What Is A Safecall?
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.
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.