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 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 1 of 7:
Good Manners vs. Correct Protocol
"Manners are of more importance than laws. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in."
~ Edmund Burke
"Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use."
~ Emily Post
Etiquette and protocol enable peaceful interactions and avoid unnecessary conflict. There's a well known anecdote that illustrates this: A wealthy society matron -- sometimes identified as Queen Victoria, sometimes identified as a Vanderbilt or Astor -- was hosting a lavish formal dinner. One of her guests was from another country and he was not familiar with "finger bowls." He didn't realize that the bowls of water with a slice of lemon floating in them were for cleaning fingers. He picked up the bowl and drank from it. Rather than embarrassing him with a correction, the hostess picked up her own bowl and drank from it. Soon all the other dinner guests followed suit.
They might not have followed the correct protocol but they were practicing good manners. In short, protocol and etiquette are not meant to ostracize and humiliate. Those who do so are practicing non-consensual abuse.
Essential Guidelines in the BDSM Scene
- Avoid making assumptions
- Be honest
- Be self aware: know your own wants, needs, and limitations.
- Don't touch someone else's property without permission -- whether it is a toy or a person
- Be tolerant
- Respect other people
- Respect other people's relationships
- Respect other people's sexuality
- Respect other people's gender identification
- Be polite: Say "please" and "thank you" and apologize when you should.
- Dominant does not mean domineering
- Submissive does not mean doormat
- Be discreet
- Negotiate play and play consensually
- Don't scare the vanillas
- The actions of the submissive or slave reflect on the dominant.
- The choice of dominant reflects on the taste and values of the submissive.
Desirable Virtues and Values
"Leather challenges a great many of our assumptions about pain and pleasure, about morality, relationships, integrity, fetish and taboo, sexuality and sexual orientation, and about power and authority. None of this may be immediately apparent when we walk into our first leather bar or join our first kinky newsgroup. Initially we find that kinky sex is about partying and playing."
- Jack Rinella
Desirable virues and values in the BDSM and Leather scenes include:
- Empathy for others
- Desire to learn
- Concern for safety
- Honesty and integrity
- Investment in the community
- Sense of humor and an willingness to laugh at oneself
- Listening and communication skills
- Self knowledge
"Euclid taught me that without assumptions there is no proof. Therefore, in any argument, examine the assumptions."
- Eric Temple Bell
BDSM is something most of us have fantasized about for a long time before we are exposed to it in reality. It's natural that our concept of BDSM is more often based on works of fiction --- like Pauline Reage's Story of O, Ann Rice's "Beauty" Trilogy, or John Norman's "Gor" series --- rather than the non-fiction guides like S&M 101 by Jay Wiseman or Learning the Ropes by Race Bannon. It's easy to build up an elaborate fantasy that doesn't really prepare us for the mundane "normal" reality of ordinary people forming real human relationships.
Larry Townsend explains this in The Leatherman's Handbook:
Enjoy what literature you will, but your training will come entirely through experience. Never confuse the two. What you read is somebody else's fantasy -- at best, his idea of how the scene should work. What you do is your reality. (p. 46)
If you are just getting involved it's good to take a low-key, slow paced approach. Start by finding out what's expected of you and what you can expect from your new community. Attend socials, meet people, observe, and ask questions. Get to know people on a human level without concerning yourself too much with roles.
Tolerance and Acceptance
"People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they're not on your road doesn't mean they've gotten lost."
~ H. Jackson Brown
"Only a Sith deals in absolutes."
- George Lucas
In BDSM there is no one true path. The greater BDSM scene consists of a lot of different styles --- Old Guard, Gorean, Biblical, European, etc., --- with contrasting traditions and expectations. There's very little that we all can agree on. Even the seemingly self evident maxim that all play should be Safe, Sane, and Consensual has its dissenters in the people who advocate Risk Aware Consensual Kink (RACK.)
But if there is one image of BDSM that predominates the popular preception of BDSM in North America it's the style known as "Leather." While the terms "Leather" and "BDSM" are often used interchangeably and while there are many heterosexual couples who identify as being into the "Leather Lifestyle," historically "Leather" connotes "Gay" Leather. Historical scholarship aside, Gay Leather is where the organized BDSM scene is popularly perceived as having started for North Americans. It is commonly accepted that the mostly gay leathermen first started gathering in large groups, forming their own clubs, and organizing events in the 1940s and 1950s. It wasn't until a few decades later that predominantly heterosexual groups formed and when they did, they adopted many of the symbols and traditions of the gay leather groups that preceeded them. It should follow that the pansexual BDSM community should be largely accepting of Gay people and gay culture. But there are exceptions.
Homophobia is repugnant enough by itself but it becomes repugnant and ridiculous when practiced by straight bigots who adopt the traditions of the minority they fear and denigrate -- kind of like a white supremist who loves rap music.
If you're a straight man or woman in the BDSM scene it's very likely that you'll have opportunities to participate in a fund raiser at the leather bar or an educational event organized by a leather club such as NLA Dallas's "Beyond Vanilla" weekend. They can be a great opportunity to learn something and form valuable friendships with good people with whom you might have more in common with than any of your straight vanilla friends.
Should you attend a fund raiser or other event at a leather bar, be circumspect. Don't overtly draw attention to your orientation. You're in a sanctuary where gay men and women can be comfortable and open about their orientation and it's inconsiderate to be "in their face" about your own heterosexuality. If you get some undue admiration, don't panic, take offense, and explain petulantly that you're "negative 10 in the Kinsey scale." That implies that you view homosexuality as something repugnant with which you are loath to be identified. Just accept it as a sincere compliment and decline gracefully with a brief explanation like "I'm not available, but thank you" or "You're great for my ego, but I'm spoken for." If someone asks about your orientation then by all means answer truthfully -- but don't draw undue attention to your orientation.
Furthermore, it should go without saying that this is not the place to pursue a liaison with the opposite sex. (Stranger things have happened but you risk making an annoying pest of yourself if you try.)
In summary, respect alternatives. Homophobia, racism, and BDSM don't mix. But then again, what does mix well with homophobia and racism?
Honesty and Integrity
"Where is there dignity unless there is honesty?"
"Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people."
- Spencer Johnson
Consensuality is dependant on honesty.
- It happens on occasion that couples will get married before realizing they are sexually incompatible. One is hopelessly vanilla and repulsed by BDSM while the other is hopelessly kinky and bored by vanilla. I sympathize with the dilemma of a spouse who is sexually unfulfilled but can't leave the relationship. I can understand why they might choose to seek sexual satisfaction outside the marriage. But I don't have sympathy for someone who lies about having a spouse or forgets to mention it to potential lovers or play partners. They are seeking to involve someone in a non consensual act of adultery.
- If you are a novice looking for a someone to play with let them know you are new to the scene. Everyone has to start somewhere. Being a novice does not make you a bad player but lying about your level of experience is dangerous for everyone. Your partners have the right and need to know how experienced you are. I was fortunate in that my first BDSM relationship was with a very knowledgeable and patient woman who -- while submitting to me -- taught me some of my most important lessons in BDSM.
BDSM is very intimate. It's only right and proper to be completely honest with anyone you involve yourself with in the scene.
Dominant vs. Domineering
"Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage."
- Theodore Roosevelt
"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone's feelings unintentionally."
- Oscar Wilde
"Be cautious of those who confuse kindness with weakness."
- Noah ben Shea
There's an understandable but regrettable tendency to confuse the role of the dominant with being domineering. You don't have to be overbearing to be a dominant. (Just as you have to be a throw rug to be a submissive.) It's possible to be polite and dominant.
Don't be pushy; Don't coerce. Don't force your attentions on someone who doesn't want them. This sends a very bad message: No one wants to play with someone who is too pushy. Dominants don't like pushy submissives and submissives can't trust a coercive dominant. If the dominant won't accept a submissive's "no" in the public setting is it likely the dominant will accept the limits of an isolated, defenseless submissive in bondage?
"If thou are a master, be sometimes blind; if a servant, sometimes deaf."
- Thomas Fuller
BDSM is usually a very private part of people's lives. If word gets out of a person's involvement it could cost him his livelihood, his standing in the community, and even custody of his children. Don't talk about someone else's activities in BDSM to anyone outside our community that doesn't have a right and need to know. BDSM groups take privacy very seriously. They have been known to revoke membership over the matter.
People in the scene are usually known by their first names or "scene names" (pseudonyms.) The obvious exception is when they are in an intimate relationship. They would also share their last name with someone with whom they wanted to play, and who required identification and/or references.
Don't Scare the Vanillas
"Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd."
- Bertrand Russell
"No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear."
- Edmund Burke
It could be argued that this maxim is an extension of the guideline for being discreet or a further elaboration of the mantra of "Safe, Sane, Consensual" but because it deserves special attention, it gets a section of its own.
This Maxim is known by several variations:
- Don't scare the vanillas
- Don't scare the (little) old ladies
- Don't scare the villagers
- Don't scare the horses
Whomever it is that doesn't get scared, the meaning is the same: don't intimidate people outside our community. But more specifically it means "don't force your kink on someone who doesn't share it" and "don't expose it to someone underage."
Sometimes at large leather events at hotels, people who are normally discreet in their own neighborhoods are swept away by a sense of community and solidarity into a false sense of invulnerability. They can make error judgments about what is appropriate to wear or how to behave in the more public areas of the hotel. Not only is it horribly inappropriate to expose our kink to children, but it is rude to the parents, the hotel owners, the hotel staff, and the event organizers who must deal with the repercussions.
[NOTE: This last example, while it happens, is not a common occurrence. If anything -- in these interesting times -- our neo-tribe is learning to be more discreet than it has been over the last 20 years. Most annual events are successes for the attendees, organizers, and the host hotels.]
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Additional Articles by Ambrosio
- Eleven Short Tips for BDSM Novices
- Some Notes on Safety for Meeting Online and Off
- Meeting Someone Else into BDSM
- An Open Letter to a Novice Domme
- Perverted Vocabulary: a Glossary of Terms Used in BDSM
- Some Notes on Netiquette and 'Net Basics
- Marginalia on the Old Guard, Leather Traditions, and BDSM History
- Play Nice: Some Notes on Scene Etiquette and Leather Protocol
- A Proposed "Pansexual Protocol"
- Polyamory and BDSM
- An Open Letter to Law Enforcement
- BDSM Gone Bad: Reporting Non-Consensual "Play" and Rape to the APD
- Some Criteria for Consensual D/s Contracts
- Relevant Films on DVD and for Streaming
- Dawn Perlmutter's "Dark Subculture" Witch Hunt
- Anatomy for Flogging: The Back
- A Rant on Mentorship
- A Surprising Discovery - an astonishing realization about the appropriateness of sending unsolicited penis photographs.
- Is Masochism Addictive?
- Some Notes on William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman, and Loving D/s
- Life Looks at Leather (1964)
- Some Notes on Psychology, Homosexuality, and Sadomasochism (This page includes "Two Letters from Sigmund Freud" and "A Brief History of Homosexuality and Sadomasochism in the DSM.")
- ChatGPT and the Truth About Jeanne C. Barney
- The Miscreant's Paradox for Leather and BDSM