Recently, Dutch startup LegalThings announced plans for a new consent app called LegalFling. With a tap on your phone, you and your sex partner[s] can digitally sign a legally binding contract that can be revoked at any point during sex. You might actually win your case in court if your partner violates your boundaries, because you have a legal document backing up what you did and didn’t agree to. It’s one answer to the “he said, she said” conundrum that usually favors the perpetrator of sexual violence, not the victim.
Of course, consent is messy. And new technology often generates concerns. So it’s not surprising that some are skeptical of the app’s combination of the two.
I'm still not convinced LegalFling isn't just a (bad taste) parody. It's so inherently ridiculous I can't see it as anything but a piss-take of blockchain-hyped techbros
— TC Foxtaur 🇳🇿 (@TCFoxtaur) January 23, 2018
"LegalFling promises to be “the first blockchain-based app to verify explicit consent before having sex.”" peak of #blockchain ridiculous hype. If you're not willing to talk and remember what your partner said, you probably shouldn't have sex.
— Sonja Wie (@SonjaWie) January 26, 2018
Here’s a take: I think this app might actually be totally fine. I mean, it’s very weird and definitely worthy of several laughs and much mockery. But if you get past the knee-jerk tech-phobia that springs up whenever a new app or ridiculous product comes out (the smartphone, anyone?), LegalFling is a possible answer to very important issues regarding consent.
LegalFling’s creators created the app after Sweden passed an explicit consent law similar to California’s “Yes Means Yes” ruling. You can ask your potential boo for consent through the app. Then they can accept or reject it. There are also buttons to allow/forbid BDSM, dirty talk, condoms, taking explicit photos and videos and that any partner be STI-free. You can also send a “fling request” to multiple people, for the polyamorously inclined. All these preferences are legally binding, so if your Fling tries to take that condom off, you can take them to court.
Many have criticized the app’s use of a blockchain. Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Motherboard that LegalFling is “high on the list” of things that “don’t belong on the blockchain” without saying why it doesn’t belong there. “It also reflects a profound lack of understanding of how the blockchain works, so whoever proposed this failed to understand the blockchain, and consent, and sex.” Why? True enthusiastic consent means more than simply signing “yes” on a contract. It can be revoked at any time, for any reason. But LegalFling lets you change your mind on anything you previously agreed to, for any reason and at any time.
— Eva (@evacide) January 16, 2018
Communicating consent has never been easy. We’ve got an entire movement called #MeToo proving that. In that same Motherboard story, Samantha Cole writes “[Consent is] a constant, fluid communication between two (or more) people, that involves checking in on each other throughout the interaction, making sure everyone is comfortable and having fun.”
Agreed. But nothing about the app prevents that. The “fluidity” of consent includes potentially stopping, or pausing to reevaluate. Why does that preclude pushing a button on a phone? This feels more like the old-school attitude toward sex toys and toy apps. “It ruins the moment,” “toys are so unromantic,” “Using an app kills the vibe.”
Critics worry that because the app is legally binding, it could prevent a person from withdrawing their consent. But again, the app has a button to withdraw consent and it can be pressed at any point during sex. This really isn’t any different than saying you’re uncomfortable and want to stop during a sexual encounter. At least this way, you have a legally binding document on your side if they ignore you and continue.
Being sure of consent through an app is complicated. But then, so is getting consent the old-fashioned face-to-face way. And it’s not just complicated; it’s all too often simply bypassed. We are just beginning to talk about the complexities of human sexuality, and about what consent truly means. Women in particular are just beginning to openly discuss—much less demand— what we want and don’t want. It’s silly to condemn this one attempt to make sense of consent and to make it easier for people to give and receive it.