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These are guidelines for polite behavior in the BDSM scene. It's based on observations, personal experiences, conversations with peers, mailing list & newsgroup postings,
workshops, web pages, magazine articles, books, and personal mistakes. While some items of higher protocol are covered, these notes are mainly to address the most common social situations.

Play Nice: Some Notes on Scene
Etiquette and Leather Protocol

Version 2.09

Version 1.00 first posted May 31, 1999
Version 2.00 first posted May 31, 2005
(formerly entitled "Basic Protocol and Etiquette"
and "Some Notes on Basic Protocol and Etiquette")

This article is dedicated to Beverly M. in Austin

Part 5 of 7:
Flagging, Symbols, and Rituals

 

Flagging, Symbols, and Rituals

Flagging not Flogging

Flagging refers to non-verbal signals that serve as very specific cues in the scene. Most of them originated from the Gay leather scene of the 40's and 50's.

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Flagging with Keys

Some of the most well recognized flagging relates to keys. Depending on the side on which they are worn, they can signal the wear's role. Keys hanging off the left signal that the wearer is a dominant (or an S, sadist.) Keys hanging off the right signal that the wearer is a submissive (or an M, masochist.) Larry Townsend illustrates this point in his classic The Leather Man's Handbook:

Classically, wearing your keys on your left means you're S, on the right you're M, and in the center rear means you're open to negotiation. In actual practice, it doesn't always work out that way. ... Most guys wear their keys (or the chain on boot or jacket shoulder) on the left. Supposedly, this means that he is an S seeking an M. Not necessarily so! An M will frequently do this to fend off unwanted attention, and most fringe people will do it because they think it's butch.

If a guy wears his insignia on the right, you can be pretty sure that he means it. An S would simply never do this, and the fringe people -- not knowing any better -- believe it's a put-down. As to the keys in the center rear, you seldom see anyone do it. Those who are open to negotiation are far more likely to make no display, or to hang them on the left. (p. 142)

Alternatively tops and bottoms might subsititute wearing leather bracelets or gauntlets on their wrists -- left or right depending on their roles.

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Hankies

For decades, hankies (bandanas) have been worn -- in the left or right back pocket -- at Gay leather bars and runs to signal interest or specialization in particular sexual practices. It's also been adopted by gay leather women and some heterosexuals in the BDSM scene. But I caution against investing too much in the study of hankies. In Ask Larry Larry Townsend explains:

The wearing of colors (hankies) to display one's interest has been the subject for much tongue-in-cheek advise. Several of the most widely circulated lists have resulted from a couple of guys sitting down and trying to tag every conceivable activity with the most outlandish hue imaginable. (p.60-61)

Also understand that there are multiple versions of the hanky code -- mostly determined by region. Most likely over time the symbolism will codify as one version of the code will predominate over the Internet and become the most widely accepted. (Such is the nature of our wired world.)

For your convenience and amusement, here is one such "Hanky Code":

Worn on LeftColorWorn on Right
  Heavy S&M Top     Black     Heavy S&M Bottom  
  Looking for Femme Bottom     Black Lace Hanky     Femme Bottom  
  Bondage Top     Grey     Bondage Bottom  
  Fister     Red     Fistee  
  Golden Shower Top     Yellow     Golden Shower Bottom  
  Scat Top     Brown     Scat Bottom  
  Piercer     Purple     Piercee  
  Anal Sex, Top     Dark Blue     Anal Sex, Bottom  
  Wants Oral Sex     Light Blue     Expert at Oral Sex  
  Dildo User, Top     Light Pink     Dildo User, Bottom  
  Likes Drag     Lavender     In Drag  
  Uniform Top     Olive Drab     Uniform Bottom  
  Sixty-niner     Robin's Egg Blue     Sixty-niner  
  Genital Torturer     Teal Blue     Genital Torturee  
  Breast Torturer     Dark Pink     Breast Torturee  
  Likes Menstruating Women     Maroon     Is Menstruating Woman  
  Anything Goes     Orange     Not Now, Thanks  
  Spanker     Fuschia     Spankee  
  Latex Fetish Top     Charcoal     Latex Fetish Bottom  

[NOTE: For a longer version of this code visit http://www.EvilMonk.org/A/hankcode.cfm]

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Pins and Patches

There are conventions to how to place pins on leather vests.

Friendship pins

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Collars

Traditionally, wearing a collar is a sign of submission to an individual dominant. Sometimes it can be temporary, as when the dominant puts it on a submissive before a scene and then takes it off when the play is over. But traditionally, it's a sign of the dominant's permanent ownership as when the submissive (or slave) accepts it and wears all or most of the time. On the other hand submissives have been known to wear a collar with the lock hanging open as an indication of availability.

Traditionally it's very bad form to speak to a collared sub without the owner's permission. Although most scene folks in the pansexual BDSM community tend not to observe it much, I strongly urge consideration before speaking to a collared sub -- especially one from the Leather community where the protocol is more strictly observed. You might very easily offend someone who is observing a high protocol.

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D/s Text Cases

One of the most pervasive conventions in the scene -- especially noticeably online -- is the written practice of referring to submissives in lower case and referring to dominants in capitalized names and pronouns -- or even sometimes in all caps. It is more closely observed by submissives than by dominants. (Maybe because it is hard to refer to yourself in capitalized pronouns without seeming conceited.) Some submissives go so far as to refer to themselves in the third person while many of us -- tops and bottoms alike -- are content to just capitalize all the top terms -- Master, Dominant, Domme, Mistress, Daddy, Top -- while typing the bottom words -- slave, submissive, bottom, boy, bottom -- in all lower case.

Some believe this convention originated with the Internet, but as far back as 1972 Larry Townsend quotes an example of this style of writting in The Leatherman's Handbook:

Dear Master of Masters, Larry, Sir, Looking at Your ALL-MAN picture, Sir, makes me wish for smarts enough to describe, in words, on paper, my intense desire to be fully and completely possessed by You in any and all ways You have ever sexually possessed a sex slave ... (p.228-229)
Mr. Townsend goes on to comment:
I might add one more comment on Fred's letter, as he has followed a very proper form. Any M who replies to a letter, or answers an ad placed by an S, would do well to emulate his style. You will note that "You" is always capitalized, and that the "I" is avoided as much as possible. When it is used, it become "i." The "Sir" is also capitalized, sometimes in all caps. (p. 229)

But as widely accepted as the convention has become, some of us are uncomfortable with it. A few of us object to it on the grounds that it is improper English. Others find it presumptious and coercive when they are addressed in such a manner by someone they don't know.

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Little Rituals

"I cannot have an aide that will not look up, you'll be forever walking into things."
 - Dukhut "Atonement" Babylon 5

 

Here are some little rituals that some people in the scene choose to practice:

Whether a couple chooses to observe these customs is a matter of the dominant's taste and subject to the submissive's consent.

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