Reporting Sexual Assault Is Difficult, but a New Technology May Help

By Brendam Nyhan (New York Times)
December 2, 2014

One of the key factors driving the growing scandal surrounding Bill Cosby is shared awareness of the numerous rape allegations against him, which has prompted media companies and his beloved Temple University to distance themselves from him while encouraging new accusers to come forward.

A Rolling Stone article has had a similarly galvanizing effect at the University of Virginia by reporting a pattern of sexual assaults on campus. The attention it drew to the issue prompted Teresa A. Sullivan, the university’s president, to suspend all fraternity activities until January.

Most accounts of sexual assault never reach this level of awareness, however. Few are even reported. One reason is that reporting systems on college campuses and in the criminal justice system are widely regarded as unfriendly to victims. In particular, even though research suggests that many rapists engage in repeated attacks, survivors of sexual assault are rarely aware of other victims or able to come forward together.

Callisto, an online sexual assault reporting system under development by a nonprofit called Sexual Health Innovations, aims to change this and provide better options for victims of sexual assault on college campuses.

The project builds on the idea of “information escrows” proposed by Ian Ayres and Cait Unkovic in a 2012 Michigan Law Review article. Mr. Ayres, an economist at Yale’s law school, and Ms. Unkovic, a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley, suggest that reporting of misbehavior that is difficult or costly for victims to disclose might be increased if people had the option to report that information to a third party who would make the disclosure only if others also reported misconduct by the same individual.

Jessica Ladd, Sexual Health Innovations’ executive director, is applying this idea in Callisto. In an email, she notes that “survivors are often willing to share about our experiences — you just need to give us a compelling reason and a safe way to do so.” In particular, she said: “This sharing doesn’t have to happen publicly, as the Cosby and UVA cases did. Survivors should not have to out themselves to the entire world in order to get justice or to find out if they are the only one” who was attacked by a particular person. Knowing about other victims, she said, is often a major factor in the decision to report an assault or not.

Ms. Ladd describes Callisto as meeting the need for reporting systems that “keep the survivor in control of their own data and their own choices.” According to the organization, it will allow users to create time-stamped reports that are saved in the system, which is not accessible to administrators or law enforcement. Users may choose to submit a report to campus authorities immediately or store the information and return to it later once they have made a choice about whether to report. Most notably, users are provided with the option to automatically submit their report if another student reports being attacked by the same person, creating shared awareness of a possible serial perpetrator who might otherwise not be identified to campus authorities.

The Rolling Stone article, for instance, describes a first-year University of Virginia student who reported being sexually assaulted and was “shaken to discover two other women with stories of assault by the same man” – key evidence that she reportedly submitted to his disciplinary hearing. (Disturbingly, her suspected attacker received only a one-year suspension after being found guilty; the university has apparently not expelled a student for sexual assault in recent years.) This case is an exception, however. More “pattern evidence” like this could be brought forward if improved shared reporting options were provided to victims.

Of course, not all such reports will be made. As Ms. Ladd notes, the project is intended to help victims make “the reporting (or not reporting) choice that is right for them.”

It will also be important to provide protections against false allegations and due process for people who are accused under any reporting system — a concern in many higher education settings and in the criminal justice system as well.

Finally, the project is just beginning. A recent crowdfunding campaign raised more than $25,000, but Ms. Ladd has said $1 million will be required to finance Callisto’s development and a planned pilot campaign on three campuses during the 2015-2016 academic year.

While Ms. Ladd acknowledges that Callisto is only “a piece of the solution to a very large problem,” it could be an important first step in changing sexual assault reporting on college campuses. For victims, there can be strength in numbers.

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. Follow him on Twitter at @BrendanNyhan.