For years, bars have used code words to protect women on dates. Are they working?

Group of people toast drinks at party in dancing club at night . Social gathering event and nightlife entertainment concept . (NanoStockk via Getty Images)
·7 min read

Emily Farris, 29, has always loved nightlife. As a liquor promoter in Milwaukee, she has spent every weekend over the last six months in bars and clubs - providing samples and free swag at parties and Sunday football events. She loves local beer, shots of whiskey and, occasionally, tequila when she's really having a great night.

Back in college, her tastes were sweeter, Farris said. She would opt for popular beverages like Mike's Hard Lemonade, X-Rated Fusion Liqueur, Malibu rum and pineapple juice.

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What she had hoped to never have to order was an "angel shot," a fictional drink a friend once told her to ask for at a bar if she ever needed to call for help discreetly.

But that's exactly what she did one night in 2011, said Farris, who was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee at the time. The bartender was shocked by the request, she recalled, but immediately consulted with a co-worker. Within minutes, she said, two police officers had arrived as Farris hid in a storage room waiting for her date to be removed from the bar.

Angel shots and other security protocols for patrons, like Ask for Angela, have spread globally across bars and establishments over the last few years, growing with the rising popularity of online dating. And in recent months, they have seen renewed attention as photos and explainer videos of the different codes have gone viral across social media, prompting others to come forward with their own experiences of having to deploy the safe words.

Farris and other supporters of the initiative say it offers another lifeline for people who feel vulnerable or threatened on a date. "The code word works great in certain situations, like the one I was in where you want to be discreet," she said, adding that some might feel they could escalate the situation by blatantly calling out the perpetrator.

While they can vary at different establishments, the most common coded phrases include an "angel shot neat," which means the bartender will arrange for you to be escorted safely to your car. Ordering an "angel shot with ice" signals the bartender to call you a ride. And an "angel shot with lime" instructs the bartender to call the police.

That is the one Farris chose 10 years ago. From the moment she sat inside her date's car that night, she said, the man, whom she had met on a dating website, grew increasingly aggressive toward her, trying to reach up her skirt and following her to the bathroom. "He was crossing too many boundaries even as I'd push his hand away and just kind of laugh and be like, 'Oh no, not right now,'" she said.

Given that he knew where she lived, Farris said, she felt most comfortable involving the police. Once they arrived and removed him from the premises, she filed a sexual harassment complaint against him, she said.

While the angel shot initiative has drawn praise from patrons and social media users, it has also come under scrutiny, with many raising concerns with how the protocols are overly shared online and carried out by the staff.

"I think where these interventions fail is that they kind of put the responsibility on the victim," said Miranda Martone, founder and chief executive officer of the Sexual Violence Prevention Association. "And they require that the victims are aware of the codes."

Approaches on how to widely communicate these signals without tipping off perpetrators have been a major focus of debate around angel shots. In a recent Reddit discussion, one user wrote, "I've seen the Angel Shot thing posted so many times in various forms of media, everyone knows what it is which means the [person] you are with also knows. It ruins the purpose having it."

Another user also noted that in a country where 60% of bartenders are women, these protocols force them into the role of protectors, potentially putting their lives at risk and further burdening overworked and underpaid staff.

Studies show the coronavirus pandemic has increased domestic assault and other violence against women and girls. Further, As more people turned to online dating during lockdown, reports of harassment have risen, Martone said. "Online sexual harassment has skyrocketed, especially for middle and high school students and then also at the college level."

Last year, students at Florida Atlantic University worked with about a dozen bars in the Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale and Jupiter areas to introduce its own version of the angel shot protocols for students socializing off campus.

"As we saw countless students advocate for a better environment around them, we responded with the implementation of our brand new 'Owl Shots' program," the school's student government association shared in their 2019-2020 school year review.

There is no official tally of how many bars have their own angel shot initiatives, but photos of posters shared on social media point to dozens of other establishments across the United States that have introduced similar programs.

At Frisco Bar & Grill in Texas, signage about their angel shots has hung in the women's restroom bathroom for more than two years, according to co-owner Tony Spino.

"Fortunately for us, we haven't had anyone ask for the angel shot," Spino said. "It's just there to make sure that women know that they're safe here."

While Martone commends the good intentions behind the initiative, they expressed concern with the common strategy of bars displaying the code words only in women's restrooms and not men's. This approach, they said, "loses a lot of nuance because sexual violence is not just female victims and male perpetrators."

Another problem is that it alienates transgender people who may not always feel welcome inside bathrooms where these codes are posted, according to Martone. They added that there is a lot of sexual violence against these communities, echoing reports from activists that violence against transgender and gender nonconforming Americans has risen in recent years. "They deserve to know that information as well," Martone added.

Spino explained that the initial decision regarding the bar's placement of its sign was driven by observations that women are often more targeted in their area. But recently, they have been asked about this approach, he said, and are beginning to have discussions about including the sign in the men's room as well.

If someone were ever to ask signal for help at Frisco Bar & Grill, "we'd involve our entire staff. Everyone has a role to play," Spino said, adding that management has implemented a plan to "make sure that all the staff is aware of what's going on so that that's the priority - not waiting on tables and serving drinks."

Martone, whose organization works to prevent systemic sexual violence through policy change, recommended that bars and other establishments implement this type of bystander intervention training to incorporate individual, interpersonal and institutional prevention at the very core of their business. This ensures that values and social norms are prioritized from a top-down level, Martone said.

"Rape culture is vast, and it's everything from perpetrating sexual violence itself to small things like rape jokes," Martone said. Particularly for bars, they added, reexamining music selections and how they use sexualization to draw in more customers can help foster a safe environment.

One community Martone said they believe is leading the charge in adequately training staff on companywide values are gay and lesbian bars, because "a lot of the LGBTQ-plus community for so long has needed to have extra levels of community prevention and community health and safety."

Notable strategies Martone has observed from bars include designating dining spots for first-time online dates. Another approach allows people to indicate they are on a first-time date when they reserve a table "so [staffers] can do extra due diligence in terms of checking and making sure people are safe," they said.

A key way to really make a difference, though, is through community listening, Martone said, adding that LGBTQ bars are usually very deeply in touch with their community. If bars are doing more of that, they said, "it's much easier to serve people. It's much easier to say, 'Would this [program] be effective?'"

Ultimately, "it's great that bars are even taking an effort," Martone said. "The fact that they want to do good, I think, says volumes."

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