Safety? There’s an app for that: Preventing sexual assault with the help of technology

Imagine finding yourself in a dangerous situation, such as a first date that has turned threatening or a suspicious neighborhood at night.

In a recent study, 21 percent of female college students reported experiencing sexual assault since starting college.

Now imagine turning to a mobile application for help.

In a recent study, 21 percent of female college students reported experiencing sexual assault since starting college. That can be a terrifying statistic for many women. Hoping to find a solution to prevent sexual assault, the world has turned to technology.

Some mobile safety apps people commonly use, such as bSafe, Circle of 6 and Guardly, have features that alert your emergency contacts in an emergency and use GPS to track your location. Some apps also have separate networks you can create based on your situation.

Jo Beyer, a student at the University of St. Thomas who advocates for sexual health on campus, can see how developers would think mobile apps for safety would appeal to young people.

“They have these blue lights around campus,” said Beyer, referring to the campus emergency poles at St. Thomas, “but people don’t use those blue lights, they use their cellphones.”

Jo Beyer
Jo Beyer, University of St. Thomas student and advocate for sexual health. (Photo courtesy of Mark Vancleave)

Safety apps have different features in order to be useful to a wide range of people with varying needs. While using Circle of 6, for example, tap your phone twice if you’re in a potentially dangerous situation and a message gets sent to six of your emergency contacts with your exact location. With bSafe, a network of people, called “guardians,” can be alerted when you’re in an emergency and can trace your path via GPS. Siren GPS will contact 911 and send your location to authorities with the touch of a button. Some apps also help victims report an incident and let them access 24-hour hotlines.

But are these apps being used in the real world, and are they actually working?

According to Beyer, who is on the St. Thomas Wellness Center’s Student Health Promotion Team, the apps haven’t reached the University of St. Thomas yet. Emily Erickson, the sexual assault prevention coordinator at the university, also can’t say if the apps are effective or if they’re being used.

“I don’t think right now it’s been around long enough for us to know if there’s evidence to show if it’s reducing sexual assault,” Erickson said.

Emily Erickson
Emily Erickson, the sexual assault prevention coordinator at St. Thomas. (Photo courtesy of Mark Vancleave)

Nevertheless, Beyer said, there’s no substitute for basic safety skills and common sense. You can always walk with someone—a friend or a public safety officer. If you don’t need to walk alone, there are many ways to avoid it.

“You kind of have to be sure to never let your guard down, be with the people you trust,” Beyer said.

Sexual assault comes in different forms, but most victims know their attackers. An assault also can result from a remark that can make someone feel uncomfortable or disrespected.

Even though success is slow in coming for mobile safety apps, advocates for sexual assault still believe that it doesn’t hurt to try new tools.

“It can happen to women, it can happen to men, it can happen to anyone at any time,” Beyer said.