Fetish by colors: the Hanky Code

Author: KatKristall
A to Z | Basics

What is the Hanky Code?

The hanky code is a color-based so-called “semiotic code” that is usually used to communicate inconspicuously within the LGBTQ+ scene. Hanky is short for the English word “handkerchief”, which means handkerchief. Sexual preferences are signaled by wearing a bandana or handkerchief in a specific color and/or pattern.

Active parts, also known as tops, wear it on the left, while bottoms wear it on the right. If you wear the scarf around your neck, you are open to both sides, so you could also call it a switch. In the gay scene, it is traditionally worn in the back pocket, but lesbians or female-identifying people also wear it on their handbag, around their wrist or in their breast pocket.

Why use the Hanky Code?

As the meaning of the scarves is not known to outsiders, the hanky code was and is a secret, secure means of communication for a scene that has long been persecuted and discriminated against. But it’s not just about security, it’s also about sexual interaction and effective dating, as a hanky can be used to immediately recognize whether you share the same preferences.

This type of communication was particularly widespread until the early 2000s, but has lost much of its importance due to the rise of online dating.

The basics of handkerchiefs

For a long time, the hanky code was an integral part of the party and club scene in the USA and Europe, but over time it has spread to almost all parts of the world. Today, the hanky code is so differentiated that not only colors but also patterns have so many specifications that many have lost track.

Sometimes it is a little confusing what is meant by worn on the right or left. In oral sex, for example, left means “I want to be spoiled”, even if “left”, i.e. “active”, can be interpreted as “I want to give”. In addition, there are often regional differences in the meaning of the hanky, sometimes even from place to place. It is therefore not possible to create a final or definitive glossary. You can find an overview of the most important codes here.

Tracing its origins: The beginnings in the Wild West

The hanky cloth has its origins in the 19th century in the Wild West, where it was worn by cowboys, engine drivers and miners to indicate membership of the various professional groups. When there were too few ladies square dancing in San Francisco, men who could also dance the female steps signaled their readiness by wearing scarves on the left or right. These are the theories as to where the influences may have come from.

Until around 1970, the so-called “key code”, in which a key is worn in the belt loop, became established as a sign for homosexuals. Even then, a key worn on the left indicated “top” and one worn on the right “bottom”. In the 1970s, this developed into the hanky code, which was used by the jeans and leather scene.

In 1975, Time magazine reported on the use of the hanky code in the leather scene and printed a table. At the same time, the sexual revolution following the Stonewall Riots led to a period of sexual freedom. However, the hanky code became even more important during the AIDS pandemic. One hanky was added for infected status and one for safer sex. Instead of a restriction, safer sex was now perceived as a positive choice.

Nowadays, homosexuality is less stigmatized in many parts of the world and there is a huge range of platforms for people to get to know each other and share their preferences. As a result, and also due to its complexity, the hanky code is now more of a relic than a current means of communication. However, it is still widespread in the BDSM and fetish scene and is still used for certain aspects at parties and events.

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