5 Subtle Signals for Help That Are Already Saving Women's Lives

A teenager was rescued last week after she used a hand signal she learned on TikTok.

The 16-year-old was reported missing from her home state of North Carolina in early November, and was found by authorities in Laurel County, Kentucky, after a driver saw the teen flash the nonverbal "Signal for Help" through the passenger window and called 911.

The distress signal in question was created by the Canadian Women's Foundation, a nonprofit that assists women and girls experiencing violence and poverty. They developed the signal during the pandemic so that victims of domestic abuse could discreetly ask for help without alerting their abusers or leaving a digital trace, especially at a time when domestic violence was on the rise due to lockdowns. Video demonstrations of the signal went viral on TikTok last year.

"We don't know how long coming down the interstate … that she had been doing this to other motorists hoping that they would notice that she was in distress," Deputy Gilbert Acciardo told local news outlet WKYT. 

"It really speaks to the power of this signal and the idea that we need to have something to help us make sure that people are safe," Andrea Gunraj, the Canadian Women's Foundation's vice president of public engagement, told WYMT. "What is so wonderful is seeing people respond to it, know it, share it, want to learn more. It speaks to me that we know this violence is happening."

Instances of discreet signaling or coded language have gone viral in the past, and if history has shown anything, it's that they work. Not every victim of abuse is able to verbally communicate that they're in danger, making these nonverbal cues extremely necessary in order for them to get help.

Here are some other instances of well known cues that have been used successfully to alert the authorities.

Signal for Help

The sign, mentioned above, is easy to make: Simply hold up your palm facing the person you're communicating with, tuck your thumb into the palm, and fold your fingers down over the thumb in a "trapping" motion.

It's worth noting that this signal is a fluid motion, not a fixed position.

Angel Shots

Bars across America have signs in their ladies rooms with instructions for ordering an "angel shot," which will discreetly alert the bartender that something is amiss.

There are levels within the "angel shot" code word. You can order an "angel shot neat" for someone to escort you to your vehicle, an "angel shot dressed" for someone to call an Uber or Lyft, or an "angel shot with lime" for staff to call the local authorities. Signs claim that establishments will handle all situations without fuss.

Celebrities, including Demi Lovato, and bartenders alike have advocated for the "angel shot."

They "can and do save lives," Benjamin Smith, a bartender with a popular TikTok account told BuzzFeed. "Ordering an angel shot conveys a lot of important information without directly saying you need help in front of the person making you feel unsafe."

Placing a Pizza Order to 911

A woman in Ohio reported a domestic violence incident in 2019 by calling 911 and asking to "order a pizza" in order to convey her home address without raising the suspicion of her abuser. The dispatcher was able to recognize there was something off about the situation and communicate with the caller with questions that could be answered "yes" or "no." 

The dispatcher, Tim Teneyck, told the officers to turn their sirens off and noted that all of the caller's communication matched with domestic violence situations. The caller, who asked to stay anonymous, later told NBC News that she was being physically abused by her boyfriend before she placed the call. Since the incident, domestic violence support groups have started teaching the strategy as a way for victims to alert the authorities without tipping off their abusers. 

The Black Dot on Hand

The Black Dot signal went viral on Facebook in 2015. The idea behind the method is simple: Victims of domestic violence can draw a black dot on their palms as a signal to friends and family that they are being abused. The Facebook campaign, started by a domestic violence victim, reached millions of people. To this day, it's one of the most recognizable nonverbal signals of abuse.

However, the Black Dot method also received criticism for drawing unwanted attention to victims — and potentially putting them in more danger. The campaign page has been taken down in response. "As a way of seeking help, it's not going to be a solution for everybody. As a victim, you know what triggers your abuser," the signal's creator told BBC. "So if it's not safe to draw a black dot, don't do it … you know yourself what is safe and what is not safe."

STAN

Following the tragic death of Gabby Petito — the 22-year-old who was found dead after going missing in Wyoming in September — folks on the internet speculated she was trying to send a message for help in a text to her mother. The text read: "Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls."

People online claim that "Stan" is actually an acronym for "Send The Authorities Now," though it hasn't been verified as an official code by any professional bodies. Mentions of STAN being a code word went viral after she was reported dead. However, as it's not quite as well-known as some of the other code words and signals, the use of STAN might not be as effective.

If You See a Signal or Receive a Distress Call:

Calling 911 is not the best response for every instance involving a distress signal, and can sometimes put the abused person in more danger. The Canadian Women's Foundation has a list of alternative action items that are especially helpful if the distressed person is someone you know.

For example, you can try calling the person and asking them questions that can be answered with "yes" or "no" — such as "Would you like me to get in touch with a shelter on your behalf?" If communicating by text, keep questions vague ("How are you doing?") in case their devices are being monitored. Lastly, don't be afraid to consult resources like the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

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