Solving sexual health challenges, one system at a time

Jess Ladd isn’t your typical millennial.  In college, she experienced what no one should ever experience: nonconsensual sex.  Yet, instead of falling victim to her experience, she grew stronger.  Today, roughly a decade later, she has become a leading advocate of sexual health advancement and wellbeing in the U.S.  More recently, she also launched Sexual Health Innovations (SHI), a non-profit organization that leverages technology to solve some of our nation’s most pressing sexual health challenges.  In just three years’ time, SHI has disrupted the sexual health field with innovative tools for increasing sexually transmitted infection (STI) partner and results notification rates.  And that’s just the beginning.  SHI’s newest system, Callisto, plans to tackle the alarmingly low proportion of sexual violence reports on college campuses, nationwide.  Here, we sit down and get up close with SHI’s passionate leader… 

Tell us about your latest project, Callisto.

Sure.  Callisto is a third-party sexual assault recording and reporting system that allows sexual assault survivors to complete an incident report online, receive a clear explanation of their reporting options, and then either directly submit the report to their chosen authority or save it as a time-stamped record.  Survivors saving a record can log back in at any time to officially report their assault or can choose to have their report automatically submitted to the authorities if someone else reports the same assailant.  With only 22%(1) of college rapes in the U.S. being reported to local authorities and about 90%(2) of these assaults due to repeat assailants, Callisto aims to provide survivors with the sensitivity and control that are not often provided to them after their experiences of sexual assault.  You can learn more about it here.

1 Fisher, B.S., Sloan, J.J., Cullen, F.T., & Lu, C. (1998). Crime in the ivory tower: The level and sources of student victimization. Criminology, 36, 671-710.

2 Lisak, D., & Miller, P.M. (2002). Repeat rape and multiple offending among undetected rapists. Violence and Victims, 17(1), 73-84.

What has surprised you about your experience with building Callisto?

Being able to heal from and cope with my assault through my connection with fellow survivors.  After my assault, I wrote a letter to my assailant to help me cope with what had happened, to express why I was upset, and to attempt to change his future behavior toward others.  In my interviews with other survivors on Callisto, I happened to find out that I wasn’t the only one who did that.  To hear about and see another survivor’s letter made me realize I wasn’t alone, and I no longer felt ashamed for having complicated emotions around my assault or my assailant. 

What have been some of your frustrations in your current work?

I had no idea how difficult it would be to launch my own business.  Rejection is a natural part of entrepreneurship, whether from multiple grant applications, liability concerns with our products from potential stakeholders, etc.  At times, I feel emotionally drained from all of it.  But then, I am reminded of why I started SHI and of my passion for improving sexual health and wellbeing.  Technology can and should be solving difficult sexual health issues.

In a more general sense, I am frustrated with the limitations of public rhetoric.  It’s always cut and dry.  “The perpetrator should always be reported and go to jail.” Public rhetoric does not address and acknowledge the survivor’s uncertainty, as well as the alternatives that we may take in dealing with our perpetrators. 

Despite these frustrations, you have yet to stop.  What/who inspires you to keep going?

I am inspired by the reinforcement and outpouring of emotion that I’ve received from the community.  After telling a stranger about my work recently, that stranger immediately took out her wallet and asked if she could donate to SHI.  Reinforcing acts, like that, have inspired me to continue advocating for improved sexual health through technology.

How do you take care of yourself?

I always make sure to take a break from working, when I can.  When you read about sexual violence all day long, you need to be reminded that sex can be good and fun.  We’ve begun to build a local community in NYC through our “Make Sex Better” Meetup, where people working at the intersection of sexual health, technology, design, and media get together to demo and critique new sexual health-related initiatives.  Occasionally, my friends and I will also go on scavenger hunts to look for phallic symbols, just for fun. 

Any other words for our readers?

Use your passion to lead and make positive change!  Stay updated on Callisto’s development here and provide us with any constructive feedback you may have on Callisto.  Or, propose solutions to our list of challenges, here.

To service providers and fellow advocates, I respect you for sticking to this profession and to your clients.

To fellow survivors, remember that you’re not alone.

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