Monday, August 11, 2008

Safe Dating, the Silent Alarm, and Signs of Predation

This originally appeared at the Bilerico Project in draft form, and this finished version is also crossposted at dentedbluemercedes and

I do not take credit for the safecall concept -- it has been around for decades, and I first encountered it through the leather community (a version of it has also been present for a long time among escorts). But I do consider this advice important to anyone in a risky dating situation, i.e. for pre- or non-op transsexuals, queer communities, online dating communities, some sex trade or adult entertainment performance situations, or even just simple everyday blind dates. This is written without prejudice, in the understanding that in no circumstance does a person ever deserve to become a casualty. As such, permission is given to reprint this without modification (although it can be prefaced or followed with additions) anywhere that people feel this advice will be useful. I cannot guarantee your safety, but it's my hope that this can help.

Blind dating is never risk-free, especially when some aspect of a person's life exists that can cause negative reactions, or when an aspect of their life means that they might be potential prey to predators. When meeting a person for the first time, you will be completely unaware of any history of confusion, instability or biases they may have. First impressions are never enough, and the greater the risk, the more secure the safety net is needed. The recent and tragic murder of Angie Zapata is only one of thousands of stories in which dates have gone bad, and it demonstrates how serious the consequences can be.

One habit that can minimize the risk is known as the "silent alarm" (sometimes also called the "safecall"). There are several variations of this procedure... you can settle on what is most comfortable for you.

For your first meeting, it's best to insist on a public place. A restaurant or a mall coffee shop is ideal. Never agree to meet a stranger in a private place such as a hotel room or home. Make sure that your transportation to and from your first meeting is under your control -- don't rely on your date for a ride home. And don't let someone know your home address until you're comfortable with them first. If prior discussion indicates a mutual plan of going someplace later for more private fun (which might include your place or theirs), agree on the location in advance, and have the address to this location. If this location changes unexpectedly, this may be a warning sign to get out or call for help. An alternative is to meet in a double-date, group-date or activity group setting or outing.

A "silent alarm" is a situation in which you tell a trusted friend where you are going, and when you expect to be back; you also give him or her any information that you may have about the person you will be seeing and the place you will be going. You arrange with that friend to call at a prearranged time, no matter what the events of the evening bring. If you don't check in, your friend is to call the local authorities immediately, with any information they have. It's also a good idea to prearrange with this friend to have a code word or phrase that you might include during your phone conversation, in the event that you are forced to make the call under duress, and need to indicate that you need help, without arousing suspicion from a person threatening you.

Helpful points:

- If you have your date's phone number, try to arrange to call it first, to verify that it is correct.

- Inform your friend beforehand what your plans for the evening are: time, place, etc. If anything changes, let them know during a check-in call.

- Don't use your date's phone or cell, in order to help avoid the call being traced later, thereby potentially putting your friend in danger. Cell phones add a certain element of potential danger to your friends, so depending on the level of risk, you may want to consider this.

- This isn't just a first-time procedure, but can be maintained (perhaps relaxed gradually) for as long as you remain uncertain about someone.

- The "silent alarm" is most useful as a deterrent. If your date knows that you need to check in with a friend, they'll know that if they harm you, this will alert someone else. The point is that he (or she) knows that there will be some accountability if anything goes bad. Some dates may be offended by this, but most should understand that it is sound advice for blind dating.

As overcautious as this may seem, when it comes to blind dates, people met online and the like, there is virtue to it. You can, of course, modify the procedure to suit your situation, and if you feel that a more relaxed system of simply passing your date's name and number on to your friend and arranging to call them whenever the date is over will suffice, then do that. But any Plan B is better than nothing.

If your friend needs to call police, they should stick to referring to the encounter as a date. They should not disclose any information that might bias the dispatcher at the other end of the phone (i.e. if you are a member of a racial group or transsexual, or if any money is being exchanged or porn being produced).

If something goes seriously bad, vigilanteism is generally not preferred to police intervention. However, in some communities, such as where racial bias, homophobia / transphobia or discrimination against sex trade work may be present, silent alarm planning may also need to include having a personal supporter drive to the scene of a situation in the event of an emergency. That person is not to intervene or be seen unless circumstances leave no other option to ensure personal safety. There is a great degree of additional risk in this, so it should only be considered in certain situations (i.e. potential for discrimination from authorities on the basis of sex work or race) and only if the person is trusted to not be hot-headed enough to jump into danger themselves. That person's first role should be to act as an advocate in whatever aftermath may occur only -- not to interfere with the police on the scene, but to observe (a camera recorder of some kind may even be warranted) and hold them accountable for their actions; also to follow you to anywhere you may be taken, and help obtain your release if charged for any offence. Discrimination has not been completely dealt with in society, so unfortunately, this does need to be a consideration.

In addition to the silent alarm / safecall, there are other things to remember:

Never let your drink out of your sight. If it is being poured in a private setting by someone you've recently met, be sure you've observed the pouring of the drink, right from when the glass was first selected. This may sound paranoid, but the use of date rape drugs is not a new thing.

If you hadn't planned on anything sexual but are suddenly directed that way by someone you've just met, be suspicious. Your best bet is to get out of that situation at that time, and assess how this person reacts to your refusal. A non-predatory person is much more apt to understand and respect the word no, and the reasons that you would have for not wanting to jump into anything too quickly.

For beyond first dates, it is also important to watch for signs of predatory behaviour. It is true that some signs can be misread, but if they are cumulative, the evidence grows stronger. Be wary of:

- Attempts to isolate you from friends, family and / or acquaintances. This can include insistence on moving right away to a location that is inconvenient or impossible for them to visit, or wanting to prevent people from knowing where you are.

- Attempts to make you dependent upon them financially or emotionally (i.e. trying to turn you against your friends).

- Controlling behaviour which restricts where you go or who you talk to.

There is often more to safe sex than condoms (but don't forget those, either!). The greater the risk, the more you may want to do to prepare yourself.

Trans-Specific Precautions

Male-to-female transsexuals additionally have to keep in mind that after having spent time on hormone therapy, they lose much of the strength and energy that they may be accustomed to -- and as women, they may also be subject to more predation than they realize. One must not be overconfident, and instead should take some time to learn practical self-defense.

On Disclosure

For pre-operative or non-op transsexuals (sometimes even for post-ops, as surgical status sometimes does not mean much to a person who finds that their partner had been born a different sex) -- particularily MTF, but FTMs also have risks here -- disclosure is a serious issue, and there is in fact no "right" or "wrong" answer to that question. In an ideal situation, it would be best to be up-front at a time in which your privacy is protected (i.e. an online dating service which does not publish your contact information), before any other serious discussion or activity takes place. If the date is still interested, it's usually safe to proceed (with the suggestions above). In reality, there can be concerns and dissatisfactions with the type of people available to be found in these situations, and live contact can be preferable. Then, it gets iffier.

Disclosing has its risks. Whether before or after dating, transphobia can cause people to react violently, or vindictively (in the latter case, outing you to friends, the public and perhaps other potentially violent persons). It's not impossible for such a situation to lead to a later ambush. Disclosure after or during dating does have a higher degree of risk from the date him or herself, however, so this should be considered.

Telling is up to a person's discretion. But what is absolutely crucial is knowing who you're talking to. When trans issues appear in the news (i.e. the "pregnant man," the civil rights fights in Maryland, Colorado and Gainesville), they can usually be safely brought up in casual conversation as a way to see how a person will react to the subject (bring it up neutrally, -- i.e. you express no opinion -- or you could out yourself just from that). Before that, get to know how liberal (s)he is on other civil rights issues, GLB, racial, feminism, workplace equality. If (s)he's closed-minded to key parts of these or a majority, your date could be a timebomb, and you're safer to not proceed any further.

If (s)he seems pretty liberal, it's not a guarantee he'll accept. But it improves the odds considerably.

(Thanks are due to Monica Roberts, Jan and the readership at The Bilerico Project for helping refine some of this via discussion.)


LeighAnn said...

Still very little emphasis on disclosure. You just don't get it that this is a no-brainer. Everytime. No exceptions. You're going to get girls killed with this advice. Things like this are why we don't like the champions of "transgender" speaking for us.

helen_boyd said...

i wrote a recent post about safety & sex & violence.