Duress Codes and How to Use Them

art-abuser-and-victims and duress codes

Duress Codes can be an effective tool in awareness, defense, and escape

In the 1968 Star Trek episode Bread and Circuses, Captain Kirk uses duress codes when he is captured by a previously unknown civilization that modeled itself on Earth’s ancient Rome. Worse, a former Starfleet captain is leading the civilization, so he’s wary when the Enterprise hails Kirk to ask if everything is okay. Kirk replied, “Condition Green,” satisfying the former captain that no rescue would be attempted.
What the former captain didn’t realize is that “Code Green” was a pre-arranged code that actually meant “I’m in danger.”

Duress codes have been and continue to be used in fiction, real-life espionage, and even within families for ages. Reportedly, even Queen Elizabeth II had a subtle signal involving the way she was holding her handbag to signal to her staff that she wanted to leave a conversation or social situation. Basically, these “codes” are any pre-arranged message, behavior, or signal that means something to the intended receiver but won’t appear suspicious to anyone else watching. For people in an abusive household or relationship, duress codes may be one effective and safe way to summon help.

The three main characteristics of a duress code are that it needs to be pre-arranged, unlikely to be used by accident, and undetectable by anyone for whom the message isn’t intended.  

Duress Codes should be pre-arranged

The message is coordinated between the survivor and their support system and only to those they absolutely trust to help. The survivor and their support system then agree on one or more codes and their meanings. The code should be something that makes sense to be used without standing out as unusual.

They should be unlikely to be used by accident

Duress codes should be unique enough to avoid false positives- that is, accidentally using the code word when there’s not actually an emergency. This can be a challenge because the code, when trying to choose something the survivor will believably share, say, or do without being common enough that it might be used inadvertently.

Duress Codes should be undetectable by anyone the message isn’t intended for

A duress code is essential in cases where the abuser is strictly controlling or monitoring the survivor’s actions, online accounts, and conversations. It should be assumed that the abuser is going to see the code, and it’s critical they are unable to recognize it as one.

A duress code can be anything the survivor and their support system agrees on, and they can have as many codes as they can manage and as they need. Some examples may include:

– “If I post a picture of a flower, please check on me.”

– “If I mention in a text that the network went down at work, call the police.”

– “If I wear this necklace, I need help immediately.”

– “If I click ‘like’ on your profile picture, I’m in trouble and need you to pick me up.”

Or anything else that’s pre-arranged, unlikely to be used by accident, and undetectable by the abuser. It’s important to define not only what the code is but also exactly what needs to be done when it’s used.

The empowerment and security that comes from having a well-thought-out safety plan, including using duress codes, cannot be overstated. These codes are more than just secret signals; they are a bridge to safety for those who might find themselves in perilous situations, providing a discreet way to ask for help without alerting potential threats. Remember, you’re not alone in navigating these challenges. Organizations like Operation Safe Escape are here to support you, offering guidance, resources, and assistance in developing effective safety strategies tailored to your unique circumstances. Safety is a fundamental right, and through collaboration, preparation, and the use of tools like duress codes, we can work together to protect that right for everyone. If you or someone you know needs help in crafting a safety plan or understanding the use of duress codes, please reach out. Together, we can create a network of support that empowers individuals to live safely and confidently in any situation.

If you need assistance creating a duress code, Operation Safe Escape is here to help.

More about Duress Codes:


Kraden Blog

International Foundation for Protection Officers (IFPO)


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