Why you should care
Because a scientific approach could save you.
There is a college campus near Jessica Ladd’s apartment. She can watch the students, antlike, moving in patterns. They’re racing to orgo labs and lectures on structuralism; they’re decked out for the opening of a friend’s gender-bending play. They’re getting wasted at frat parties and texting their roommates from outside their dorms. They’re experimenting with sex, and vulnerability, and trust, and consent — and sometimes, these tests take a dark turn. “I’m like, ‘I’ll protect you,’ ” she says in a mockingly deep-throated vigilante voice. “I’m kind of like Batman.”
Ladd is 30, but with her dirty blond hair, bright yellow cardigan and skinny jeans, she could pass for a college sophomore. Her speech is nerdy and excited, and she makes small talk about the keg in her trendy shared office space that’s never been tapped. Ladd takes a while to get to the serious stuff, which is what keeps her focused during the day: sexual assault. Ladd is trying to understand it with a wholly new approach — dare we say, a scientific one — so that it can be prevented.
When it comes to sexual assault on campus, there are certain truisms you’ll find touted in dining-hall debates and printed onto solidarity buttons, the weapons of those who fight violence against women: One in five women on college campuses has been sexually assaulted. Their assailants have probably raped before and will do it again. Does Ladd trust that last bit, though? “Not at all,” she says bluntly. That’s because information about perpetrators is notoriously difficult to come by; surveys asking assailants about their histories go only so far to snuff out the truth.
Indeed, sometimes it seems that the only thing experts in this area can agree on is that data about sexual assault is incomplete. Which is where Ladd comes in. While other groups try to raise awareness or pressure colleges to punish assailants, Ladd is gathering data as if she were one of her peers in the San Francisco tech scene. The main innovation of her platform — a “surveillance system,” she calls it — is that it allows victims to write a report online, including the name of the perpetrator, without going to the authorities. She believes her platform lowers the barriers to reporting and provides information some surveys don’t, like what time of year the assault occurred. All of this, she believes, will lead to better statistics on campus rape and connect the dots between rapists and their victims.
As steeped in data as Ladd is, the work is personal. A decade ago, as a college student at Pomona studying public policy and human sexuality, she herself was assaulted. She reported it but didn’t follow up with prosecution. Now, she says, looking me dead in the eyes, “I don’t know if he ever did it to anyone else.” One can interpret her work as an effort to redeem the past as best she can. The assault, she says, could be a “net positive” if she could help others in a similar situation. “It’s certainly a system I would have wanted,” she says.
Ladd sits down to demo Callisto, the reporting software she’s created. The words “SAFE. SUPPORTED. IN CONTROL.” jump out in big, white caps on the homepage. She creates an anonymous account and is directed to a focus-group-approved, purple webpage with multiple-choice questions. Question 1: “How recent was it?” She answers, and a notification pops up suggesting that, since it was within five days, she’d be able to get a forensic exam. She responds to questions about what happened, and where and when, and who did it.
When it comes time to submit the record, there are options. Traditional reporting involves going to campus or police officials — but on Callisto, the authorities need not be involved. The survivor could merely save the record. Alternatively, she could send the report directly to her school. Or she could choose to send it to the authorities only if someone else has named the assailant, or names him in the future.
In her office, Ladd jumps up and diagrams patterns of sexual assault on the whiteboard, a peek into how her mind works. Circles represent people — victims and perpetrators — and connecting lines represent assaults. She traces the patterns in dry-erase marker. Ladd believes that rape can be studied the same way infectious diseases are studied, using the tools of epidemiology. Indeed, Ladd used to study how STDs move from one person to the next — and, in fact, she came up with Callisto while working on a project that allowed people with recently diagnosed STDs to send anonymous emails to their past sexual partners: Maybe they should think about getting tested.
Most of Ladd’s work has focused on sex and stigma. She grew up in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis and watched a next-door neighbor die of it. “I always thought I would die of AIDS, because that’s what people did,” she says. In college, Ladd created her own research projects, one to study access to condoms in prison and another about prostitution in L.A. Later, as a White House fellow, she focused on HIV policy, unintended pregnancy prevention and access to healthcare for pregnant women.
A turning point came in 2013, when Ladd was invited to give a TEDx Talk about her STD-notification service. Friends told her that it was supposed to be the “talk of her life,” she says, and Ladd dutifully prepared a killer speech. The date of her flight was close to the anniversary of her half-sister’s death, and on the plane there was a good deal of turbulence. Ladd’s mind jumped to her thoughts of her own death, and mid-flight, she switched topics: She would use the forum to open up about her sexual assault, a secret so closely guarded that not even her parents knew. “I picked the scab on something,” she says.
Callisto began to take shape. Its name derives from a Greek myth about a nymph who was raped. Just as the myth comforted Ladd in the aftermath of her own assault, she wanted the platform to make sexual-assault survivors feel less alone. According to Sofie Karasek, cofounder at End Rape on Campus, Callisto breaks down silos between survivors. Ladd fundraised, bringing in $1.4 million from Google’s nonprofit arm and other philanthropic donors. She got feedback from survivors, made tweaks and then sealed the deal on a trial of Callisto at the University of San Francisco and her own alma mater, Pomona, which began last fall.
Callisto is still in its pilot stage, with the first year of data set to be analyzed this summer, and it’s far too early to tell whether it will fulfill Ladd’s high hopes. It will take time to attract enough students to generate the kind of data Ladd needs, says Daren Mooko, an associate dean and the Title IX coordinator at Pomona. Without enough reports, conclusions about perpetrator behavior and the timing and location of sexual assaults will be provisional at best. RTI International researcher Christopher P. Krebs, coauthor of the “1 in 5 women” study, says caution about Callisto is warranted; he is unsure whether it can provide reliable data. He and Ladd agree that Callisto won’t replace the benefit of a more traditional campuswide survey.
The platform’s not intended to be a silver bullet, Ladd concedes. And as with traditional reporting, some worry that Callisto testimonies will be cast into doubt. “Callisto can’t solve the problem alone, but it can be part of a larger, more comprehensive effort,” says retired associate professor David Lisak, who researches perpetrator behavior.
In the decade since Ladd was on campus, colleges have become more responsive to sexual assault. Sometimes because they have to be — as of July 2015, a U.S. department was investigating 124 colleges and universities over how they had handled sexual assault. The federal government mandates a Title IX officer to receive and investigate complaints, while back in Ladd’s day, complaints were adjudicated by the Student Judiciary Council.
Ladd’s hopeful that one day Callisto will be used everywhere — not just on college campuses — and by every survivor. That’s why she’s made her code open-source. Now, others can create platforms like hers. With more platforms and reports, we could have data to understand sexual-assault trends in a way we never have before. And as these patterns emerge, victims might see that their reports are the key to preventing the next sexual assault. “It’s how we can help heal each other,” she says. “I see a lot of beauty in that.”