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 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.
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.
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 Left||Color||Worn 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|
|Golden Shower Top||Yellow||Golden Shower Bottom|
|Scat Top||Brown||Scat Bottom|
|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|
|Latex Fetish Top||Charcoal||Latex Fetish Bottom|
[NOTE: For a longer version of this code visit http://www.EvilMonk.org/A/hankcode.cfm]
Pins and Patches
There are conventions to how to place pins on leather vests.
- If you are a member of a club, a large patch for the club -- the club's "colors" -- goes on the back.
- Affiliate pins go on the left side of the vest
- The pin for your primary affiliation is pinned highest.
- Your name plate or title is pinned next -- immediately below your club pin
- All the other associate membership club pins go below your name.
- The right side of the vest is for run pins and friendship pins
- Friendship pins are pins given and received as tokens of friendship.
- Never ask for a friendship pin.
- It is rude to decline a friendship pin.
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.
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.
"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:
- Some believe that submissives should not look dominants in the eye. In The Story of O, that is a rule in the Chateau Roissy. Others prefer the connection afforded by looking in one another's eyes.
- Often a submissive is expected to open and hold doors for the dominant. But there is at least one male top in the community (Ambrosio) that believes it is still gallant to open and hold doors for ladies -- whether or not they are submissive. On the other hand, it might be viewed as offensively male chauvinist and insulting if a gentleman shows such old fashioned chivalry to a butch leather woman, female crossdreser, or leather boi. He'd have to make it clear in some other way that the courtesy is not gender dependent.
- Some dominants will not let their submissives eat before they do. Others don't care.
- One very common convention -- primarily practiced in the Leather communities -- is that of submissives and slaves following their dominants two steps behind and to the dominant's left -- or sometimes the dominant's right if the dominant is so inclined. (This tradition might originate from the feudal practice in which a noblemen's most valued warrior -- his "right-hand man" -- would be assigned to protect his lord from attacks on this lord's volunerable side.) On the other hand, there's nothing to prevent a dominant from ordering a submissive to walk ahead of him so that the dominant can enjoy the view.
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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Additional Articles by Ambrosio
- 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
- ChatGPT and the Truth About Jeanne C. Barney
- The Miscreant's Paradox for Leather and BDSM