The Benefits of Writing it Down: giving survivors a place to record their story

Before we started to build Callisto, we held focus groups with college sexual assault survivors to try to understand the range of experiences that students faced post-assault. What we found was unsurprising – everyone’s experience was vastly different. Several themes emerged however, and below we summarize insights from our research that informed the design of Callisto’s recording feature, which we call “Write it Down”.

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“Write it Down” provides a space for students to save a timestamped record of their assault, after which they can: simply save it for themselves; come back later to edit; view or download as a PDF; report their record to their school; or opt into the Matching System.

We quickly realized that giving students the ability to preserve a record, regardless of their decision to report, had benefits above and beyond simply being able to report online, for the following reasons:

1. Survivors need information and options for reporting – on their OWN time.

We asked survivors – “What were the most important or influential time periods after your assault?” For some it was the moments immediately after, for others it was a month or two later, and for others it was a year or more after. For many, this influential time was related to a moment of realization – the moment they realized that something very wrong had occurred. The moment of realization tended to be prompted by something external, such as someone else disclosing an assault, seeing signs or posters on campus, or telling someone new about what happened. We know from academic research on post-trauma disclosure that being interviewed early on increases memory retrieval, consistency of accounts, recall of new information and makes memories less susceptible to post-event information biases. So we created a way for student survivors to confidentially record their assault online immediately after the assault occurred, or whenever they are ready. (And, in the privacy of their own space – see our previous post about why we intentionally made Callisto a website instead of an app.)

2. Writing about trauma contributes to healing and positive health outcomes.

Many of our focus group participants found it therapeutic to write about their experience of being assaulted, either through literal or creative expression. Survivors told us they wrote newspaper articles, journaled, or wrote letters to their assailants that they’d never send. The American Psychological Association acknowledges there may be health benefits to writing about negative or traumatic experiences, including strengthening the immune system and reducing stress. This heavily informed the way we developed the “Write it Down” experience; some questions in “Write it Down” are multiple choice, but survivors always have the option to add free response details as well (and there are no character limits). For example, Callisto asks students to identify where the assault occurred on a campus map, but they are also given the option to describe where it happened in their own words, and given examples of the type of information that could be helpful in an investigation.

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3. Survivors often wait months to report, and don’t know that promptly saving a record can help if they may want to report in the future.

Callisto’s “Write it Down” feature can be thought of as a dated diary entry a survivor might write post-assault. We know diary entries can be used to support survivors’ stories, and Callisto’s recording feature is designed to improve the likelihood that survivors will be believed, if they do choose to report. One study found that the average time between assault and report was 11 months, during which time evidence may be lost and memories may fade or be questioned for accuracy. In our focus group research, we found that often students decided report only after they heard someone else disclose an assault, especially if it was by the same perpetrator. The option to create a record and just save it in Callisto creates a way to preserve detailed, time-stamped memories without having to make any decisions about reporting. 

4. For many survivors, the downsides of current reporting methods still outweigh the potential benefits.

We found there are many reasons survivors don’t report their assaults, some of the most common being:

  • they didn’t initially consider what happened to be sexual assault,
  • they didn’t want to go through the emotional turmoil,
  • they didn’t know they could, or how to go about it, and
  • they didn’t think they’d be believed or supported.

Those who did report often felt disempowered and confused by the process. Recent results of the Association of American Universities Climate Survey backed up these findings. The survey, which reached over 150,000 students across 27 schools, found that, “A significant percentage of students say they did not report because they ‘…were embarrassed, ashamed or that it would be too emotionally difficult’ or they ‘…did not think anything would be done about it.’” Because so many survivors are worried about not being believed, we wanted to make sure Callisto gives guidance about how to preserve evidence, and what sorts of evidence can be useful to support an investigation (such as emails, text messages or social media interactions, in addition to possible physical evidence).

We designed “Write it Down” to address many of these unmet needs of college survivors.

We modeled the recording feature after the Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI), a best practice in law enforcement interviews with survivors. “Write it Down” prompts survivors to recall sensory details about When, Where, What and Who, as opposed to asking chronological questions, since we know that after a trauma, memories may be disordered, fragmented or out of sequence. This research also served as the basis for allowing survivors to edit their record at any time after its initial creation.

Results from our own research, as well as findings from academic studies and campus climate surveys, helped us solidify the benefits that saving a record could provide, that simply submitting a report could not. We plan to continue our research to refine the “Write it Down” experience, and strive to create alternative mechanisms to support and empower college survivors, and improve the climate of campus sexual assault in the US.

To learn more about Callisto, or suggest bringing Callisto to your campus, visit, or contact [email protected].