Taking Matters Into Our Own Hands with Sexual Assault Prevention Apps

Co6 screens
Circle of 6

By Caryn Rubanovich, Intern 2014

By now, many schools have kicked into full gear. For freshmen it’s a daunting time. Being in college is exciting. It’s a place we’ve all heard about: a place to meet best friends, commit to our studies, and explore passions, old and new. Without a doubt, the beginning of the fall semester can also be a nerve-wracking and sometimes vulnerable period for a student trying to fit in, make connections with classmates, get to know floor mates, and go outside one’s comfort zone.

And with the start of a new school year the topics of sexual assault and rape prevention on college campuses have been abuzz. One of the differences in this year’s discussions seems to be the honing of technology in the form of smartphone apps for sexual assault prevention. A few schools, such as Williams College, Loyola University in Chicago, and Carnegie Mellon, are starting to adopt a string of these apps, which some believe welcome a new age of sexual assault prevention.

For those of you who have followed the hype about these apps, you may have also read some of the criticism from other social justice activists. For example, Alexandrea Brodsky, a founder and current co-director of Know Your IX, has voiced her concerns over the fact that some apps must be purchased. Brodsky worries that “there could be a tool that would only be accessible to some people depending on their ability to pay.” Others have pointed out that these apps unintentionally suggest that it’s the person’s own responsibility to get the app and ensure their own safety, potentially leading to victim blaming.

I’ll be honest: I have mixed feelings about these apps in general. Now, don’t get me wrong. I certainly support new and innovative ideas if they even just help one person. These apps have brought much-needed attention to an important issue: the way that school administrations are handling sexual assault prevention. Nevertheless, I’m cautious because apps like these also send a message that’s easily misconstrued.

As some of my activist colleagues have already suggested, we could see victim-blaming increase since the apps are specifically targeted toward individuals potentially at risk rather than toward potential perpetrators. As Scott Berkowitz, president of Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) says,

“I think the way that debate has gone has been unfortunate, because all crime prevention puts the onus on someone other than the perpetrator.”

Ultimately, sexual assault prevention apps should be used in conjunction with other kinds of sexual assault prevention such as consent-based education and bystander training—rather than as a substitute for them.

The app that has received the most attention is Circle of 6, which Williams College has already adopted and UCLA is in the process of adopting. According to Thinkprogress.org, the app “allows users to select a group of six friends to easily contact if they wind up in a situation they need help getting out of.” The app “can help facilitate culture change by requiring friends to discuss the responsibilities that come with being in each other’s ‘circles.’ That requires them to broach the topic of healthy sexual relationships with peers and practice how to be an effective bystander in social situations.”

Circle of 6 stands out because of its emphasis on building strong support networks for users. Building this network of trusted individuals (the original social network, I like to think) is incredibly important. Nancy Schwartzman, the founder of Circle of 6, says that the app is intended for use after the individual has had “pretty in-depth conversations” with the six friends “about what it means to be accountable to each other.” According to its website,

“Circle of 6 is more than a safety app: it’s a community and a state of mind. It fosters the formation of groups based on trust and accountability and promotes a culture of care, where friends look out for one another and work together to eliminate violence in their communities. Ideally, all of your friends will be part of this culture whether or not you program them into our app.”

It’s easy to think that we’ll never find ourselves in situations we’re uncomfortable with. Through my own experiences and observations I’ve learned that situations can go from comfortable to uncomfortable in a matter of moments. Fortunately a couple of the Circle of 6 app features have been specifically created for situations like these. You can click on a phone icon and send a text to your contact that says, “Call and pretend you need me. I need an interruption.” Another option is to click on a car icon, which sends a text that says, “Come and get me. I need help getting home safely” while your contact receives an accompanying map with GPS tracker to show your exact location.

These are both realistic options since nowadays many of us keep our phones by our sides. We’re also more likely to reach out to friends than to police. The fact that the options are pre-programmed makes them hassle-free—reaching out to your network is a few clicks away. Individuals also have access to local resources and there is a chat icon that provides more information and advice on healthy relationships and the option to notify a contact to keep them in the loop.

Circle of 6 is best utilized during two time periods: when an individual is in a situation that’s just starting to get uncomfortable, and after a situation when they are looking for long-term resources. There are obviously times when someone might not have known they wanted to use the app until things had escalated too far, and there isn’t much the app could do at that specific point. While there is an option to call a pre-programmed local emergency number or hotline, it wouldn’t be enough for an individual in a dire situation where things are escalating exponentially within seconds.

By no means is an app an end-all be-all answer to sexual assault prevention. Nevertheless, it does offer a few prevention options and long-term resources for its users to utilize all in one convenient place.

The biggest take-away is that Circle of 6 works optimally when the user has created a trusted network of others to rely on in emergency situations. This network consists of people the user has had substantial conversations with beforehand about any concerns and about the importance of sexual assault prevention.

Of course, I recognize that a majority of perpetrators of sexual assault are acquaintances (and sometimes even friends) of survivors. This emphasizes the importance of building a network of numerous accountable individuals and is why users are recommended to have up to six different contacts. The more we talk to people around us about the issues we’re passionate about, like sexual assault prevention, the larger our network of allies grows. If we’re vocal about these conversations with our friends, we’re more likely to surround ourselves with a culture of consent. That’s how caring individuals can start to form groups and then communities that are engaged in the well-being of every person.

While Circle of 6 is not a singular perfect solution to sexual assault prevention, it offers its users a few helpful and useful resources that are fairly easy to navigate and above all could realistically be used in a college setting. Administrations should consider implementing Circle of 6 as they look to improve sexual assault prevention on campuses across the country. Even more, Circle of 6 emphasizes building a trusted network of people to rely on, which is important for individual safety and well-being and promotes a more socially just community.

Whether you choose to download something like Circle of 6 or not, it’s worthwhile to sit down and think about the people in your life right now that you’re comfortable with and would turn to if you needed something. Using the app’s recommendations of how to “choose your circle,” here are some points to consider when choosing your trusted network:

  • Who do you trust right now? Is one of those people a roommate? Classmate? Fellow team athlete? Fellow Greek member? Think about what makes you feel comfortable talking to that person. Have you already bonded over a mutual love of something else? Do you live close by, perhaps on the same floor? Have you previously spoken about the importance of sexual assault prevention? These questions start the process of thinking about the people you want to reach out to as you build your network.


  • What expectations do you have for being accountable to one another and to respond in emergency situations? Do you go to the same parties or gatherings together? How quickly does this person respond to your texts? Do they have a means of transportation to pick you up, if needed? Have they been reliable in the past?


  • Is this person on the same page? Consent is always important. This definitely holds true when it comes to building a network of reciprocity. It’s ideal to have congruent expectations of one another. How does the person respond to the conversation? Are they appreciative that you opened up about what it means to you?

College is a unique experience because it really is one of the first times we have full authority over who we want to get to know and spend our time with and the people we want to be friends with. Through my work as a freshmen RA during college, having undergone extensive training and working with freshmen residents for my junior and senior years of college, I came to learn the importance of building meaningful relationships as early as the beginning of freshman year. I was reminded of this recently after coming across the term “the red zone,” used to describe the first six weeks of the semester when a student is most likely to experience rape or attempted rape. It’s never too early to reach out.

Creating a network of accountable friends from the get-go will allow us to feel more comfortable knowing that others are looking out for our safety and well-being. It’s when we truly feel safe and supported that we open up and take advantage of the opportunities in front of us. That’s when college starts to feel like home and a place for us to spread our wings.

Caryn recently graduated with an M.S. in Narrative Medicine from Columbia University in the City of New York, where she studied clinician-patient relationships and the intersection of medicine, healthcare, and technology in modern-day patient care. She is currently working towards applying for PhD Clinical Psychology programs. Follow her on Twitter @carynkseniya.

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