**Trigger warning for discussions of sexual assault and dating violence**
Call me late to the game on this one, but as a single woman going on blind dates with internet dudes in New York City, when I learned about the Circle of 6 app, I was elated. Created in 2012, Circle of 6 seeks to “prevent violence before it happens” by using GPS and SMS group messaging to help friends stay in touch with each other. It was born from the genius mind of filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman as a result of Vice President Biden’s Apps Against Abuse challenge for inventors to use the latest technological advances to help prevent dating violence on college campuses.
I had spent several years as an emergency department patient advocate for survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. Having also experienced both forms of abuse personally, I was entering the dating world already all too familiar with just how quickly my safety could be threatened. Less tech savvy systems I used included placing a friend at a date location as a “plant” (often awkward and not always available), texting friends and family my location and “If you don’t hear from me by X time, please call me,” (cumbersome and if the dates went well, I usually forgot to check in, unnecessarily alarming my Dating Helpers), and of course, carrying my trusty pepper spray with me at all times. But in reality, there is no substitute for being able to communicate effectively and quickly with 6 of my friends in the event that a situation becomes unsafe. Just in time for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I thought I’d try to keep spreading the word about how this app works, and how it’s been faring in the hands of users.
This app allows you to choose four options that you can communicate to your friends in just two clicks; one to open the app and one to indicate which option you would like to choose: The “Car” icon signals to your circle “Come get me, I need help getting home safely” and uses GPS to provide a map of where you are. The “Phone” icon requests an interruption phonecall from the circle, and the “Chat” icon sends a message that reads, “I’m looking up information about healthy relationships and respect. Just letting you know,” and provides links to loveisrespect.org and whereisyourline.org, thus keeping them informed but not asking for immediate response. The “Exclamation point” icon links to national hotline numbers and a local number that each user can customize. A more extensive video on how to use Circle of 6 can be found here.
Schwartzman, the app’s creator, states: “The essence of the app is meeting people where they are, no victim-blaming and no judgment. We were very careful every step of the way to check all the language, and in our statements to the media I never wanted it to be like, “Well, why would a girl put herself in that situation,” because that’s the rhetoric you hear so much around sexual assault with this age group, and frankly, any age group. Girls are out late. College students party. College students drink. And the bricks really fall down hard if a young woman is sexually assaulted under those conditions. And having been raped in a similar way, in a very college-y situation (it was someone I knew, we had been drinking a bit), that doesn’t take away that it was totally and utterly a rape. So much of risk reduction has this undertone of victim blaming, so we wanted to be very sensitive.”
From Mother Jones: “The Circle of 6 app isn’t for everyone—you need an iPhone, for one, and some nice, supportive friends—but it could help teenagers and twentysomethings talk about abuse and sexual assault. According to the Center for Disease Control, nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men in the US have been raped at some point in their lives. More than half of female rape survivors of all ages reported being raped by an intimate partner and 40 percent by an acquaintance.”
From Bitch Magazine: “Of course this app is far from perfect—it doesn’t make a direct connection to sexual assault prevention beyond providing hotline numbers, and I have a hard time imagining a college student (or anyone) sending a text message to friends that reads “I’m looking up information about healthy relationships and respect. Just letting you know.” However, it does reinforce the notion that sexual assault and violence prevention is a community effort (combine it with your Hollaback! app for maximum effectiveness), and the more we send that message, the better. “
Feminspire notes: “Why is this app so important? Mace is for cases when you’re at a point when you need to cause temporary harm. Rape whistles only work when others are around to hear them. . . This app starts before. . . as soon as you start feeling unsafe in any situation, all you have to do is pretend to be fiddling with your phone, when really you’re planning your escape, a safe exit.”
Key critiques of the app seem to be that it is, of course, only available to those with smartphones, and also does not allow you to enter less than 6 contacts. Many people complain of not having 6 friends that they would feel comfortable reaching out to in an unsafe situation, but entering less than 6 contacts leaves the app inoperable. (See the comments of this LifeHacker article for more venting about the app’s shortcomings). Additionally, not everyone has a friend with a car who could offer a safe ride home; especially here in the city. However, while the app may not be perfect, for those who are able and inclined to use it, it goes a very long way in both providing tangible support and creating dialogue around a very serious issue that can often be difficult to discuss.
The app is currently in version 1.2 and is available for iPhone 3G and later models (including iPhone 5), and Android (2.1 and up).