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SOS: Seeking help in a virtual world

November 18, 2021

Morse code, upside-down flags, and words like Mayday are just a few of the ways we have learned to signal for help when something goes wrong. In a growing virtual world, distress signals for those experiencing domestic violence have become common, with new strategies for those in need of support consistently being shared on social media.

Most recently, a hand signal created by the Canadian Women’s Foundation has captured media attention when it was successfully used to interrupt an abduction in Kentucky.  

The signal was created to be used by individuals experiencing domestic violence in a virtual setting so health care workers or other potential support providers could see the non-verbal cue and check-in using text or chat to see what kind of help was needed. Its success has been discussed on national news, as well as the popular podcast “My Favorite Murder” and is being promoted as a way to safely indicate distress. As helpful as these distress signals can be, as they gain popularity and attention, there is an increasing need for awareness around how to best use them, when not to, and what to do if you notice someone indicating they need help.   

As most domestic violence advocates know, safety is never a guarantee. What might be “safe” for one person can be the exact opposite to another. A crucial aspect of domestic violence support is being able to discuss what safety looks like on an individual level and create a fluid strategy to help maintain safety as much as possible in a variety of different situations. This process is referred to as “safety planning,” and distress signals can be a valuable aspect of a safety plan when used mindfully. 

The hand-signal story is an example of a successful safety plan. The signal was used discreetly, so the abductor’s suspicion was not raised. It was used in a way that many people could see, making it more likely that someone would recognize it and know what to do. Also, in this case, police involvement was the best option for response, so the person who recognized the signal did not need to check-in or put themselves in danger to try and determine what they needed to do to help. 

In a different situation, the hand signal may not have been as successful. If the signal had been used in a gas station, for example, where there were a limited number of people and more chances for the abductor to notice what was going on, her safety could have been jeopardized, as well as the safety of those trying to help.  

These signals also depend on the right people knowing what they mean and knowing what to do if someone uses them. Another distress signal referred to as the “Angel Shot” recently went viral on social media. This signal was promoted as a way a potential victim of domestic violence, trafficking, or sexual assault could signal the bartender by asking for an “Angel Shot” – a secret code word that would let the bartender know to intervene. The use of code words has always been a quick and easy way to signal for help, but in order for them to work, everyone (except the perpetrator) needs to know what the word is, what it means, and what the agreed upon course of action will be. The “Angel Shot” distress signal is only safe if the bartender is aware of it, the perpetrator is not, and both the potential victim and bartender know what the intervention will be. 

In some cases, it was suggested that a sign be posted in the restroom alerting patrons about the “Angel Shot” and that if someone orders one police will be called. This is only helpful if a perpetrator doesn’t see the post or doesn’t hear when the shot is ordered. It is also only helpful if police intervention is wanted, and often this is not the kind of support needed by individuals seeking help. It is also important to note that there remains a great deal of bias and stigma regarding victimization and gender/sexual identity. Posting a distress signal in a restroom can be exclusionary if there are not gender-neutral restrooms, and if they are only focused on heterosexual, female-identified individuals as the potential victim.  

So, we can see that the “Angel Shot” is a great first step, but for it to be truly safe, it requires more than just putting up a sign. There should be a strong connection between the establishment and local domestic violence/sexual assault advocates to make sure all bartenders on every shift know what to do to safely provide help without alerting the police (unless the person asking for the shot specifically asks them to). There should be equal access to information about the shot, and no assumptions about who a potential perpetrator might be.  

There should also be safety planning in place in case a situation escalates. 

For example – what would happen if someone seeking help asked for an “Angel Shot” and their abuser overheard? All staff would need to have a plan in place to ensure the safety of all patrons, and to make sure they could keep the person using the distress signal from experiencing even more danger after using it.  

This may all seem overwhelming, but these are the things domestic violence advocates are trained to consider when working with individuals experiencing abuse. Distress signals are one option to getting survivors connected with help, but before sharing on social media or implementing a signal yourself remember to consider the potential consequences to decide if using a signal is the safest option.  

If you plan to promote a distress signal online consider these things: 

If you answered “no” to any of these questions, you may want to reconsider promoting the signal or make sure there are recommendations included in the post on any possible safety concerns to consider before using it. 

No matter what, always include information on local and national hotlines (1-800-799-SAFE) and supports so people experiencing abuse can connect on their own if possible.  

Remember that many distress signals, like the hand gesture, were created to be used in a virtual/online context. This means that someone seeking support would have access to chat and other non-verbal means of asking for help and explaining what kind of help they need. Outside of a virtual context, the need for discretion is even more important to use these signals wisely, and make sure to check with your local domestic violence program for more information on how to safely connect people seeking help to the services they need.