May 3, 2012 , NEW YORK CITY — Appropriately enough, Circle of 6 was born on Twitter.
Nancy Schwartzman, a longtime advocate against sexual violence, first heard about it when her friends and followers started pinging her about a challenge issued by the White House to create an “App Against Abuse.” She called reproductive rights advocate Deb Levine of Internet Sexuality Information Services (ISIS), and over the course of a few phone calls, they dreamed up Circle of 6, an award-winning iPhone app that helps prevent sexual violence and dating abuse and has been downloaded 28,000 times to date. It’s targeted at students, one in five of whom have reported experiencing sexual assault or attempted sexual assault during their time at college, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Circle of 6 works by leveraging the close circles of friends maintained by college students to create a safety net for girls who find themselves in unsafe or undesirable situations. After a user downloads the app, she’ll choose six close friends to be in her circle.
“The circle concept mirrors the tight circles that college students have, where your friends are your family,” said Ms. Schwartzman.
Having six friends on call also serves a practical purpose, said Ms. Levine, if you need immediate assistance. For example, a woman’s date is starting to make her feel uncomfortable at dinner. She can press a button asking her friends to call and interrupt the date, giving her an excuse to leave.
“Nowadays, everyone’s really busy, so if you put together a circle of six close friends, likely one or two will be free to get you out of that situation,” she said.
Ms. Schwartzman noted that the process of selecting and adding friends opens up important conversations about sexual violence and abuse prevention. A friend who is selected will receive an SMS text message alerting her or him that she’s been chosen to be in the circle.
“For example, my friends would get a text that says ‘You’ve been chosen to be in Nancy’s circle with a link to the site,” said Ms. Schwartzman. “So they’ve already had these conversations, and we provide resources for them about sexual assault and dating abuse prevention.”
The pair knew each other from their long experience in advocacy around similar issues. An independent filmmaker and the founder and Executive Director of The Line Campaign, Ms. Schwartzman uses an approach she calls “transmedia,” which engages multiple channels: storytelling, video, social media, and now mobile. Ms. Levine’s group ISIS promotes sexual and reproductive health by reaching underserved communities through online and mobile outreach. They teamed up with developer Christine Corbett Moran and graphic designer Thomas Cabus, working remotely to create the app over the course of a few weeks.
From their experience working with young people, the group came up with common scenarios that their audience would likely face.
“We brainstormed different commands that we thought would be useful, that really came from stories I’ve heard from students. What they could have used, what did they need?” said Ms. Schwartzman. “The philosophy was to prevent it before it happens. Say you stay out late at a party, and then all of a sudden it’s 3 am and there are hard choices about how to get home. Do I walk home by myself at night? Do I stay here with people I don’t really know? Or do I let someone bring me home who I also don’t know that well? None of those are particularly good options.”
While rape, sexual assault and dating abuse are fraught topics, Ms. Schwartzman is particularly proud that unlike some of the other submissions to the contest, Circle of 6 isn’t motivated by fear or paranoia.
“Using your phone to prevent rape could be very fear-based,” she said. “We didn’t want to base the app on fear, but rather on harnessing what’s really positive in young peoples’ lives, which are these tight knit friendships and connectivity. It should be easy for people to access people they know and trust.”
The app’s focus on violence prevention also represents an evolution in thinking about the issue, said Ms. Levine.
“With the passage and renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, there was a lot of focus on setting up shelters, crisis centers and crisis hotline,” said Ms. Levine. What’s different now, in 2012, is that we’re focusing on prevention. I think everyone at this point recognizes there’s a problem, and we’re taking care of those who are affected, but now it’s time, culturally and societally, for this to stop.”
Ms. Schwartzman, who has lectured on over 80 college campuses about sexuality and consent, said the response from students has been overwhelming.
“It’s really hard to talk about sexual assault all the time. People get really bugged out about it,” she said. “But when I show the video about this app, it gets a full round of applause. The students are so excited that people cared enough to think this through, and create something that prevents violence.”
Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.