Innovator Insights: Making It Safe to Report Sexual Assault Online

An astonishing 90 percent of assaults are committed by repeat assailants, and only 22 percent of sexual assaults on campuses are reported to authorities, according to estimates. Victims of sexual assault on college and university campuses need a safe space where they can report assailants in a transparent and confidential way —and where they can help put an end to what is often an ongoing cycle.

“We’re not talking much about prevention or support these days,” says Jessica Ladd, Ashoka American Express Emerging Innovator and executive director of Sexual Health Innovations (SHI), an organization committed to creating technology that advances sexual health and wellbeing in the United States. “We hear a lot about survivors who report, schools mishandling claims and schools being investigated by the federal government. But there is not much discussion about how to prevent assault in the first place.”

SHI has created an online sexual assault reporting system called Callisto. “The system is designed to provide a more empowering reporting experience for survivors, to give schools the data they need to combat assault in the future, and to increase the identification of repeat assailants,” Ladd said.

Callisto will allow survivors to go to their school-specific site and fill out a form to document the assault. As the percentage of reported assaults increases, it’s hoped that the percentage of repeat assailants will drop.

Assault survivors can submit the report immediately to their chosen authority—for example, campus security or local police—or save it as a time-stamped record. Once saved, survivors can log back in later to submit, or elect to have the report auto-submitted if another individual reports the same assailant.

Additionally, students who report can provide anonymous feedback about a school’s sexual assault policies. The system makes it easy for schools to aggregate information about sexual assaults and assailants, including assault trends and tracking incidents over time.

As an “information-escrow,” Callisto serves as a third-party system that holds information on behalf of the sexual assault survivor, to be released only when previously agreed-upon conditions are met. “In this case, that would be when survivors opt-in to automatically report their assault if someone else reports the same assailant,” Ladd explains. SHI’s research shows that survivors are more likely to report their assault if they believe their assailant is an ongoing threat to their community.    

SHI is currently raising funds to implement Callisto on campuses and universities, but the project is already showing promise. “We have been doing a great deal of formative work,” Ladd said. “Our survey data from college sexual assault survivors suggests that the system could raise the reporting rate on campuses by 260 percent.”

If Callisto succeeds on campuses, SHI foresees using the system to address sexual harassment in the workplace and sexual assault in the military. “We believe that this approach will eventually decrease assault and mitigate the negative consequences of reporting an assault when one does occur,” Ladd said. 

It’s all about empowering survivors to make their own decisions when it comes to reporting. “If we want to really understand assault on college campuses and support survivors, we need to put safe systems in place for them to tell – and retain control of – their stories,” she added.

Deciding what counts as a safe must be left in the hands of survivors.

“For some, that safe space might be talking to friends or family,” Ladd said. “For some, that safe space may exist online, commenting or blogging or using social media, anonymously or not. For others, that safe space might be through a more traditional platform like a newspaper or magazine, and for others still, it might be through art or through multi-media projects.

“What makes a space safe is different for everyone, but I think it’s important that people who do speak out know that they are not alone, and that they feel believed and supported.”

Learn more about Callisto here.     

Jessica Ladd was part of a group of 45 leading social innovators from North America that took part in the 2014 American Express Emerging Innovators Boot Camps. Want to hear more from the innovators like Ladd? Check back here for more innovator insights, and follow #emerginginnovators and @changemakers.