|the deviants' dictionary Sourcesheet Updated 19 May 1997|
|Codes and Symbols|
|INTRO | FRAMES | INDEX
ENTRIES: A-D E-I J-M N-Q R-T U-Z
CONTRIBUTORS | BOOKLIST | LINKS | HELP
The SM scene is scattered and diverse and its institutions shifting and unstable, so there is never going to be a complete and definitive statement of such codes, whose significance may in any case vary from area to area. But we've tried to illustrate some of the better known ones here.
There have been a couple of recent suggestions for explicit symbols that identify a general interest in SM, both of which have enjoyed some noticeable success.
|The Leather Pride Flag
Designed by author and publisher Tony de Blase (Fledermaus), who presented it at the 1989 International Mr Leather contest in Chicago; it was subsequently widely adopted throughout the US, especially on the gay male SM scene, and now enjoys some popularity worldwide.
|The BDSM Emblem
The emblem emerged in the 1990s from the discussion arenas of America Online and Usenet, and is gaining some currency, particularly in the mixed online community.
Back to the Top
There is a widespread convention among SMers that certain clothing accessories worn on the left indicate top, dominant or master/mistress, and worn on the right, bottom, submissive or slave. The origin of this convention is uncertain: a picturesque (but by no means proven) origin story goes back to the San Francisco Gold Rush of 1849, where women were so scarce that men had to take a woman's role at social dances, and used bandanas in left or right back pockets to indicate whether they were leading or following that night.
The convention was widespread among the old guard leather community on the East Coast of the US in the 1960s, though at one point the code had the reverse meaning on the West Coast. It also came to be used more widely among the gay community, where in a vanilla context left would indicate the insertive 'active' partner in intercourse and right the receptive 'passive' partner.
A variety of accessories have been used to indicate the distinction. The best known is a belt clip key ring -- other possibilities are loops of chain or cockrings (sometimes slipped over the epaulettes of a leather jacket). It can be displayed with items that have a link to more specific activities too: handcuffs, lengths of rope, whips, gasmasks. And it is also used in the Hanky Code system -- see below.
A less widely-known refinement is that wearing a bunch of keys hanging loose indicates you are available immediatly, whereas wearing one inside a pocket signals you are not seeking a partner there and then. This system would resolve the ambiguity between the convention indicating merely a temporary preference or a more-or-less permanent identity.
The left-right convention is probably the most widely known of all SM visual codes, even outside the scene. In Europe in the mid-1970s, when single ear piercings in men were becoming acceptable to mainstream fashion, it was well-known playground lore that homosexuals identified themselves with a piercing in the right ear: 'Links cool, rechts schwul' (Left cool, right queer). Whether or not there was ever any truth in this, it is still the case that when a man wants to have a single ear piercing, it is in the left ear by default.
Today, when attitudes to roles are perhaps less rigid than they once were, and the need for discretion rather less pressing, such signals are not so common; and indeed with the general fashionability of items such as wallets on chains that loop from side pocket to belt, it is becoming more difficult to be certain that such a meaning is intended.
Back to the Top
The hanky code originated in the early 1970s primarily as a means of distinguishing more specific sexual interests when the original SM (or at least DS)-orientated leather scene was enlarging and style of dress could not be relied upon as an indicator of more esoteric sexual interests. The claim for the first published hanky code lies with Ron Ernst who drew one up in collaboration with Alan Selby (the original Mr S) for their San Francisco store Leather N Things; this code was published in the Bay Area Reporter in 1972.
The codes used have varied from time to time and place to place, and the many subsequently published collected versions contain numerous variants and contradictions. Some of these versions have so many entries it is unlikely even the most dedicated 70s scene queen could have memorised them all, and many of the entries in these are doubtless compiler's fancies rather than codes anyone actually used.
Nevertheless there are a few well-established colours that have a wider currency, and we show a selection of these below. In particular, black, red, grey, brown, yellow and dark blue are the most widely recognised and still likely to be encountered.
The hanky itself is in fact usually a substantial bandana. The general principle is to wear the appropriate colour in the back pocket of your jeans so that it is clearly showing, choosing the side according to the left-right convention described above, where left means top or active and right means bottom or passive. Where this is impossible because of the clothing you are wearing, for example if you are dressed in rubber, you can tie the hanky round one of your upper arms. If you don't want to commit yourself to a role, you can always wear the hanky round your neck
Some of the colours are so well known that their names are used in contact ads or even in speech as codewords for the activity concerned: this is particularly the case for red, yellow and brown. Someone might say 'I'm into yellow' rather than 'I'm into piss' or 'watersports'.
Black: Paingames, Whipping
Dark Blue: Fucking
Light Blue: Oral Sex
Olive or Khaki: Military Scenes
Light Pink: Arse Toys
Dark Pink: Nipple Torture
Mustard: Big Cock
Lavender: Drag, Cross Dressing
Orange: Anything Anytime (L) or Nothing Now (R)
Red and White Stripes: Shaving
Back to the Top