When there is a problem to be solved, our 21st century default is to turn to technology for solutions.
This is how we’ve managed to create a world where you can press a button on your phone and have an Uber waiting for you within minutes; where you can watch any movie or TV show you want at any time of day or night for a small monthly fee; where you can find people to date by swiping right or left from the comfort of your own home.
Last year saw an unprecedented wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations, so it’s not surprising the tech industry decided that the issue could be solved with an app.
Enter LegalFling, which allows people to request potential partners fill in a tick box consenting to different sexual acts including BDSM, explicit language and photo or video recording.
The app is not yet available on App Store or Google Play, but its creators suggests it will be soon – I desperately hope they’re wrong.
There’s a clear problem here in that there’s no way of proving who opened up the app and ticked the boxes – there’s a reason IRL contracts require a signature and often witnesses in order to be valid.
But leaving aside the dubious legal standing of these ‘contracts’, the idea in itself is deeply flawed in its perception of what sexual abuse means.
The suggestion that you can boil consent down to a checklist is as reductive as it is misguided, and promotes the idea that it’s a one-time question, which, once responded to in the affirmative, gives a partner carte blanche to steamroll ahead with no further conversation.
The app has a function which allows a participant to ‘change their mind’, but anyone who has been in a non-consensual grey-area situation knows it’s never that simple.
Women in particular already struggle to be open about changing their mind mid-way through a sexual experience.
The scene of a woman suddenly realising she’s not attracted to a man after suggesting she wanted to have sex, but deciding to go through with it anyway is a pop culture trope for a reason, and one many women identify with, as evidenced by the widespread relatability of the short story Cat Person, which explored this issue and went viral last year.
If saying ‘no’ is hard enough, there is no way that having to check a box on an an app would make the process of reversing consent any less complex for women, who have been taught that their power lies in their sexuality and their value in how much they can please a man.
On a more basic level, what if your phone runs out of battery or your signal drops when you’re trying to reverse the consent?
Anyone who regularly relies on apps in their daily life knows they are not foolproof, which is fine in most contexts, but not when it comes to our ability to control what happens to our bodies.
Similarly, sexual harassment – particularly in the workplace – stems not from confusion around whether or not someone has consented, but from a power imbalance, which limits many women’s ability to assert their rights.
Not only does this make women in low-level positions less likely to report instances of harassment, but it also makes them perfect targets for sexual predators, who could easily pressure them into ticking a box if their professional and financial fate hung in the balance.
There is no way of knowing whether a partner who ticks the consent box is doing so because they feel socially pressured, physically threatened, because they are scared or intoxicated, or simply because their finger slipped.
Consent is a complex, thorny issue, which is rooted in gender politics and centuries of patriarchal oppression and power differentials.
We can work to change the situation by pushing for progressive legislation, properly educating children in the issues from a young age and encouraging survivors of sexual abuse to come forward.
The answer is not – and never will be – a checklist on an app on your phone.