Behind the Scenes / May 2018

Learning as an iterative process: lessons I learned while making an app about sexual assault

Going into the Fellowship, I knew I wanted to make an app related to sexual assault and consent. I juggled a few ideas, from an educational game about consent to a chatbot to talk to after a sexual assault, and I eventually landed on my current project, which is an interactive resource directory for people to use when they find out someone they know has committed a sexual assault.

first lesson learned: narrow my audience

My app initially started as a directory of resources for anyone, no matter their relation to sexual assault. If you survived sexual assault, it would have resources for you; if you didn’t know what sexual assault was, it would have resources for you; and so on. After eight rounds of wireframe iterations, three months of research into available resources, and a class on design thinking, I realized that I needed to narrow my audience. Resources for people who had survived sexual assault were relatively easy to find through a Google search—RAINN’s website is an incredible starting point, as are End Rape on Campus, No More, and 1 in 6. But I struggled to find resources for what to do if someone you know sexually assaults someone else. Based on that realization, I narrowed my audience so that I could more effectively present resources and cater language to that group.

This user group (people who know someone who has sexually assaulted someone else) seems niche at first glance, but in reality, it isn’t. 72% of people who have been sexually assaulted know the person who assaulted them—so a majority of people who know someone who has been sexually assaulted are two degrees or less from the perpetrator. Finding out someone you know has committed an assault can be traumatizing, and deserving of support. Additionally, we have the most influence over the people we know—friends, loved ones, classmates, and bystanders can make a large impact by guiding people who have abused to treatment or rehabilitation.

second lesson learned: use people-first language

Sexual assault is a very sensitive topic, and it can be triggering to many folks, whether or not they have experienced sexual assault. Because of that, I wanted to be careful in crafting my content. The language in my app needs to be non-triggering and non-judgmental so that it does not induce more anxiety in the user, and it also needs to take a critical stance on ending sexual assault. I wanted the voice of the app to be a cross between a friend who has been through this situation and a medical professional who knows the right answers, and both of those people would think about the impact of their words, so I needed to do the same.

To begin my research, I looked into websites for survivors such as the local organizations WOAR, and JJP, and RAINN, which has guidelines for talking to survivors of sexual assault. One assumption I made in the beginning of content creation was that the word “survivor” was preferred over “victim.” However, after reading through Femifesto’s guide for reporting on sexual violence, I learned that the survivor / victim dichotomy wasn’t as simple as I thought. As Femifesto notes, both words are nouns, and thus describe the person according to their experiences of (and resistance to) violence, and nothing more, creating a “one-dimensional view” of them. In addition, the rejection of “victim” can “be particularly harsh on people with identities such that society expects them to be strong, e.g. black women.”

Instead of defining a person based on their experiences of violence, we can first define them as a person, and then talk about their experiences. An example of this would be “a person who has been sexually assaulted.”

In my app, I utilize this people-first principle for referencing sexual abusers as well. Reflecting on my own experiences, I saw myself dehumanizing abusers and distancing myself from them in order to distance myself from their actions. Part of me wondered if there was anything else I could do besides cut these people out my life. I didn’t want to remain friends with them, and I wasn’t ready to forgive them, but I wondered if I could direct them to some sort of resource, since these were people I knew personally. As a bystander, could I call people who have abused in instead of calling them out? What would happen if I used principles of transformative / restorative justice to think about abuse?

After all, I do believe that the burden of ending sexual assault should not be on survivors. People who perpetuate abuse need to be in the conversation as well. So based on the people-first principle, I am using the phrases “a person who has committed abuse” or “someone who has sexually offended.” I am not excusing the assault or the person who committed it, but rather suggesting that leading them to rehabilitation and treatment may prevent repeat offenses, as shown in research including this study of using community accountability and restorative justice practices to rehabilitate people who have offended.

I struggled (and am still struggling) with balancing resentment for abuse and those who perpetrate it with principles of accountability, and finding ways to end assault that don’t lay the burden on the survivor. This app won’t end sexual assault, but it will offer a starting point to the discussion about what to do when it hits this close to home.

The Interactive Mechanics Fellowship Program aims to build capacity for representation and inclusion in the technology field. We see it as a mutual learning experience for the fellows and for our existing team, so we’ve asked our fellows to share some of their expertise on our blog.