LegalFling uses the blockchain to help couples confirm sexual consent – with troubling implications

LegalFling, a work-in-progress app from Dutch blockchain company LegalThings, has garnered criticism for its misguided approach to sexual consent.

The practice has, deservedly, amassed gravity in recent months, with widespread revelations of sexual harassment and abuse. Consent needn’t necessarily manifest as a “do you assent to this sexual activity?”, followed by an affirmative – although to each their own. In an age seemingly saturated with sexual misconduct, intimidation and disregard, I don’t doubt that many victims find this kind of sexually consenting preface a soothing and necessary practice.

Apps like LegalFling (not the first of its kind, with Sasie and We-Consent both notable precursors) have been criticised in the past for taking the “fun” or “spontaneity” out of sex, objections which reek of ignorance and privilege. While the practice might seem sterile or clunky for some, you never know the trauma someone else has been subjected to. Nor am I prescribing this as the go-to sexual conduct. What matters are agency and consent – true agency and consent, not agreement that has been cajoled, bullied or manipulated out of its provider.

We like to imagine this was the driving force behind LegalFling, the blockchain app that requires prospective sexual partners to log what they are and aren’t okay with, before entering into sexual activity. Users can mark their do’s and dont’s “with the swipe of a finger”, enabling them to establish consent for specific activities before partaking in them.

The glaringly obvious oversight here is that consent is fluid; it can be given and retracted at any time. It’s not binding. There is no contractual obligation to your partner. Your agency is – or rather should be – intact throughout.

The practice that LegalFling espouses – signing off on something before doing it – doesn’t allow much room for post-contractual manoeuvre. While the app does permit people to change their minds (LegalFling acknowledges that “no” means “no”), the act of putting sexual activity on hold to pick up your smartphone and tinker with the settings on an app feels laborious, cumbersome and more than a little awkward – something that consenting shouldn’t. In many ways, the app perpetuates the deeply troubling but culturally predominant ethos of: “I’m in this deep, I’ve taken it this far, it’d be socially unacceptable to withdraw now.”

What’s more, digital records of sexual consent could make the practice of “covering one’s tracks” more viable; if a sexual abuser manages to cajole his victim into swiping an app in assent, this leaves scope for moral, social or even legal vindication, a very scary thought indeed.

Troublingly, the team behind the app largely comprises men; five out its six members are male, according to LegalFling’s website. Surely any attempt to ameliorate a pandemic where the bulk of victims are women (9/10 rape victims in the US are female, according to RAINN) would benefit from some female insight. Gizmodo got in touch with team member Martijn Broersma, who attempted to allay concern, explaining that “there are several women who are helping and supporting our project.” This will, he went on, be reflected as the website is updated in coming months; the app is still in development, and not yet available for download.

Apps like LegalFling, which attempt to clarify consent in a number of well-meaning ways, in reality widen the opportunity for misconduct; they deepen victims’ fears of being deemed a liar (what if digital consent cannot be retracted), and perpetuate a culture of “starting what you finished” (given the weighty contractual dimension LegalFling brings to sexual activity). A well-intentioned but misguided and, we hope short-lived, attempt at redefining consent.

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