Jessica Ladd sat alone in a room while campus security called the cops. More than a year had passed since she was sexually assaulted. At the time of the assault, Ladd was a student at Pomona College, a small, wealthy liberal arts school in Southern California.
Now, Ladd finally felt ready to file a report on her assaulter—a friend, as it so often happens. But the process wasn’t going at all as she had planned, or at least had hoped. Fifteen long minutes dragged by, while thoughts of her assault and how little control she had over the situation now raced through her mind. Panic set in. "I felt like everything was spinning out of control," Ladd says. "This situation, which was supposed to be empowering and the right thing to do, was rapidly devolving into one of the most traumatizing events of my life." She didn’t want any other college students to have to go through what she did, so Ladd created the reporting process that she wished she had: an online tool called Callisto.
Sexual assault on college campuses has recently been labeled an epidemic, most notably by lawmakers pushing for much-needed reforms in how campus sexual assaults are tracked and handled. That’s a bit of a misnomer, though; the problem of campus sexual assault is more of a slow-burning affliction than some sort of recent outbreak. Sexual assault rates haven’t really gone up since at least the 1980s. "Just limiting what we’re talking about to the prevalence rate of either attempted rape or rape victimization among women, the number is consistently somewhere between one in four and one in five," says William Flack, a professor of psychology at Bucknell University whose research focuses on the trauma of sexual assault.
But while the amount of sexual violence on our nation’s campuses may not be increasing, awareness of the problem certainly is. Many survivors, no longer content to suffer in silence, have become activists, forcing universities, lawmakers, and the rest of us to confront an issue that has been blocked from our collective conscience for far too long.
There’s Columbia University’s Emma Sulkowicz, who’s been carrying a mattress around campus in protest after her school neglected to punish the student who allegedly assaulted her. Or Dana Bolger and Alexandra Brodsky, survivors who launched "Know Your IX," a campaign to educate students about their rights and their universities’ legal responsibilities, when their own colleges discouraged them from filing reports on their assaults.
And then there’s Ladd, an epidemiologist turned sexual health activist who wants to help sexual assault survivors by fixing a particularly troubling hurdle on the road to recovery—the reporting process.
"I felt like everything was spinning out of control. This situation, which was supposed to be empowering and the right thing to do, was rapidly devolving into one of the most traumatizing events of my life."
At just 28, Ladd already has more than a decade of sexual health work under her belt. A high school production of the Vagina Monologues, and a summer as a health educator for California middle schoolers piqued her interested in sexual health. In 2004, she enrolled at Pomona College to pursue a degree in public policy and human sexuality—a self-designed major. She went on to get a Master's in public health, with a concentration in epidemiology, from Johns Hopkins University. Much of her work during grad school revolved around the creation of Sexual Health Innovations—a non-profit that develops technologies to improve sexual health like So They Can Know, an anonymous partner notification system launched in 2012 for sexually transmitted diseases developed from research on how STDs spread through sexual networks. Ladd had planned on evaluating the site as part of her doctorate work at Johns Hopkins.
But as she began the work toward her Ph.D., Ladd found that the best practices for website design—which usually involve releasing a product to large numbers of people, gathering data, and rapidly re-working the design based on what that data shows—didn’t really jive with those of public health research, where small safety studies and achingly slow progress to large-scale trials are the norm. Often, technology advances too rapidly to evaluate it with traditional public health procedures; by the time a technology is deemed safe and effective, it’s probably also out of date. Ladd promptly dropped out of her Ph.D. program and committed full time as executive director of Sexual Health Innovations.
In October 2012, Ladd was on a plane bound for Baltimore after attending a Health 2.0 conference on emerging technologies. "I was thinking through my own experience in college," Ladd recalls, "trying to figure out what type of technology would have been helpful to me." A pragmatic activist, prevention felt like too complex a problem. "I have no idea how or if anything, particularly technology related, could have prevented me from being assaulted," she admits. But fixing the reporting process felt like an easier problem to solve.
Through her work on So They Can Know, Ladd found parallels between the STD world, where a lot of the spread of disease is caused by a small group of infected individuals and sexual violence. "The majority of sexual violence cases are caused by a very small cohort of people," Ladd says, speaking to me from Sexual Health Innovations’ co-working office space in the financial district in New York City. "Ninety percent of college sexual assaults are committed, we think, by people who rape more than once, and about 60 percent of college sexual assaults are by people who rape more than twice."
Ladd believes that in order to design the most effective interventions for sexual health issues, you have to understand the problem. In theory, she wants to significantly reduce sexual assault by making it easier and more likely for victims to report assaults, weeding out re-offenders in the process; in practice, she wants to create a system that would provide researchers with an unprecedented dataset on sexual assault.
It’s well known that sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes. After an assault, survivors generally have two options for reporting the incident: file a complaint through their universities, which are required by law to investigate any allegations of sexual assault, or go straight to the police. Only 12 percent of campus sexual assaults are reported to authorities—another frightening statistic about sexual violence that prompted the White House to launch a new campaign to raise awareness for the problem called "It’s on Us."
But it’s not as if survivors aren’t telling anyone at all. A 2007 study found that upwards of 75 percent of the 102 female rape survivors surveyed had reported their assaults to what the study authors called "informal support providers"—meaning friends, family members, partners, neighbors, or co-workers. More often than not, the survivors received positive and supportive responses. However, survivors who sought out formal supporters—police officers, doctors, and clergy members—found that they were more likely to respond negatively. And while research shows that positive responses to disclosures have little effect on victims’ outcomes, negative responses can have seriously detrimental impacts on recovery.
Institutions can be as helpful or harmful as individuals. College campuses house and feed their students, essentially becoming a surrogate family for young adults, many of whom are living away from home for the first time. Students come to rely on their universities, and when they act—or fail to act—in a way that harms students, it’s called "institutional betrayal"—a term coined by University of Oregon researcher Jennifer Freyd in 2009. "When the institution responds poorly after a sexual assault, or fails to prevent sexual assault in general, post-traumatic outcomes are exacerbated for victims," says Marina Rosenthal, a graduate student in Freyd’s lab. In other words, colleges can make victims’ symptoms of stress and anxiety in the wake of trauma even worse.
The perpetrators of campus sexual assault are often students themselves, who share classes and even dorm rooms with their victims, which, not surprisingly, can be traumatizing or even dangerous. Luckily, colleges are uniquely positioned to immediately respond to victims’ needs. Universities aren’t bound to the same standard of evidence as court systems in order to take action; they can, if they so choose, err on the side of the victim and remove the accused from the victim’s classes or clubs or dorm room even before a criminal investigation is completed. Instead, many universities have been accused of protecting perpetrators, putting their reputations ahead of students’ safety, and leaving many survivors feeling betrayed by their schools.
When Ladd came forward to report her assault, her main concern wasn’t justice. She wanted to let her school know that the campus wasn’t immune to sexual assault. And she wanted the school to have the incident on record; if anyone ever reported the same offender, her report would be on record to back them up. But Ladd left the campus security office unsure of what would become of her data, whether she would be contacted if another student reported the same perpetrator, and if her report would make it’s way up the chain so that the higher ups at her school were aware of the problem. None of the objectives she had in mind when she came forward were accomplished; the university’s process was ultimately more harmful than helpful. (Pomona College would not comment on individual student records for this story.)
"There were a lot of different elements that were challenging," Ladd says. "Going in [to report] in person was hard; not feeling believed was hard; not feeling like I was connected to the right resources when I needed to be was hard; not knowing what was going to happen with my information next, or who was going to see it, was difficult; having to tell my story multiple times to different people was hard; being asked for evidence I didn’t know I needed was hard."
But Ladd doesn’t sound at all bitter as she lists the myriad ways her university failed her. "I think my school actually did a pretty good job at it, compared to a lot of institutions."
"It’s clear, based on the number of Title IX complaints that have been filed against over 100 different college campuses, that, certainly from survivors’ and advocates’ point of view, the process on many campuses does appear to be problematic," says Flack, the Bucknell professor.
Part of the problem may be that the disciplinary panels on campuses just aren’t set up to handle criminal cases. Instead of lawyers, judges, and juries, campus "courts" are run by administrators, faculty volunteers, and even students themselves. As a result, students who sexually assault a fellow classmate are likely to receive the same minor punishment as a student who plagiarizes. What does that say to both perpetrators and victims about how seriously universities take sexual violence on their campuses?
Universities are also known to consistently under-report sexual assault incidents that occur on their campuses. Since the Clery Act was passed in 1990, universities have been required to report any crimes that occur within their walls, including sexual assaults, to the Department of Education. Concerns about inconsistencies between the data submitted by universities and survey or police data led the Department of Education to carry out periodic audits of university crime statistics and reporting processes. A 2015 study from the University of Kansas School of Law looked at data submitted by universities during audits for Clery Act violations to data collected before and after the audits began. The researchers found that reports of sexual assault incidents increased by 44 percent during audits, and promptly dipped back down to pre-audit levels once the audits were complete. Even universities that were fined for non-compliance went back to under-reporting assaults after audits.
There’s a litany of problems with simply turning things over to local law enforcement, though. For one, Title IX requires that campuses be involved. If a student reports an assault, schools have no choice but to investigate and adjudicate. On top of that, the vast majority of sexual assault cases that pass through the criminal justice system end in acquittals, according to Flack. The criminal justice system seems more adept at re-traumatizing victims than it is at prosecuting perpetrators.
Ladd would agree. After she had recounted her assault to the authorities, the only resource the police officers offered Ladd was a brochure on domestic violence, with information about where to go for couples counseling. Universities aren’t great at dealing with assaults she says, "but the police aren’t great either, so it’s kind of like, which process will suck less?"
"When the institution responds poorly after a sexual assault, or fails to prevent sexual assault in general, post-traumatic outcomes are exacerbated for victims."
Callisto is an information escrow, or a third-party system that holds information and releases it only when prearranged conditions are met. First, Callisto counsels survivors on their reporting options: Should they report an incident to campus security, or their dean, or the police? What counts as sexual assault? What sort of evidence should be saved? Who will have access to their information once the report has been filed? Survivors can explore their options in the system, and choose the option that suits their situation best.
Once survivors start a time-stamped incident report online, they can choose to store their information in one of three states: they can anonymously and indefinitely store their information; they can record their experience and report automatically if another user within the system identifies the same perpetrator, or they can use the system to immediately file an official report. Until the incident is officially reported, users can transfer their report between the first two states as many times as they want, and they can even completely delete their file from the system. "Often there’s this thought that recording what happened, reporting what happened, and investigating what happened all need to happen at the same time, and that’s actually not true," Ladd says.
What sets Callisto apart is that it was built by survivors—and that doesn’t just mean Ladd. Sexual Health Innovations worked closely with other survivors of campus sexual assault through surveys, focus groups, and interviews to create a product tailored to their needs.
"We’re asking people to put the scariest information that they would ever put online, online," Ladd says. "I can’t think of anything more frightening to enter in online. My bank info? Less worried about. My credit card? Don’t really care. My social security number? Steal my identity. Whatever! But information about my sexual assault? That’s terrifying." Figuring out how to build a tool that feels safe for survivors is critical, and nearly impossible without the input of survivors, she adds.
"As survivors, we tend to be very sensitive to the way questions are asked," Ladd says. For example, if an investigator asks what you were wearing when the assault occurred, it may just be that they want to know if you still have the clothes, so they can check for physical evidence, but to survivors it can sound more judgmental—like what they’re really asking is, "Were you asking for it?"
The traditional training that police officers receive on conducting interviews doesn’t always translate well to sexual assault investigations. The questions that focus on gathering certain factual information—the simple who, what, when, where, how questions—may be harder for victims of violent crimes to answer than law enforcement agencies previously realized. And there are biological reasons for that.
Psychologist Jim Hopper teaches investigators about what happens to the brain during terrifying experiences like sexual assaults. "The fear circuitry takes over," Hopper explains to me. The prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain associated with attention and reasoning and planning—becomes flooded with stress chemicals and effectively shuts down. "People may go into a state that we call tonic immobility," Hopper says. "That’s when a person is literally unable to move, or speak, or cry out."
Tonic immobility is a relatively rare response. It only occurs in 10 to 15 percent of victims. Another response that some victims experience is what Hopper calls "collapsed immobility." Basically, people pass out. (You can see this one in action in videos of an amusement park ride called the slingshot.)
Terror affects how victims recall traumatizing events as well. At the onset of fear, the hippocampus—a brain region responsible for memory—kicks into high gear. "The hippocampus goes into a super encoding mode," Hopper says. Survivors will likely have vivid memories of the incident, the assailant, or their surroundings right around the time fear set in, which could prove useful for the investigations, but after that their memories often become fragmented or inconsistent.
"The same things that can look like deception in perpetrators—inconsistencies in the story, looking away from the officer, having memories that are incomplete or sound incoherent—these can lead officers to believe that the person is lying," Hopper says, but in reality they’re a normal response to fear. Research has shown that more often than not, police officers are skeptical of sexual assault allegations. But false reports aren’t filed as much as everyone seems to think: Only two to eight percent of reported rapes wind up being debunked.
"We, by default, just believe our users," Ladd says. "Which is part of the point, right? Because you’re not always going to get that if you go in in person to report—which sucks. We want Callisto to be a very safe, supportive space where you do feel believed, you do feel reinforced, you do feel like you have agency over what happens next."
Ladd knows better than most that a sense of control can significantly affect survivor outcomes. Survivors often find that when they disclose their assault to friends, family, or support providers, those supporters try to take control of the situation. When Ladd reported her assault, she knew she didn’t want to press charges against the perpetrator, but campus security insisted she file a report with the police. She left the campus security office feeling scared rather than empowered. When a confidant takes charge of a survivor’s situation, instead of asking what the victim wants, and allowing them to direct what happens next, it can negatively impact survivors’ outcomes. "I think you can probably conjecture that the reverse would be true as well, that allowing survivors a lot of agency and ability to decide what they want would correlate with positive outcomes," Rosenthal says. "That also is the type of institutional behavior that were not seeing currently—allowing choices, listening, asking questions—these are things that institutions are failing to do and the failure to do so is really correlating with harm."
Rosenthal is optimistic about Callisto and its potential to solve many of the problems associated with campus sexual assaults. "I see it simultaneously keeping victims safe [from repeat offenders] and allowing them agency over their reporting process, which are two things that we’re really failing at in universities nationwide," he says.
False reports aren’t filed as much as everyone seems to think: Only two to eight percent of reported rapes wind up being debunked.
This week, Sexual Health Innovations announced that the University of San Francisco will be the first of three initial participating universities to beta-test the system, what they’re calling the "founding institutions." Similar anonymous reporting programs have had some success; after the Ashland, Oregon-based program You Have Options launched in 2013, the police department saw a 106-percent increase in the number of sexual assault reports. That’s a good sign for Callisto, but whether or not the online system can reduce campus sexual assaults by up to 60 percent by weeding out re-offenders—that’s Ladd’s stated goal—remains to be seen.*
The epidemiology of sexual assault is a relatively new idea. No one’s really thought that much about how assault might "spread" through a population because we haven’t really had the data. "Most of the information available to the public is based on victim data, which is really crucial in terms of understanding the outcomes of sexual assault, but we can’t understand the predictors of sexual assault—why it happens—by looking at victims, because they’re not the people who chose to engage in sexual assault," Rosenthal says. "It’s a really challenging thing trying to get information backwards from the victim about what preceded their assaults, and potentially why they were targeted."
Still, many researchers have tried. The most frequently cited study, published in 2002, paints a grim picture of campus perpetrators as serial rapists; the study surveyed 1,882 men at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and concluded that repeat offenders commit 90 percent of campus assaults. The study spurred the idea that a minority of offenders carries out the majority of campus sexual assaults, informing assault prevention and investigation strategies nationwide. But as Emily Yoffe reported in Slate last year, the findings are not necessarily representative of all male college students. More recent research has shown that the men who carry out assaults are not in fact a homogenous group of pathological predators. A 2013 study that followed 800 men across four years found that, of the men that admitted to committing an act of sexual assault—ranging from unwanted sexual contact to sexual coercion to rape—patterns of assault behaviors varied between perpetrators and even changed overtime in individuals. Campus culture and population demographics vary from university to university, which make assaults difficult to predict at the single college level.
Callisto could, at the very least, fill some of those gaps. "There’s a lot of information that we’ll have through Callisto that we’ve never had before about patterns in sexual assault," Ladd says. "[Data] that will really help us to understand the problem and allow us to create more effective interventions around it."
Since Callisto will track identifying information about perpetrators, at least as far as survivors can identify their perpetrators, it could give researchers a clearer picture of who carries out the majority of assaults. "It’s only once you start having people naming names that you can start to build a network, and understand a network," Ladd says. Because Callisto includes identities—in the form of unique numerical IDs rather than actual names—researchers will be able to track what networks look like, from repeat offenders to repeat victims, and visualize what sexual assault looks like in epidemiological terms, according to Ladd. How does assault vary over time, across campuses, and in individuals? No one really knows at this point.
"We need to know far more than we do to be able to design really anything that’s going to be effective in reducing and eventually eliminating campus sexual assault," Flack says. "Frankly, by the time we get to things like Callisto and reporting and campus judicial processes, we’re dealing with incidents that have already happened.... Ultimately, we want to be about eliminating this problem, and not just dealing with the aftermath."
Lead photo: Jessica Ladd. (Photo: Chris Howard Photography)
*UPDATE — May 30, 2015: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the percentage of sexual assaults Callisto aims to prevent.