Jess Ladd was stunned that a friend sexually assaulted her in college. So stunned that she didn’t even comprehend it as an assault. She didn’t report her attack until more than a year later.
By then, there was little she could do.
She was confused by the difficult process of alerting authorities and traumatized by reliving her experience. She knew there had to be a better way.
So she created it herself.
Ladd will speak about Project Callisto — her new technology for reporting assault — and about survivors’ fears at the sold-out TEDxKC conference Aug. 19 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. She’s one of 11 guest speakers for this local version of the global TED — Technology, Entertainment and Design — conferences. Her Kansas City talk marks her fourth TEDx appearance.
“What I love about TEDx is that I always come away with a new idea or new way that I’m making connections between things in the world I hadn’t realized were connected,” Ladd said, calling from San Francisco. “As a place to get inspiration, I find that all my best ideas come from after I’m at a conference like TEDx.”
But she didn’t need a conference to come up with her innovative technology.
Here’s how it works: Survivors can enter a time-stamped record of a sexual assault as soon as possible into the Callisto website. The information is saved until the survivor decides whether to report it to authorities.
The survivor also has the option to report only if another survivor reports an assault by the same perpetrator. Because as many as 90 percent of assaults are committed by repeat offenders, Ladd said, this option allows some survivors who might have held back to find the strength to come forward.
She said the idea had been floating around in the back of her brain since she founded Callisto as a nonprofit in 2011 to educate people about sexual health and well-being. The name comes from the mythical nymph who was raped by Zeus.
But increased national attention on college sexual assault inspired her to make the website a reality in 2013. The outcry has grown louder over the way colleges handle sexual assault cases, with one of the most recent controversies stemming from the case of Brock Turner, a Stanford University student who was sentenced to only six months in prison for raping an unconscious female student.
Before the media attention, “it didn’t really feel like there was any incentive for people to adopt the system to change or increase reporting,” Ladd said. But then, “it felt like, well, if there’s ever going to be a time to change the way we deal with this issue and get people to think about things a little differently, the time is now.”
The program is in place at the University of San Francisco and Pomona College in California, and she hopes for five more this fall. And Ladd carries with her the story of a University of Texas-Austin student.
“In the same week that the Stanford letter came out, she wrote an open letter to the chancellor of UT outing herself for the first time publicly as a sexual assault survivor and urging him to adapt Callisto,” Ladd said. “And we had never talked to her before. She had just sort of done this on her own. So we’re seeing a lot of survivors creating public advocacy around the project that’s kind of happening organically.”
Ladd said she wants to expand the project to help survivors find justice. She’s also interested in bringing it to military bases and other institutional settings and creating a national version for any survivor to use, no matter where the assault occurred.
Even though she has becoming a TEDx veteran, Ladd said she brings a different talk to every conference. For this one, she will focus on the psychology behind college survivors reporting (or not reporting) sexual assaults. This will be her first time in Kansas City.
“People get so excited about coming, and they sold the tickets so quickly,” she said. “They seem to be really engaged and want to be there, and that’s the audience I want — people who are really interested. There’s going to be a lot of interesting dialogue about a lot of important issues.”
Tickets are sold out for the 11 speakers Aug. 19 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. But you can purchase tickets for watch parties around town at TedXKC.org or watch the live-stream on the website.