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What is the Hanky Code?

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The hanky code (also known as the handkerchief code, the bandana code, and flagging). The longstanding tradition has been an important means of communication within the LGBTQ+ community for quite some time and is a major part of queer history. The hanky code uses color-coded handkerchiefs placed in the wearer’s back pocket(s) as a discreet way to convey their sexual preferences, kinks, fetishes, fantasies, and roles. Wearing a hanky in the left pocket signifies an alignment with a top or dominant role, while wearing a hanky in the right pocket indicates an alignment with a bottom or submissive role. 

While there is no one authoritative standard for what all the colors of handkerchiefs mean in the hanky code, there is some broad agreement on certain colors. For instance, a black handkerchief conveys an interest in S&M, a red handkerchief signals an interest in fisting, and an orange handkerchief means “anything goes.” 

However, because of the lack of standardization in the hanky code, people may subscribe to different definitions of what a particular color signifies. To that end, it’s still important to discuss potential activities with a prospective partner despite what their handkerchief may indicate because they might not even know what it means, or they might not be immediately interested in what they’re flagging without communication. Remember, consent is sexy. 

Where Did the Hanky Code Originate?

The origins of the hanky code are disputed, but the code is certainly rooted in the prosecution of queer people and queer sex in the 1960s when state sodomy laws were implemented across the United States to criminalize queer sex. However, some local laws banned cruising as early as the 1920s.

As a result, LGBTQ+ communities created this system of flagging with colored handkerchiefs to covertly indicate their sexual preferences. The hanky code rose in popularity among gay urban leather scenes in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the 1970s.

The Hanky Code Today

With the advent of social media and cruising websites and apps like Sniffies and Grindr, the hanky code is less prevalent than it once was. In addition to allowing users to explicitly state their sexual preferences, kinks, and fetishes, these digital platforms create a safer space for men who have sex with men to seek pleasure without worrying about harassment or violence. 

While the hanky code may not be as popular as it used to be, it has greatly contributed to a more sex-positive and nonjudgmental attitude towards sexuality, queer sexuality and erotic desire.

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