can be taken as, consent to sexual relations. In that respect, We-Consent is just another medium through which affirmative consent can be confirmed and highlights the need for it. Joe Jenner, History and Sociology student at the University of Warwick, commended the app: “It’s a good idea and step in the right direction, I think!” He then added: “But it’s no substitute for proper education, or tackling rape culture (especially) in universities.” While the app certainly serves as a reminder about asking for consent before having sex, its benefits stop there.

Screenshot of the We-Consent app homepage.

Screenshot of the We-Consent app homepage. Image: We-Consent LLC / We-Consent app demo

How does it work?

We-Consent works by imploring one of two partners (immediately excluding polyamorous and non-exclusive relationships) to record their name and face as they state their intention to have sexual relations with their partner, using their front-facing camera. Their partner is then recorded on the same phone’s back camera and must clearly consent to sexual relations, or the video is destroyed. A demonstration of the app at work can be seen here.

Why would the video be destroyed, you wonder? Well, once your video is created, We-Consent stores an offline encrypted record of your consent for seven years, which is only available to law enforcement or as evidence in a university disciplinary proceeding, by judicial order. That’s right: the app also functions to provide evidence of consent should someone be accused of rape. Isn’t that just presuming the worst and perpetuating the idea that admission of rape is not enough to convict someone?

Furthermore, according to the Independent, Michael Lissack, the app’s creator, claimed his main target audience would be athletes. Although athletic teams and fraternities may well be “mostly involved with scandals”, stating a target audience removes the fact that any and all sexually-active people can be perpetrators of rape and stigmatises athletes. As well as this, not all rape cases occur within committed relationships, though the app is effective in highlighting that rape can ‘unknowingly’ occur by overlooking clear consent; friends could rape other friends. By marketing the app specifically to couples, this is ignored.

Video: Michael Lissack / YouTube

But the most disturbing part is this: on We-Consent LLC’s about page, its definition of “affirmative consent” emphasises “mutual consent” but also hastens to add that “reevaluating meaning [after sex] does not mean retroactively withdrawing consent.”

Are alarm bells ringing, yet?

We-Consent essentially works as a one-off occurrence of consent, which could easily be used as evidence to suggest that someone had consented to sex in a court of law. But consent is not a blanket statement. It is not a lifetime ticket to sex, however, wherever and whenever you want. Each time people have sex, they must ask for consent. And this app hardly accommodates that a ‘yes’ just before sex does not guarantee consenting to follow through with sex completely; not to mention that few people are likely to get their phone out to document each ‘yes’ in the heat of the moment, a criticism levelled at its predecessor, Good2Go.

Although the existence of the two other apps in We-Consent LLC’s collection, What-About-No and Changed-Mind, record when consent is not being given, it is not clear why all three cannot function as one app. As such, their existence only serves to confuse what is, in fact, a very simple idea. We-Consent takes a step back from the progress of Good2Go, which collated those functions before it was pulled from Apple’s store, 9 days after its release. And, like We-Consent, Good2Go did not store instances where participating couples did not consent to sex. Rather than have three different apps for, essentially the same service, why not use We-Consent to affirm but also to evidence instances where consent was not given?

Screenshot of the We-Consent app.

Screenshot of the We-Consent app. Image: We-Consent LLC / We-Consent app demo

In its current state, We-Consent functions to help those who are falsely accused of rape (0.01 percent of reported rapes between January 2011 and May 2012, according to the National Union of Students) more than it would those who are raped. After all, if each time you say ‘no’ the video is deleted, there’s no evidence that you did not consent. And, since the app does not appear to have body-language reading technology, how can it tell when you’re being coerced into giving consent?

This possibility of coercion is especially terrifying when you consider that, though We-Consent places responsibility on both partners, the second of the two is forced to respond to a solicitation. Which can only mean they are given more of the responsibility – or the blame – and places pressure on them. As well as this, as it only requires one phone to consent, the possibility of a person rescinding their consent in private is removed.

In addition, though We-Consent claims its records are stored offline, the potential for hacking could still exist while the video is being uploaded. This poses serious problems for LGBT+ people, in particular. Madi Simcock-Brown, Warwick Anti-Sexism Society’s (WASS) LGB+ rep, said: “I felt a bit nervous about it all because you’re documenting who you’re sleeping with and that could be very problematic for LGBT+ people with issues of outing…” Should a leak occur, this could prove devastating.

Moreover, on a purely practical basis, We-Consent doesn’t seem likely to work. Like Good2Go, it appears to ask too much from users, who could clarify everything with a simple conversation instead. As Mikka Park, History and Sociology student at Warwick, pointed out, “I just think it will be a waste of time. I don’t think it’s something people will want to or be bothered to do (and a lot of sex is not often planned, so I doubt they’re going to incorporate consent videos, really).” She also added that it would be “a little awkward” to make a video right before sex, particularly with strangers, rather than simply establishing consent.

So, although the app appears, at first-glance, to be “a step in the right direction”, it falls short of being a remarkable service; despite being marketed as intended to “open discussions” about consent, We-Consent is only repeating what orientation and freshers’ workshops are already advocating for. While it reminds us of a pressing need to continue to talk about consent, using a phone to establish consent is just cumbersome. Instead, take a tip from the National Union of Students’ I Heart Consent campaign and remember that “consent is asking every time.”