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

Play Nice: Some Notes on Scene
Etiquette and Leather Protocol

Version 2.09

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

This article is dedicated to Beverly M. in Austin

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

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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:

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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.

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:

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.

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.

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" at http://ms.ha.md.us/~tammad/, 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:

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]

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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


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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:

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 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. (p.63)

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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:

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 is the yearly S&M Ball that takes place in Houston, Texas. Despite my concern over it being open to the general public, nearly everyone there has been into the spirit of the event and dressed appropriately whenever 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.

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


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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:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pins and Patches

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

Friendship pins

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

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

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D/s Text Cases

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

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

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

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

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Little Rituals

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


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

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

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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 truth there are not that many people who are following high protocol, and my experience with those who do is that usually they keep the high protocol within a private Master-Slave relationship and 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 Merlot out of a small jelly jar as long as I am not having guests over for diner.

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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 "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) at http://www.EvilMonk.org/A/usflag.cfm]

[For the Union Jack (U.K.) view "Basic Flag Protocol and Etiquette" at http://www.newtonnewtonflags.com/protocol-etiquette.htm]

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In Closing


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

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Further Reading and Sources

This article is only meant to be a starting point. For further study here are books and links:

Further Reading Etiquette in General


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


Links About the Old Guard


Acknowledgments (Additional Sources)


Even More BDSM Etiquette, Scene Traditions, and Leather Protocol Links


Polite Behavior for Vampyres


Related Articles by Ambrosio


Recommended Books


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