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What Is A Safecall?

April 26, 2010

As Courtny Hopen explains at Feministing Community and at Guy’s Guide to Feminism, Safecall is an idea drawn from the BDSM community, that could be very useful for folks who don’t do BDSM or do not travel in BDSM circles.

I’m often glad to see ideas from the BDSM community get a wider airing. Some things BDSMers pioneered have already achieved a certain currency; lots of non-BDSM folks, for example, know what safewords are, and even safesigns. Safewords even got airtime on CSI. Another thing BDSMers started that gets a fair amount of play in feminist discussion is explicit negotiation. In fact, drawing on BDSM negotiating practices for non-kinksters was the subject of one of Courtny’s previous Guy’s Guide posts.

The machanics of a safecall are simple enough:

safecall is an arrangement that you make to check in with a trustworthy person when you’re meeting with an acquaintance or someone new with whom you haven’t yet developed trust. Your trustworthy person should know where you’re going to be (specific addresses), who you’re going to be with (real names), and what time(s) you will be checking in. If you don’t check in, they’ll assume something has gone wrong and will contact the local authorities.

It may or may not include a “silent alarm.” Courtny explains:

For example, you could agree beforehand that “can you please feed the cat” means “‘I’m seriously afraid for my safety” and that “yeah, I picked up your mail” means “all clear”.

The genesis of the idea is a personal safety measure, of course. But nothing works in every circumstance; and it is hard to talk about personal safety measures and rape risk management at all without creating space for victim-blamers to put yet another burden on women. So much so, in fact, that I tend to avoid talking about it entirely. The people who are to blame for rape are the rapists; the people in the best position to prevent rape are really nonrapist men. I’ve talked about that at some length here, here and here.

So, other than to say that the individual benefit is obvious, I’m not going to address this from the personal safety standpoint. The implication I want to analyze is the one that I think matters from a public health standpoint, from the standpoint of restricting (and over time revoking) what I call rapists’ social license to operate.

I’ve written a ton now about Dr. David Lisak and what I’ve termed the Predator Theory, his findings that the overwhelming majority of rapes are committed by a small percentage of men, who commit the same offense again and again, using the methods that they know they can get away with again and again: picking vulnerable targets; usually women they know, if not very well; testing boundaries to see which potential targets will put up the least resistance; selecting for intoxication and often encouraging alcohol consumption to make the target more vulnerable; and finally physically isolating the target. Recently, Lisak explained his findings on CBS, and Amanda Hess (who like me has followed his work closely) has the video here.

I don’t think we can change rapists. They know what they are doing. But I do think we can change the risk profile of their activities. They do what they do the way they do it because it works. The rapes they commit are rarely even reported; if reported, rarely give rise to any accountability process, whether criminal, civil, community or otherwise. When pursued, the consequences are rarely severe, and that’s why they keep doing it. They can. As Jaclyn Friedman pointed out in the Hartford Courant, one big problem with victim blaming is that it lets these rapists off the hook to do it again.

So what do safecalls have to do with the risk profile that a rapist faces? It raises the stakes for the rapist in several important ways. Courtny explains it like this:

One way to use safecalling to actively deter predators is simply to tell your date that you have a safecall, and that if you don’t take (or make) a phone call at a prescribed time during or after the date, the police will be summoned. Also, make sure to mention that your friend is waiting to hear that you got home safely after you leave the date. While this may seem like the most major buzz kill on earth, it’s something that can be explained through email before your date–and anyone who cares more about your personal safety than their own feelings will understand that. This type of safecall is a good litmus test to see whether your date is actively on your side–a considerate (or halfway intelligent) date will remind you to make (or take) your safecalls. It also creates a sense of dual accountability: you both have to make sure someone’s phone is charged, make sure you’re not too drunk to make the call, and keep track of the time on the date–and you may even bond over the shared task. Lastly, anyone who you don’t know very well or trust very much who protests against the idea of you keeping yourself safe is raising a big, shiny red flag.

[Emphasis supplied.]

I want to unpack that a little. The first scenario that comes to mind is meeting someone for a date, but a safecall is a more flexible tool than that. Let’s take a common example of a woman out at a party, maybe having a few drinks, who starts talking to a guy, and the guy wants to go somewhere more to be alone together. First, if she calls someone and sets up a safecall, getting her so drunk she passes out is a big problem. She can’t make the safecall while unconscious. And she knows she can’t, so she obviously intends to stay at least sober enough to function and make a phone call. It is now more risky for him to roofie her or to try to get her to do several shots than it otherwise would have been. Wherever he goes with her, someone knows who she is with (and if he gives a fake name, that could backfire since giving a fake name tends to suggest that he had bad intentions all along). That raises the risk to him. If he rapes her, she is going to talk to someone she can rely on very soon after. Not only does that encourage reporting, but that encourages reporting immediately after the fact, which is the toughest to explain away. Our culture is so fucked up that no amount of prompt reporting (or, frankly, anything else) will ensure that a woman who reports being raped will be believed, but it does increase the chances, and therefore the risk that the rapist will face actual consequences. Finally, just the act of setting up a safecall tells the rapist that he may have picked the wrong target: if she is willing to set up a safecall, she is likely to be willing to do other things to affirm her boundaries — like tell her friend, “he raped me, call the police.”

If a rapist gets the sense that he has picked too hard a target, won’t he just rape someone else? Immediately, maybe, but in the aggregate, no. Rapists use the tactics that work; that they know are socially defensible. If there are counter-rape tactics that make those avenues less safe for rapists, their choices are either to rape less, or to take bigger risks. In the latter case, more of them get caught, ostracized, or even jailed, and more of the serial rapists end up out of circulation. In the former case, there are fewer rapes. Either is a better outcome than the status quo.

Courtny notes that setting up a silent alarm takes away the deterent effect of a safecall, but that’s not necessarily so. Just telling a potential date or ride home or hookup that a safecall is in place has a deterrent effect; but even if he is an abuser who has a gun to the victim’s head while she makes the call, he will not necessarily know that “please feed my cat” is the silent alarm. He may think he’s defused the safecall, while in fact the police are on their way.

Right now, safecalls are mostly a BDSM community thing. But they do not have to be. They can be a thing that friends do for each other. They can be something that friends set up before they split off and leave a party with potential hookups. And eventually the national network that runs for BDSMers on an activist shoestring could be bigger and stronger and better publicized, with iterations in particular campuses and communities. Safecalls could put rapists all over the place on notice that someone is paying attention to what they do after they leave the party.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. cmb permalink
    April 26, 2010 7:27 pm

    if rapists tend to select their targets based on how non-confrontational they are, it might be hard to convince the segment of the population most likely to be raped to protect themselves if it means confronting potential dates and rapists. perhaps it would be easier for ladies to tell their dates that they need to take a call from a room mate or someone rather than say “i think you might rape me so i’m having a friend call at 10:00”
    also this strategy would work for dates but not so much at parties. again, at the risk of blaming the victim, the buddy system might be a good plan.
    although I wouldn’t want to tell people it was their fault they were raped, I’m a fan of prevention strategies.

    • April 28, 2010 1:12 pm

      I don’t think there’s a whole lot of convincing that needs to be done, honestly. It doesn’t have to be conceptualized as instructing people to “protect themselves,” but rather just letting a friend know what one’s plans are: who they’ll be with, where they’ll be going, how long they think they’ll be there, when they might be deciding whether to go home, etc. People have these kinds of conversations all of the time, without intending to enhance their security or deter potential rapists. They really only need to be encouraged to have these types of interactions more consciously.
      They shouldn’t need to tell a person that they’re trying to not get raped, but rather that a friend is expecting a phone call at a certain time or when they get home. I feel like that’s a pretty easy thing to communicate.

      Also: I’m curious about why you think this strategy wouldn’t work at parties. It seems just as easy to step away from a space occupied by multiple people to make a phone call as it does with an individual.

  2. maggie permalink
    April 27, 2010 10:36 am

    I meet men online, so I’ve quite naturally used something like this system. And I have told guys that someone knows where I am.

    And don’t forget the magic of texting — I find it easier to do that. Plus then there’s a record of it.

    • July 28, 2010 9:52 pm

      If your date knows you’ve arranged to send a safetext, then a rapist could take your cell phone and send an “I got home safely” text in your name, using other texts in your log as a guide. Voice is better.

  3. leopardprint permalink
    April 27, 2010 4:57 pm

    I found it amazing that these sorts of ideas weren’t in more general use. When I started exploring BDSM and learned all of these really useful skills like safe-calling and thorough negotiation, I was a little angry that these sorts of activities were reserved for BDSM’ers! In my previous vanilla relationships, I had been made a survivor four times over– and in most of these instances, solid communication/negotiation or a safe call would have helped immensely. Thanks for posting a thorough discussion of this for a non-kinky audience!

    • Ashlee permalink
      October 13, 2012 7:44 pm

      “Been made a survivor”? That is the most ridiculous terminology I’ve ever heard. I’ve been raped and I didn’t “survive” the rape because it wasn’t attempted murder, it was rape. I was a victim of rape.

      • Alex permalink
        December 30, 2013 10:37 am

        “Been made a survivor”? That is the most ridiculous terminology I’ve ever heard. I’ve been raped and I didn’t “survive” the rape because it wasn’t attempted murder, it was rape. I was a victim of rape.

        Now, hold on a sec Ashlee. I wish to not make a hierarchy of abuse. I would say leopardprint and you both had horrible traumatizing experiences. How a person copes and survives is mostly, if not fully, a personal experience. Surviving isn’t only about life and death; It can be a way to get through self-esteem dips, self-worth issues, on and on created by feelings of dis-empowerment, trauma, fears, etc. One can also survive suicidal thoughts. I would ask that you do not attack someone for speaking their truth and I, for one, am listening to yours.

  4. rowmyboat permalink
    April 28, 2010 8:15 pm

    I used this in college when I’d go to concerts alone. I think I got the idea from Cunt. A close friend had the dorm room next to mine one year, so I’d tell her that if I didn’t knock on her door to say good night by 1 AM (or whenever) to start trying to get in touch with me, and then call the cops if she couldn’t.

  5. MertvayaRuka permalink
    April 29, 2010 7:46 am

    There’s something else to be considered from the other side of this equation as well. if you’re going to be meeting someone new, whether it’s for a date, BDSM play or anything else and you’re not sure if they’ve arranged a safecall or if they know what a safecall is, suggest it to them before you actually meet. At the very least, even if you never spend time with that person again, now there’s one more person out there in the world who has a new and valuable bit of information.

    Also, it’s not just a good litmus tests for dates; a friend or other person you might want to be looking out for you that scoffs at the idea of a safecall should, in my opinion, cause you to seriously reconsider relying on them for any kind of support or safety. Having at least one other person knowing where you’re going, what you’re doing, who you’re doing it with and when you’re supposed to return is usually not a bad thing. Someone who cares about you won’t have a problem with being that one other person.

  6. April 30, 2010 11:40 am

    my friends and I used to use the expression “my feet are killing me” to mean we wanted out of something like a party. I never thought of the idea of something like that for being extricated from a bad situation.

  7. April 30, 2010 4:30 pm

    The safecall is a great idea for many reasons and situations. specially when people think ahead and are soner enough to set things up. But you assume that the average partygoer has an awful lot of foresight. I think that many times young ladies go to these parties just to have a fun time among themselves, not ever intending to hook up, and then fall victim. They get drunk and blindsided by one of these creeps before they can even think of setting up safecall.

    Let’s say for example that three girls go out to a party. They’re good friends, they don’t have intent to hook up, they just want to have a good time at a frat party because there is going to be a lot of beer and a lot of people. If they stayed sober the whole time, fine, I could see one of them having the sense to set up something for safety. But, as Mr. Mercutio calls it, “by operation of the second cup” they have lost their ability to judge and be sensible. They may still young adults, they may be vulnerable in more ways than being intoxicated – a little naive, perhaps. They may get hit with amyl nitrate before they can blink.

    Something more needs to be done for these situations. It is a fact that there just are young, naive ladies with bad judgment who cross paths with assholes with wrenches in their pockets.

    I don’t know what that should be. I agree that educating nonrapist men is necessary. I think educating young women to do safecalls is a great idea. But think back to when you were 19 or 18 or even 22… did you really ever think that this could happen? if someone told you to do the safecall thing, wouldn’t you (or perhaps some of your peers) have shrugged it off? If you as a young man were told to be sensitive to these issues, what would you have thought? Great idea, but it never happens here, right? Then you’re at a party wondering should I really confront that 250lb guy who’s laying into this little lady and appears to have dropped something in her drink…

    Maybe not -you and your audience are all very well educate or at least sound so. But there are a lot of young men and women who are not.

    I’m not saying drop the safecall idea. If it stops just one rape that’s great. But we need more. Maybe we do need to educate men. Maybe we need, at some parties, the equivalent of a Keymaster (who takes your keys to prevent a DWI), a person who agrees to stay sober and check on each person who requests the service, and who even actively seeks out and watches those who did not ask him to. I suppose in former days this was called a chaperone.

    I don’t want to keep the real romantics and legitimate, safe, consenting adults from hooking up, but someone watching over the rest of the flock and letting his peers know that’s what he’s doing would be a big step.

    I think back to what happened at a party I held long ago in college. A young woman who was attracted to me came to the party and wound up getting raped on my bed. I did not even know that she and her perp went into my room until days later when my own room mate told me. He walked in on them and then walked out. I thought about it for a minute and said, “she could have been raped.”

    “no, it didn’t look that way to me,” he said, “besides she would have said something.”

    The girl was three sheets to the wind! She couldn’t think straight and this guy could have knocked her up and then denied ever meeting her. If anything, a polite, “hey, guys, not in my room, OK?” was in order. More to the point, I would have asked the guy to leave for a minute and made sure the girl was OK.

    This girl came to my party alone. She had few friends in her dorm, and fewer that she would have set up a safecall with, even if we had cell phones back then. I should have watched over my room as the party went on in our common area, or even locked the door. My room mate should have known to done something more than just grab another joint and say “as you were!”

    But we were moron 19-year olds.


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