Wud U? Reviewing Barnardos’ App For Reducing The Risk of Sexual Exploitation

The Wud U? app was launched last month. The result of a joint project by Barnardos and Microsoft, it’s designed to be an educational tool for young people and professionals who work with them. It’s aimed at helping young people identify behaviours that may put them at risk of sexual exploitation.

Produced after extensive interviews with young people who had been victims of sexual exploitation, the app presents three scenarios, duplicating them from the point of view of male and female protagonists. You can read through the stories and make decisions for the characters, with feedback from the app as to whether these were sensible or not. If you decide to avoid a situation in which sexual exploitation takes place, the app has the character make the other choice, with the caveat that your decision would have been better in retrospect.

The decision to use the same story but reverse the sex of the protagonist is a nice touch, as the lack of standardisation of sexual education in the UK curriculum has lead to criticisms that it remains overly heteronormative, and attempts to be more inclusive have lead to voices of protests from the usual faith groups. By make the app more inclusive, it’s instantly more useful to more young people, which is great.

Visually, the app looks good, with high-quality illustrations in a modern, graphic-novel style; although this comes at a price: the app is 36MB, which is pretty hefty for what it provides, considering that the slick and addictive Candy Crush Saga comes in at 32MB. Although the app is free, it’s worth noting that using PAYG data prices from a main UK provider, the true cost of this app would be £18. Professionals requesting that young people download the app for teaching purpose should suggest that they do so via a WiFi connection.

Criticisms of the app have so far centred around the fact that some older teenagers may find the language of the app patronising. I’m in partial agreement with this; although I do think that simplifying the language keeps it accessible to those with literacy problems, but this comes at a price. I found one particular sentence, where the behaviour of those who exploit young people sexually is described as “clever” to be uncomfortable, as I think this is a word that has positive connotations. “Devious” would have been more appropriate, in my opinion, but this might have been rejected to keep the reading age on target.

Personally, I think there’s a different problem with Wud U? The app never clearly makes the point that the sexual exploitation of young people is wrong, and ultimately that the blame for the exploitation lies in the hands of those who are orchestrating the exploitation. Instead, by focusing entirely on the actions of the victims and extrapolating how their decisions have resulted in the situation in which sexual exploitation has taken place, it seems to place the responsibility of the exploitation on their shoulders. Whether this is intentional or not, and I doubt that an organisation like Barnardos sets out to victim-blame, I think a concession has to be made that sexual crimes don’t exist in a cultural and social vacuum. Last year, Robert Colover was suspended after commenting, during a trial that he was presiding over, that the thirteen year old victim was predatory , and criticisms of the handling of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale highlight that the young people involved were made to feel responsible for being victims of sex crime.

In an ideal world, an app like Wud U? would be no different to the signs in car parks suggesting that you hide your sat-nav to reduce the risk of a break in, but the fundamental difference between those two situations, is that if you report the theft of your sat-nav to the police, you can be sure that it will be taken seriously as theft, and that no one in court that by having a sat nav in the first place, you were in some way inviting the break in.

Wud U? makes little concession to this situation, and as such, I find that it falls short of what it could achieve. At the end of the stories, we never find out what happens to the perpetrators of the exploitation, only that the victims are being supported by Barnardos. By giving this repeated viewpoint that nothing will be done to prevent this happening again, and that the perpetrators will go unpunished, I’m left feeling that the situation is hopeless, which is opposite to the feeling of empowerment that the app is supposed to give me.

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