A Blockchain App for Sexual Consent is Useless


With the recent allegations of sexual assault by Asiz Ansari and the recent popularity of blockchain currencies like Bitcoin, there have been some proposals put forth to prevent false allegations of sexual assault through a cryptographically signed contract which details what the participating parties consent to during sex. This essay is an exploration of how an app for entering into contracts for sexual consent does not prevent false allegations, and in fact increases the risk for a party concerned about being assaulted.

Disclaimer: This exploration makes no judgement on the frequency and importance of false allegations of sexual assault. The rate of false allegations are infinitesimal compared to the rate of sexual assaults (both reported and unreported). The primary victims of false allegations of sexual assault are historically heterosexual men, who have previously had little to fear from sex. The idea that we must go through all possible solutions to ensure that heterosexual men continue to have nothing to fear from sex is ludicrous, and this essay demonstrates how one solution will do nothing to solve anything.

Let's create an app:

The app lets two people enter into a contract for a performance. The app provides proof that both parties agree to the performance, and a detailed explanation of the performance agreed-to. No incentive or compensation can be given for the performance (besides, perhaps, some well-earned applause). Only the two parties will be witness to the performance: There can be no recordings or spectators, and the performance itself leaves no evidence of its completion except in the memory of the parties involved.

We are assuming:

  • The app is perfectly secure against intrusion from a third party. The regular occurrence of high-profile Internet security breaches (like Experian) betrays this.
  • The app is built by a team with good intentions and no desire to monetize the resulting data, or the app is built to secure the data from internal malicious actors (this could be part of the security bit)
  • The app can perfectly authenticate a user with a legal name and an address at which legal process can be served. If any of this is not true, there is effectively no consequence to breaching the contract and thus no reason to trust that the contract will be fulfilled

At the end of the performance, both parties have a choice to make: Did the other party breach the contract?

In a perfect scenario, the performance is exactly as both parties agreed to and neither party objects. In this scenario, the contract has achieved only one thing: A conversation about the expectations for the performance. This is important, but contracts also exist in order to detail what happens when the expectations are not met. In these cases, under these restrictions, the existence of the contract does not actually solve any problem.

If Alice asks Bob to read to her the novel Great Expectations, and Bob reads A Tale of Two Cities instead, the existence of the contract does not strengthen Alice's claim that Bob did not follow the contract: Bob can claim he read the correct book, and produce a copy of it proving he could read it. Alice's lack of recollection of any part of Great Expectations does not prove her good faith.

If Alice lies, says Bob read the wrong book, the existence of the contract does not make Bob's case any easier to defend. Bob cannot force Alice to recall specific plot details of the book he read, and proving that he has a copy of the correct book and has read it does nothing to Alice's claim that he did not read the book to her.

So, the nature and existence of the contract doesn't actually improve anything. There's no benefit to Bob to sign the contract, and there is increased risk: If Alice decides to claim Bob owes her a performance, she can point to the contract to prove that there was an agreement. So, whether or not Bob intends to perform, there is no benefit to Bob to sign the contract. If Bob has no reason to sign the contract, Alice will not get her performance. So, Alice has no reason to force Bob to sign a contract.

The only result of this scenario is that no performances will ever happen, as nobody has any reason to perform.

When applied to the specific scenario of sex, we have even more problems. We are ignoring that this app is now potentially enabling / soliciting prostitution, and we will continue with the idea that one party is consenting to perform for another (despite how demeaning that is, and despite how many people believe that's how sex works).

Since sexual consent is an active process, the app can be used at any time to modify the parameters of the performance (consent to something more or revoke consent). This opens up more attack vectors: Deny the user access to the app, and you can continue doing something they no longer consent to. Technical means for addressing this problem (dead-man's switch in the app) do not prevent this violation of consent from happening (though may prevent it from continuing in perpetuity).

The dead-man's switch opens up more problems:

  1. A user temporarily and innocently loses access to the app. Now the app thinks the user is being assaulted. Any automated remedies (dispatching a security force) would lead to both hilarious and tragic consequences.
  2. A user intentionally fails a security check-in. They now have leverage for a breach-of-contract from the other user.

The fluid nature of sexual consent also opens up another vector for "breach of contract": User revokes consent after doing something, then claims it happened after they revoked consent, even if it happened before consent was revoked. There's evidence it happened, but the app thinks it was both consented to and later not consented to. The app does not know when the act occurred, and so cannot help to resolve the issue. Technical solutions for this would be amusing, but not useful.

The app complicates the encounter while creating more risk for someone who worries that their consent will be violated. Since, presently, women are more afraid of sexual assault by men than men are from women, this app will never be used by them. So, it means any man interested in having sex with a woman will not be able to use the app.