If people who have been sexually assaulted were able to report (and record) details of the assault electronically – without having to go directly to the authorities immediately – would more victims report? Would more assailants be caught?
Sexual-health educator and researcher Jessica Ladd has developed a system meant to encourage victims of sexual assault to come forward – one she believes could also make a difference for alleged victims in the courtroom.
At the TED Conference in Vancouver on Monday, Ms. Ladd offered an arsenal of troubling statistics about sexual assault on university campuses: One in five women and one in 13 men will be sexually assaulted at some point in their U.S. college career. Fewer than 10 per cent will report the assault and on average they will wait 11 months to make that report. More statistics: Some 90 per cent of sexual assaults are committed by repeat offenders. But the vast majority of sexual-assault assailants "get away with it. This means that there's practically no deterrent to assault in the United States," Ms. Ladd, a TED Fellow and an infectious-disease epidemiologist by training, told the conference.
"This to me is a tragic, but a solvable problem."
Ms. Ladd has developed a system that allows victims to fill out a record of their sexual assault online, using a third-party website, and save it as a time-stamped document. They can submit the report to authorities (the police, college officials) or save it as a record of their experience. At any point, victims who choose not to submit the report initially have the option of logging back in and sending the report. Or they can elect to have it submitted automatically if somebody else files a report naming the same assailant.
The sexual-assault recording and reporting system, called Callisto, was developed by Ms. Ladd's startup Sexual Health Innovations, in consultation with sexual-assault survivors. It was launched at two U.S. colleges last August – University of San Francisco and Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. "We do have a number of users at both schools," Ms. Ladd told The Globe and Mail. "That seems to indicate to us that we're reaching a lot of the survivors."
More schools will be brought on board in August.
Ms. Ladd herself was sexually assaulted when she was at college – a catalyst for developing this system. She reported the incident but did not pursue it. So she is well aware of the difficult decisions involved in reporting such cases.
"A lot of survivors face this issue, where you can either go through with it but then you'll get eviscerated on the witness stand and probably have a horribly re-traumatizing experience that's unlikely to result in justice; or you can stay silent … and then often beat yourself up in some ways for not taking action which is horrible because now you're feeling guilty for something you didn't do after you were assaulted. So [we're] really trying to help survivors out of this bind, this Catch-22, where you can't win no matter what you do and help us have the best chance that we can at justice, and support each other through the process."
Ms. Ladd believes her system can help alleviate the challenges for complainants in sexual-assault cases such as those that have emerged during the trial of former CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi.
"That's the hope," Ms. Ladd said in the interview. "If you can create a time-stamped record that's prompting you for the information you need closer to the time of the incident … you can write it all down then in a way that feels safe and then you can return to that."
The issue of sexual assault on campus has also been in the headlines with allegations that have erupted at the University of British Columbia against a PhD candidate. On Monday, UBC interim president Martha Piper outlined the key findings of a report into how UBC staff handled that case. The lawyer hired to investigate the complaints found there was no breach of the university's policies but also said the system for handling such sexual-assault complaints was "flawed" and "needs to change."
While Callisto was designed for university campuses, it has wider applications – the military for instance or a particular workplace.
Ms. Ladd wasn't the only one to speak at TED Monday about the need for a change in the system for dealing with sexual assault.
Amanda Nguyen is working to implement a Sexual Assault Survivor Bill of Rights in the United States. At TED, she talked about being re-victimized after she herself was assaulted. First, there were the difficulties undergoing the three- to seven-hour-long examination for a rape kit. "It takes this long because the crime scene is your body," she said. Then there is the ongoing fight to keep the rape kit – the evidence – from being destroyed.
Ms. Nguyen and Ms. Ladd, who did not know each other before they became TED Fellows, plan to do some advocacy work together this spring.
"We don't have to live in a world where 99 per cent of rapists get away with it," Ms. Ladd told the TED audience to a standing ovation. "We can create one where those who do wrong are held accountable; where survivors get the support and justice they deserve; where the authorities get the information they need and where there's a real deterrent to violating the rights of another human being."
With a report from The Canadian Press