Hanky Code – What Is the Hanky Code and What Do the Colors Mean

what is hanky code

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While “hanky code” can go by many names (including handkerchief code, bandana code, or flagging), the term refers to a system of signaling your interest in certain sexual interests and fetishes by wearing or tucking a bandana of a certain color into your left or right pocket, and is commonly used by the gay male community and the BDSM community, according to Christene Lozano, certified sex addiction therapist and LMFT at Meraki Counseling.

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“It originated during a time when open discussions about sexuality (especially between two men) were illegal, as was being gay,” explains explains Kryss Shane, leading LGBTQ+ expert. The term itself came from a writer from The Village Voice, who wrote about the system in early 1971, adds Shane.

As for the use of hanky code in the BDSM community, it was after the gay community had popularized the code that it became popular among BDSM practitioners, explains Lozano. Hanky code “was found by many to be an easier way to nonverbally communicate one’s sexual interests and kinks, especially in bars.” Lozano adds.

Hanky code became popular in the BDSM community as the hanky code became better known and was found by many to be an easier way to nonverbally communicate one’s sexual interests and kinks, especially in bars.

Different colors have different meanings, as does the side of your pants you wear the bandana or scarf on. Wearing it on your left would indicate a more active role, while wearing it on the right would indicate your preference for a more passive or receptive role, explains Shane.

What does handkerchief code mean?

Also commonly called “hanky code,” it refers to “a color-coded system for gay men to show their sexual actions and interests to other gay men in a discreet way that those outside the community do not typically recognize,” says Shane.

What do the different colors of hanky code mean?

Each color has a different meaning, with some of the popular colors in the 60+ color list including: black for heavy S&M; dark blue for anal sex; light blue for oral sex; grey for bondage; red for fisting; and yellow for watersports or peeing, explains Lozano.

For more on hanky code, The Saint Foundation, an LQBTQ non-profit that works to preserve important LGBTQ memorabilia and history, has a great, in-depth explainer here.

Can a cishet woman use hanky code if not for BDSM purposes?

Because of the hanky codes’s origin within the gay male community as a discreet signaling system, a cis, hetero woman using hanky code for reasons other than BDSM is not appropriate and is considered cultural appropriation. “While there is a lot of room in the LGBTQ+ community for cishet women (who are not signaling for BDSM), this is not a place for that,” Shane explains.

Even if your intentions are good, participating in hanky code as a cishet woman not looking for BDSM, is problematic and not okay. “This is not a fashion trend or a signal that you are affirming LGBTQ+ love or that you are sex positive,” explains Shane, adding, “[hanky code] is a language for a people who were (and some still are) unable to speak due to society’s unacceptance.”

If you would like to show your support for gay rights, there are many ways of doing so without appropriating hanky code. Look into LGBTQ+ owned companies, brands, or consider donating your time and money to one of the many equality-based organizations instead, suggests Shane.

You’re free to participate in the sexual acts and fetishes named by hanky code on your own as a BDSM practitioner (or not — as Lozano points out, some colors indicated in hanky code aren’t necessarily considered BDSM-type activities-only, such as rim jobs or toe-sucking.), but participating in the flagging system itself, is disrespectful given its history.


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