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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.

This article is introductory. It is not meant to be a "complete guide."

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

The Entire Article on a Single Page

General Principles

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.

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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.

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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
  • Flexibility
  • Listening and communication skills
  • Self knowledge

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Avoiding Assumptions

"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.

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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?

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Honesty and Integrity

"Where is there dignity unless there is honesty?"
 - Cicero

"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.

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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?

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"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.

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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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More Specific Guidelines

Socializing & Networking

Socializing takes place at muches, general meetings, runs, and parties. Munches are semi-public gatherings of BDSM enthusiasts for the purpose of socializing. They often take place in the private rooms of public restaurants but they can also take place in shopping mall food courts, bars, city parks, the main dining area of restaurants, and private homes.

  • Novices are often afraid to attend their first social or munch. Perhaps they are afraid that they will be expected to participate in an initiation ritual. They needn't be. Generally, munches are for socializing not play.
  • If the munch is restricted to a private room in a public restaurant, restrict scene related discussions and actions to the private room.
  • It's common for people running a munch group to get letters and emails from strangers expecting to be matched up with sex partners. Most BDSM groups are social organizations, not dating services. Although the clubs officers hope people find like-minded partners at socials, they don't encourage a "meat market" atmosphere. If have no interest in getting to know people, you won't have much success finding someone with whom to play. Can someone feel safe with a dominant who isn't concerned with whom they play? Does a top feel appreciated by someone who wanmts to bottom to them without knowing anything about them?
  • Try to meet a variety of people at munches -- not just the people with whom you want to sleep or play.
  • Befriend novices and shy people. When you see unfamiliar people who aren't talking to anyone but seem as though they would like to, then go over to them and introduce yourself. If they seem receptive, start a conversation, answer any questions they might have, and introduce them to other people they might want to know. That small act of friendliness can do a great deal of good.
  • Don't inquire about a person's profession or business. Some might volunteer that information and many people aren't concerned about keeping them secret but some people want to keep their professional life separate from their scene life.

For more on socials, munches, and bashes, please read the following three articles:

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"A good uniform must work its way with women, sooner or later."
 - Charles Dickens

You don't have to be dressed in a $500 designer latex cat suit to fit in. The models in <<O>> and Taste of Latex are not representative of the scene in general. The players come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and orientations. As Ani DiFranco sings "You don't have to be a supermodel to do the animal thang." BDSM doesn't have to be about conspicuous consumption and outrageous fashion statements. It can be -- if that's your kink -- but it doesn't have to be.

So how should you dress? It depends on the function and your area.

  • Socials, Club Meetings, and Munches: The dress code for munches in public restaurants -- even the private rooms of public restaurants -- vary greatly according by region. In Silicon Valley the munch might take place in the center of a resturant with attendees in handcuffs and none of the vanilla customers will give it another glance. In the Bible Belt, the munch might take place in the private room of a family resturant and the guests asked to dress conservatively. In general, for semi-public munches or socials it's best that you not wear anything objectionable like a transparent blouse or an exposed thong. There are two considerations behind this:
    • Consideration for the resturant's management which wants to appeal to a family clientele. After all, the munch organizers would like to be welcomed back.
    • Consideration of the munch membership -- who feel varying degrees of comfort with being identified as part of our sub-culture. Some of us are afraid to be identified as being a "pervert." If they're seen associating with "leather clad bikers" and scantily clad "exotic dancers" it might hurt their public reputation and cause real harm.
    Most groups encourage dress creatively within the dress code. One man in San Antonio likes to wear a military school jacket and black latex pants. Other groups in other states prefer that you dress as vanilla as possible. While tasteful collars that look like necklaces are welcome, dog collars from the sale bin at PetsMart may not be. When in doubt, dress like you're going to a PTA meeting.
  • Parties: For parties, dress for your own enjoyment or for the pleasure of your significant other. Just be sure to wear something over your more "inspired" clothing -- or lack of it -- when you're outside the party space. Acceptable party wear can include
    • Classic: black leather
    • Fantasy: harem girls, priest, nuns, catholic school girls, barbarian warriors, etc.,
    • SCA: period costumes
    • Formal: dinner jackets, dresses
    • Goth
    • Drag / Cross dressing
    • Nudity or near nudity
    • Black clothes
    The only thing that occurs to me as being borderline unacceptable is the "preppy bar hopping" look in which the attendee makes absolutely no effort to fit in. It looks like he has stopped by for a few minutes before heading to a trendy singles bar.

    In some cases, because of legal consideration, complete nudity might not be permitted. When in doubt, check with the host.
  • Leather Bars and Runs: There is a rather consistent uniform for the leather scene. While deviation is acceptable, it's traditionally a variation of the classic biker uniform:
    • leather cap or cloth bandana
    • plain white t-shirt
    • blue jeans
    • leather belt worn with the jeans
    • leather chaps worn over the jeans (or over a leather thong or g-string)
    • leather pants
    • leather boots
    (NOTE: in some high protocol circles, a novice would not wear leather -- just a plain white t-shirt and blue jeans.)

    That's not to imply that the uniform hasn't evolved a bit. Someone with more experience in the Leather community than the author writes:

    The most suprising change, to me, is that blue jeans are much rarer than black jeans now. Grey or black t-shirts outnumber white. Usually, the t-shirts don't have logos or writing but t-shirt from the leather community (bar, store, etc.) is OK.

    There are some other odd variances--Boston seems to have the tightest dress codes in the country, New Orleans the loosest. During a leather run, the rules are relaxed, not tightened (so friends and partners who are not into leather can join leatherfolk out at the bars).

    That said, the leather look is a "classic" look and it is well served by economy. To quote Larry Townsend again (The Leatherman's Handbook, p. 142):

    On the whole, I think the more subdued costume is the most effective, regardless of the action you're seeking. The guy who affects an obvious pose, who wears clothing which is calculated to stand out under the black lights in many bars is not going to do well as his more conservatively dressed counterpart. The leather-bike people tend to favor a less-flamboyant sexuality, although an impressive basket is never unappreciated.

When in doubt, err on the side of caution.

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"If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won't. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the manner according to the dictates of your best judgment."
 - Mark Twain, "Bad Boys and Girls"

S.A.M. can mean "smart ass masochist" also known as a "brat." As the name implies, S.A.M.s are non-submissive masochistic bottoms who -- under the pretext of submission -- become deliberately disobedient and disrespectful to their dominants in order to provoke punishment. While many doms dislike this sort of manipulation and consider it "topping from below,", S.A.M. behavior can be appropriate -- if all parties enjoy and consent to it. Some doms call any bottoms who choose not to submit to them a S.A.M. when in fact, it is a bottom's prerogative to choose to whom they submit. To be a real S.A.M., a bottom must be inappropriately and intentionally rude, disrespectful, and provocative.

BTW, playful bratty behavior -- while often unacceptable in the BDSM scene -- is quite common and acceptable in the spanking scene where D/s is not an essential component.

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Touching Others

Casual touching seems like a bigger irritant in our scene than in society as a whole. I know a lot of female dominants who get notably irritated when someone touches them, their toys, or their subs without permission. I once saw a novice male dominant reaching over to touch the hand of a dominant woman he didn't know and ask her "Are you a sub or a domme?" He found out very quickly.

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Gender Identification

Drag Queens and Sissies: It is correct form to address and refer to a drag queen or a sissy as female. It is considered bad form to disparage a drag queen no matter how poorly they pass as female. That is especially true in the Gay Leather scene.

Butch: Some butch women prefer to be addressed as men and to be referred to with male pronouns. Some do not. When meeting a butch woman for the first time, the best advice is to ask "how do you prefer to be addressed?" You might forget yourself and use the incorrect pronoun on occasion but that is very common and most butch women are very forgiving if they can tell you are trying.

No matter how confused and flustered you might become over a person's gender, you must never refer to them as "it." Not being sure about a person's gender is one thing but to refute their humanity is inhumane.

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"I never apologize. I'm sorry -- but that's the way I am."
- Homer Simpson

"If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble."
- Theodore Roosevelt

Rudeness is inexcusable in both dominants and submissives. Even if a master orders his slave to get refreshments, the slave cannot push aside people in her way or cut in line. And a dominant may not touch someone else's property -- or even an unattached submissive -- without permission. A dominant or submissive who is rude should apologize -- truly apologize.

In "Elements of an Apology," the late Tammad Rimilia describes a proper apology:

... the elements of an apology are these:

1) A restatement of what it was that you did that was wrong,

2) A statement that you regret doing that wrong thing, and

3) A promise to try not to do similar things wrong in the future.

The first element allows the recipient of the apology to feel confident that the apologist is actually thinking about the same event or act that they are. The second element conveys that the apologist is keenly sorry for what they did, and the third element gives hope that the future will proceed better.

... an apology does not feel sincere unless it incorporates all three elements.

In addition to the elements which Tammad Rimilia lists, etiqutte expert Llewellyn Miller offers the following:

  • Acknowledging the offense
  • Recognizing your responsibility
  • Explaining why you made the mistake
  • Acknowledging the pain or discomfort you've caused
  • Showing sincere regret and genuine concern over the injury
  • Apologizing for the pain or discomfort
  • Attempting or offering to rectify the situation

A real apology does not put the blame on the injured party or someone else. A real apology does not emphasize the excuse over the regret. A real apology is not delivered in a manner that trivializes the offense.

Marsha L. Wagner offers an excellent illustration on the difference between a poor apology and a proper apology: The New York Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato mocked Judge Ito on the radio by referring to him as "Little Judge Ito" and adopting an offensive stereotypical Japanese sounding accent. The senator was widely criticized for what seemed like racial slurs and he was encouraged to apologize. In his first attempt, he issued a brief written statement through his office:

If I offended anyone, I'm sorry. I was making fun of the pomposity of the judge and the manner in which he's dragging the trial out.

That only made the situation worse so he apologized again. This time he made the following statement personally:

I'm here on the Senate floor to give a statement as it relates to that episode. It was a sorry episode. As an Italian-American, I have a special responsibility to be sensitive to ethnic stereotypes. I fully recognize the insensitivity of my remarks about Judge Ito. My remarks were totally wrong and inappropriate. I know better. What I did was a poor attempt at humor. I am deeply sorry for the pain that I have caused Judge Ito and others. I offer my sincere apologies.

The second apology was acceptable where the first was not.

In summary, a full apology consists of the following:

  1. Acknowledging the offense
  2. Admitting that the offense was wrong
  3. Explaining why you made the mistake
  4. Recognizing your responsibility
  5. Acknowledging the pain or discomfort you've caused
  6. Showing sincere regret and genuine concern over the injury
  7. Promising to try not to make the same mistake in the future. (Or in the case of major betrayals, never to make the same mistake again.)
  8. Apologizing for the discomfort or pain
  9. Attempting or offering to rectify the situation

  "Elements of an Apology" by Tammad Rimilia at http://ms.ha.md.us/~tammad/,
  "Apologies and Excuses" in The Encyclopedia of Etiquette   by Llewellyn Miller, and
  "Apologies" by Marsha L. Wagner at http://www.ombuds.uci.edu/JOURNALS/1996/apologies.html}

In a store, a cartoon pig dressed in a black leather jacket and a master's hat reiews a display of greeting cards under a banner reading "'Apology' Cards."  The cards read "I was just kidding!," "I'm sorry if ...," "I'm sorry that you ...,"  "I'm sorry but ...," "I regret you ...," "I'll apologize if ...," and "Give me a break, I'm sorry, all right?"

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Accepting Apologies

"How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it."
- Marcus Aurelius

"I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice."
- Abraham Lincoln

  • You are not obligated to accept or acknowledge an apology if you don't think it is sincere and appropriate. Over time it can become apparent that some people use apologies to get out of trouble. To them, apologies are just another tool to get what they want.
  • People cannot bargain with apologies. Conditional apologies are as real as conditional love and are even less satisfying.
  • If someone seems to make an honest attempt at an apology or explain their actions, it is only fair to listen.
  • It is as important to accept a sincere and appropriate apology as it is to offer one. It is also heathier than holding a grudge.

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Addressing Inappropriate Behavior

For the good of the community, it is everyone's responsibility to report inappropriate behavior to the correct individuals:

  • Misbehaving collared submissives: The behavior of a submissive reflects on his or her dominant and the dominant is responsible for the behavior of the submissive so it follows that when a collared submissive misbehaves, you should report the submissive's behavior to the submissive's owner. It is then the owner's responsibility to address the bad behavior.

    A few couples don't observe this convention. They feel that the submissive is responsible for her own behavior. (To many of us, that seems to contradict the roles of dominant and submissive but the BDSM scene does not have a board of standards and practices.) Still, if the couple's relationship is not clear, then it is prudent to approach the top first.

    In any case, someone -- either the dominant or the submissive -- is answerable for the submissive's behavior. The protocol card doesn't get them both off the hook.
  • Unsafe Players: It's bad form to interrupt a scene at a party. If you see something that appears dangerous, non-consensual, or against the party rules, bring it to the attention of the Dungeon Monitor. The DM will decide on the appropriate action to take.
  • Stalkers and other criminals: If someone in the community has crossed the line between simple rudeness and inappropriateness to something illegal -- stalking, rape, non-consensual abuse, theft, etc., -- it is your duty and in your best interest to report such behavior to both the proper legal authorities who are best equipped to handle the issue and the leaders of the local community who need to know. Keep in mind the community's ability to police itself is both limited and problematic. It should go without saying that no one should make false accusations or exaggerate misunderstanding and honest mistakes. Unfortunately that happens in the community and it has unfairly caused serious damage to people's lives and reputations.
  • All others: At group functions --- such as a munch or party --- please report someone misbehaving --- touching without permission, refusing to take no for an answer, etc., --- to the munch facilitator, a party host, or to club officer.

Subs - please stand up for yourselves or at least report inappropriate behavior. You are doing your community a disservice by being silent about abusive and predatory behavior.

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Cruising With Class

Expectations of Sex

BDSM is not always about sex. BDSM is not synonymous with swinging, swapping, or Polyamory -- although it's possible for it to co-exist with these lifestyles. A BDSM relationship can consist entirely of kinky role-playing and sex or have no sexual involvement at all. What is more you don't have to have sex if you're playing with someone.

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When attending a BDSM or Leather function, don't assume someone you've never met before is there for your pleasure. That "buffet attitude" insults everyone. It dismisses the "entree's" prerogative, loyalty, and ability to choose. It also says something about the offender's sense of self-worth. He is relying on an assumed role rather than his own merits and abilities to find a partner.

It's a popular maxim in the scene that "Submission is a gift." The submissive chooses the dominant. (I'm from the school of thought that every thing the top does should be beneficial to the submissive. As someone said "Topping is the ultimate act of submission.")

Way back in the 1970s Larry Townsend wrote about the M's (masochist's) prerogative in choosing a S (sadist). In the Leatherman's Handbook (p.63) he writes:

An S can usually make himself emotionally available on much shorter notice than the M. This has given rise to one of the unwritten rules of cruising: The S should let the M know he wants him, but he shouldn't push. ... There are contrary opinions, mostly to the effect that the S should command the action and the M should obey. There is a certain logic to this, as well; but if the M isn't ready for you, he will not be nearly so responsive.

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Approaching a Couple for Play

You might want to play with someone who is already in a BDSM relationship.

Generally speaking, approaching a couple you are not acquainted with to request play or sex simply because you find one of them attractive is no more acceptable in a BDSM situation than it is in a Vanilla setting. While polyamory and serial monogamy are well represented in the scene, the greater minority of people are involved in or seeking monogamous relationships.

But if you think there would be reasonable opportunity to play with part of a couple -- or both of them -- generally you would do well to approach the one in charge. As Drew Campbell explains in The Bride Wore Black Leather: If you're interested in a top, speak directly to that person. If you're interested in a bottom who is with another top, approach the top first; if the bottom speaks for him- or herself, you'll be referred to him/her.

(p. 142)

I would also warn against sending a submissive to her dominant to request permission to play with the submissive. You would be in effect sending someone else's submissive on an errand on your behalf. It's more respectful and courteous to ask the dominant yourself.

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Jus Primae Noctis

Jus primae noctis (law of the first night) or droit du seigneur (the lord's right) is the historically dubious right that kings and lords exercised to be first to sleep with the brides when their subjects married. According to Cecil Adams in his "The Straight Dope" column for 20-Dec-1996, it didn't exist.

That doesn't stop some of our "community leaders," "wise elders," and party hosts from adopting this colorful tradition for their own benefit. While they don't explicitly state the right, it's implicit in their presumptive manner at parties and munches. They can be a little bit too casual in greeting and interacting with attractive members of the opposite sex (or the same sex if they are so inclined) -- attached or unattached, dominant or submissive, straight or gay. It can take many forms:

  • A dominant explains to the novice married couple that the submissive woman needs an experienced dominant -- such as himself -- for her first BDSM experience.
  • The party host repeatedly grabs an attractive dominant woman around the waist and reminds her that he should top her sometime. (If it's unacceptable for his other guests to do so and if he wouldn't do so at someone else's party, then he's taking unfair advantage of the situation.)
  • A dominant generously offers one of his many submissives for play to another dominant but then expects something -- such as the other dominant's girl friend for play -- in return.
  • Under the guise of protecting submissives from predators, a dominant might take a vulnerable submissive under her protection -- without consulting with the submissive first -- and monopolize the submissive's time, steer the submissive away from eligible attractive dominants, and generally collar the submissive without negotiation.

The lords and ladies in these situations are taking unfair advantage of their status in the community or their positions as the party hosts and hostesses to intimidate and deflect criticism. Novices and party guests don't want to be rude to VIPs and their party hosts. But the lords and ladies are behaving like predators and acting unacceptably.

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Play Parties

Three Types of Parties

Play parties -- or dungeon parties -- are parties where people in the Leather and BDSM scene can go to play, socialize, and watch. There are two types: private and public.

Private Parties
Play parties that are held in someone's home. They are invitation only. There is usually no charge or donation (but the host might appreciate a gift.) They can be potluck. Normally there is no dungeon monitor, the rules are looser & more intimate, and edgier play than in a public party is permitted because the host knows all the guests.
Public Parties
Play parties that are often in a rented space and sponsored by a BDSM organization or business (such as a private dungeon or a professional domina) for members of the BDSM community or for the membership of specific BDSM organizations. There is a charge for admittance or a donation is strongly encouraged. The rules are more stringent than in private parties and dungeon monitors are on duty to see that the rules are observed and that the scenes are safe. Since it's not really open to the general public, perhaps the term is a misnomer.

In addition to play parties, a related event is the S&M -- or Erotic -- Ball.

S&M Balls
Huge BDSM themed events in large rented halls open to the general public as well as to people in the BDSM and Leather scenes. The emphasis is on seeing and being seen. People wear their best and most outlandish dresses, uniforms, and costumes. Performances, costume contests, and scenes take place on stages for the benefit of the audience. Cameras and other recording equipment might be allowed for those who want to "make it last longer." Unfortunately there is no ballroom dancing.

A great example of an s&m ball was the yearly S&M Ball that used to take place in Houston, Texas. Despite it being open to the general public, nearly everyone there has been into the spirit of the event and dressed appropriately I attended.

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Sample Party Rules

While there is no universal set of dungeon party rules, most organizations seem to have developed rules that are remarkably similar. Here's a sample set of rules that I've freely adapted from an existing group in Central Texas which in turn adopted many of its rules from exiting groups like TES in New York. (The official party rules for the South Texas group have since been revised.) Except for one or two innovations, they are representative of the rules at most parties.

  • Do not make assumptions. Negotiate all scenes. Do not assume that the presence of someone at this party means they are available for your pleasure. Do not involve yourself in a scene without an invitation.
  • Never touch anyone, their equipment, or belongings without permission.
  • Privacy and discretion are to be respected. All information about party activities, attendees, etc., is to be considered confidential. Do not bring cameras or other recording devices.
  • Treat everyone with equal respect -- doms, subs, tops, bottoms, switches, volunteers, and staff alike.
  • Play sober. Do not bring alcohol or recreational drugs to the party.
  • Smoking will be at the discretion of the Board of Perverts. Smoking will be allowed in established smoking areas only.
  • Please be prepared with something to cover your more daring clothing -- or lack thereof -- when you go outside the party space.
  • No genital or anal penetration, oral sex, or exchange of bodily fluids.
  • Solicitation for sexual services is not allowed.
  • Please agree on safe words for scenes. "Red" will be a default safe word.
  • Respect scenes. Limit conversation and screaming in the play area. Don't crowd the playing areas.
  • Respect the playspace. Clean up after messy scenes. Use a drop cloth when waxing. No scat or water sports.
  • Limit play to the playspace. Do not engage in play outside the Dungeon Monitor's line of vision.
  • No guns.
  • No breath play.
  • Please do not use a station for unreasonable amount of time. Other people would like to use the play equipment.
  • Dungeon Monitors have the final word on everything including the right to stop an unsafe or abusive scene. Check with the DM before any edgeplay, fireplay (waxing, cupping, flash paper, etc.), piercing, or bloodsports.

These rules are provided to offer an idea of the rules for a local play party in your area but that does not imply that the rules for parties in your area are the same. You must read the rules at the parties which you attend -- and review them each time you attend a party.

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More on Parties

No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.
- St. Ambrose

  • If you have not been invited to a private party, don't crash it.
  • Respect the type of party. If the party is for fem doms, it mostly likely isn't appropriate to attend as a male dom. If the party is a spanking party, don't engage in edgy S&M play. While there has been an increased cross over between the spanking scene and the BDSM scene in the last few years, many spanking enthusiasts are not comfortable with heavy S&M edge play. On the other hand some spanking parties allow for moderate S&M play. Check with the hosts to find out what is appropriate.
  • Just as the people socializing and watching at parties shouldn't intrude the people who are playing, the players should not put the non-players at risk of injury by intruding on the social space with play. If you are playing with a bottom in such a way that she's likely to trip or collapse, don't do so where she's liable to trip or collapse over an unwitting party guest. (This is not to say that it's any more acceptable for a bottom to be injured from tripping or collapsing WITHIN the play space than without. But that is more of a safety issue outside the scope of this article.)
  • If there is a dungeon monitor, do not interrupt a scene -- unless the bottom uses a safe word and the top does not respond to it, or if they are unaware of an immediate safety issue such as a falling chandelier, fire, or postal carrier running amok with automatic weapons. If there is a dungeon monitor, make the dungeon monitor aware of any safety or consensuality concerns.
  • A dungeon monitor might be an ignorant, arrogant ass but he's still a dungeon monitor. Obey him even when he doesn't know what he is talking about. Depending on the situation and the politics involved, you may be able to address your grievances later with the party hosts or club officers -- or even the dugeon monitor himself. Or you might not. If you feel that you've been treated unfairly and you haven't gotten any satisfaction, your best options are to avoid playing during the offending DM's shifts or not attending that group's parties.
  • To dungeon monitors: In most situations, dungeon monitors can do their duties without embarrassing, insulting, or abusing the guests. A little mutual respect can go a long way.
  • Often after a successful scene, bottoms will be deep in subspace. That can make them very vulnerable mentally and emotionally. They will very likely need aftercare -- which involves someone giving them their full attention. The top and bottom will need to negotiate this prior to a scene. If the top is unwilling or unable to provide aftercare then they will need to make arrangements with someone else to look after the bottom.
  • Do not approach a bottom immediately after a scene -- especially if the bottom is still in subspace. Approaching a bottom in subspace for the purpose of playing with the bottom is predatory behavior. Depending of the depth of subspace, the bottom might not be in a state of mind to consent. Keeping the wolves at bay is another reason for tops to provide aftercare to the bottom.
  • After a scene, the players should put away their personal toys and clean the equipment with disinfectant. If they will be indisposed, then they will need to make arrangements with someone else to do it for them. At very busy parties, the next couple using the equipment might help out by cleaning the equipment for them after it is clear that the first couple is finished playing. But this is more than you can expect. If it happens, the first top should make a point to thank the second couple and apologize for the inconvenience at the earliest appropriate time.
  • If you are naked, don't stand too close to someone you don't know well -- especially if they are sitting down. Some people find that intimidating and distasteful.
  • If you are nude or most of your butt is exposed (g-string, thong), please bring and use a "butt towel" to place between yourself and any chair you may sit in and others might later use. If you forget a butt towel, please clean the chair with a mild disinfectant before you leave.
  • Bus your own table. Volunteers are not paid to pick up after you.
  • After the party or before you leave, thank the hosts and volunteers.
  • Don't engage in exhibitionism or edgy behavior outside the party space where the general public can get an eye full.

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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 (p. 142):

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.

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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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 (p.60-61):

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.

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 TopBlack   Heavy S&M Bottom
Looking for Femme BottomBlack Lace Hanky Femme Bottom
Bondage TopGrey Bondage Bottom
FisterRed Fistee
Golden Shower TopYellow Golden Shower Bottom
Scat TopBrown Scat Bottom
PiercerPurple Piercee
Anal Sex, TopDark Blue Anal Sex, Bottom
Wants Oral SexLight Blue Expert at Oral Sex
Dildo User, TopLight Pink Dildo User, Bottom
Likes DragLavender In Drag
Uniform TopOlive Drab Uniform Bottom
Sixty-ninerRobin's Egg Blue Sixty-niner
Genital TorturerTeal Blue Genital Torturee
Breast TorturerDark Pink Breast Torturee
Likes Menstruating WomenMaroon Is Menstruating Woman
Anything GoesOrange Not Now, Thanks
SpankerFuschia Spankee
Latex Fetish TopCharcoal Latex Fetish Bottom

[NOTE: EvilMonk.org has a longer version of this code.]

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Pins and Patches

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

Friendship pins

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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 (p.228-229): 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 ...

Mr. Townsend goes on to comment (p. 229):

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.

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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A Few Notes on High Protocol

High Protocol in Perspective

i can't get all involved in what is 'protocol' and what is not... good grief, relationships are hard enough... i frankly just prefer to please my partner and follow his lead, regardless of what it is... isn't that what D/s is, after all?
~ Stacey

While good manners are important in all situations, leather protocol should not be a source of anxiety for novice doms and subs. While slapping someone else's submissive on the ass will get you shown to the door, addressing "Cardinal Hugh Mungus-Coq" as "Your Holiness" instead of "Your Eminence" will go uncriticized and most likely unnoticed. In what I've observed there are not that many people who are following high protocol, and those who do keep it within a private Master-Slave relationship. Mostly they are very graceful and forgiving about the ignorance of others. (There are notable exceptions but they are well known as such and it is simple to avoid them and stay out trouble.)

Perhaps the reason more dominants and masters don't require their subs to follow high protocol as defined by Emily Post is that they would have to learn the high protocol themselves. And if a dom or top decides it's not worth it to him to have more than three dining utensils in one meal, that's fine. Personally I will happily drink my Malbec out of a small jelly jar unless I'm entertaining.

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Formal Vanilla Etiquette As High Protocol

The BDSM scene is a subculture and as a subculture it exists in relation to the larger "Vanilla" culture to which it is a component. For the most part, the etiquette and protocols of the larger world still apply -- sometimes to a greater extent -- unless they are exceptions that define the very ways in which the BDSM scene is different from the whole. For example, where protocol of any flavor dictates that it is not acceptable to grab a stranger by the groin in either "vanilla" office parties or kinky munches, protocol differs on the subject of where one partner should walk in relation to the other. While it is expected for a couple to walk side by side in North American society, the most common convention in the scene is that the submissive follows the dominant two steps behind and to the dominant's left (or right, if the dominant prefers), regardless of their respective gender. So an understanding of the etiquette of the larger culture (North America) is essential for understanding the etiquette and protocol of the subculture (the North American BDSM scene.)

Here are a few points of general "vanilla" etiquette which our leather folk can apply -- or adopt -- to our subculture. Some of them are not as well observed as they once were -- either in our society as a whole or in our subculture in particular. They can safely be considered "High Protocol" and are rarely applied outside of "High Protocol" relationships or special occasions such as formal dinners.

In bowing, it is considered respectful to bend the head. To only lower the eyes is rude.

Traditionally gentlemen walk next to ladies on the outside -- closer to the street (curbside.) This was practiced so that gentlemen could protect ladies from being splashed with mud. (This runs counter to the more generally accepted convention of the submissive walking behind the dominant but it is included here to add perspective.)

A Few Rules for Formal Dining:

There's far more to formal dining and etiquette than these points. More research is required if you plan on hosting or attending a formal dinner party. There are links below for further study.

In summary, unless there is a specific accepted exception, the rules of the larger world apply to the smaller.

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Making Introductions

When making introductions, introduce the person of lesser authority, rank, or seniority to the person of greater authority. Alternatively, think of it as saying the name of the senior or "more important" person first.

FOR EXAMPLE: "Sir Robert, this is my boi, Impudence." or "Mistress Sara, I'd like to introduce my slave, Francine."

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Forms of Address

Title Formal Written Salutation In Conversation
Military officers (US) Dear [Rank] [Last name] [Rank] [Last name]

While referring to the officers of the United States military, in Service Etiquette, Oretha D. Swartz writes: Always remember that a senior sends his or her compliments to a junior; the junior sends his or her respects.   In written correspondence the senior may "call" attention to a problem or other matter, but the junior may only "invite" it. (p.7)

Royalty and Presidents (excluding Britain and the U.S.)
Title Formal Written Salutation In Conversation
King Your Majesty Your Majesty
Prince (reigning nonroyal) Your Serene Highness Your Highness
Prince (royal) Your Royal Highness Your Highness
President (not U.S.) Your Excellency Mr./Madam President
British Royalty
Title Formal Written Salutation In Conversation
Queen Madam Your Majesty or
Ma'am (longer conversation)
Prince or Princess Sir or Madam Your Royal Highness
Duke or Duchess of [Place] Sir or Madam Your Royal Highness
British Titled Personages - non-Royal
Title Formal Written Salutation In Conversation
Duke or Duchess of [Place] My Lord Duke Duke or Duchess
Marquess (Marquis) Dear Lord [Place] Lord [Place]
Marchioness Dear Lady [Place] Lady [Place]
Earl Dear Lord [Place] Lord [Place]
Countess Dear Lady [Place] Lady [Place]
Viscount Dear Lord [Place] Lord [Place]
Viscountess Dear Lady [Place] Lady [Place]
Baron Dear Lord [Place] Lord [Last name]
Baroness Dear Lady [Place] Lady [Last name] or
Baroness [Last name]
Baronet Dear Sir [First name] Sir [First name]
Knight Dear Sir [First name] Sir [First name]
Dame Dear Dame [First name] Dame [First name]
Title Formal Written Salutation In Conversation
Eastern Orthodox,
Cyprus & Athens
Your Beatitude Your Beatitude
Eastern Orthodox,
Your Eminence Your Eminence
Roman Catholic
Your Excellency Your Excellency
Dear Archdeacon
[Last name]
Archdeacon [Last name]
Right Reverend Sir or
Bishop [Last name]
Bishop [Last name]
Roman Catholic
Your Excellency or
Dear Bishop [Last name]
Your Excellency
Cardinal Your Eminence Your Eminence
Dear Mr./Ms./Dr.
[Last name]
[Last name]
Dean of a Cathedral,
Dear Dean [Last name] Dean [Last name]
Monsignor Dear Monsignor Monsignor [Last name]
Greek Orthodox,
Your Holiness Your Holiness
Greek Orthodox,
Alexandria, Antioch,
& Jerusalem
Your Beatitude Your Beatitude
Russian Orthodox
Your Holiness Your Holiness
Pope Your Holiness or
Most Holy Father
Your Holiness or
Most Holy Father
Roman Catholic
Reverend Sir Father or
Father [Last name]
Rabbi Dear Rabbi [Last name] Rabbi [Last name]

NOTE: Traditionally, signing your correspondence "Respectfully" and "Respectfully yours" is reserved for writing to the clergy.

[Primary Source: "Forms of Address" in The Encyclopedia of Etiquette by Llewellyn Miller]

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Patriotic Displays (U.S.)

Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. ... it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.
- Theodore Roosevelt

Patriotism means being loyal to your country all the time and to its government when it deserves it.
- Mark Twain

This section may at first seem out of place but there are occasions -- such as a formal dinner or leather awards ceremony in the U.S. -- when the U.S. Flag will be displayed.

The following points are adapted from the United States Code, Title 4. [Public Law 829; Chapter 806, 77th Congress, 2nd session]

[NOTE: For the complete code see the U. S. Flag Protocol (Title 4)]

[For the Union Jack (U.K.) view Basic Flag Protocol and Etiquette]

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In Closing


In summary -- play nice. BDSM is about playing games, and in the best games everyone has fun.


Further Reading

Recommended Books

  • Campbell, Drew and Donna Barr The Bride Wore Black Leather ... And He Looked Fabulous!: An Etiquette Guide for the Rest of Us. (Greenery Press: Emeryville, 2000.)
    This book includes some information on Leather protocol but that is not its main focus. It covers a wide spectrum of alternative lifestyles including but not limited to Pagan, Wiccan, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered, and Polyamorous. Buy it on Amazon.com
  • Post, Emily. Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage
    (The 1922 edition is the most highly recommended book for High Procotol. It's available on-line at http://www.EvilMonk.org/A/epost.cfm)
  • Schwartz, Oretha D., Service Etiquette 4th edition.
    The definitive book on U.S. military protocol and etiquette. Buy it on Amazon.com
  • Townsend, Larry The Leatherman's Handbook: Silver Jubilee Edition. (Larry Townsend Publishing: 2000)
    Both a historical document about the Gay Leather scene in the 1970s and also a useful guide to the leather lifestyle. Buy it on Amazon.com

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Further Reading on Etiquette in General

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Further Reading on Etiquette and Protocol in a BDSM and Leather Context

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