The Hanky Code

The Hanky Code


Secret Shake of the Handkerchief

The hanky code is a system of colour-coded cloth handkerchiefs or bandanas for non-verbally communicating one's interests in sexual activities and fetishes. 

The colour of the handkerchief identifies a particular activity, and the pocket that it is worn in (left or right) identifies the wearer's preferred role in that activity. Wearing a handkerchief on the left side of the body typically indicates one is a "top" (considered active in the act/fetish indicated by the colour of the handkerchief), while wearing it on the right side of the body would indicate one is a "bottom" (considered passive in it). For example, a dark blue handkerchief indicates an interest in anal sex, and wearing it in the left pocket indicates a preference for being the insertive partner.

The hanky code was most widely used in the 1970s in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe, by gay and bisexual men seeking casual sex.

It is thought that the wearing of bandanas by gay men originated in San Francisco after the Gold Rush, when, because of a shortage of women, men dancing with each other in square dances developed a code wherein the man wearing the blue bandana took the male part in the square dance, and the man wearing the red bandana took the female part.

The modern hanky code is often reported to have started in New York City around 1970, when a journalist for the Village Voice joked that instead of simply wearing a set of keys on one side or the other (then a common code to indicate whether someone was a "top" or a "bottom"), it would be more efficient to subtly announce their particular sexual focus by wearing different colored handkerchiefs. Other sources attribute the expansion of the original red–blue system into today's code to marketing efforts around 1971 by The Trading Post, a San Francisco department store for erotic merchandise, promoting handkerchiefs by printing cards listing the meanings of various colours.

Alan Selby, founder of Mr. S Leather in San Francisco, claimed that he created the first hanky code with his business partners at Leather 'n' Things in 1972, when their bandana supplier inadvertently doubled their order and the expanded code would help them sell the extra colours they had received.

As for the code itself, here are the basics colours along with the relevant activity:

Black: Sado masochism
Blue (Dark): Anal sex
Blue (Light): Oral sex
Brown: Scatophagy
Green: Hustler/prostitution
Grey: Bondage
Orange: Anything goes
Purple: Piercing
Red: Fisting
Yellow: Urine play

Information is power.


The idea for this story was contributed by David Williams



1. Blizzard of Options
2. California Gold Rush Square Dancing
3. Gay rights demonstration at the DNC, New York City, 1976. Image Credit: Warren K. Leffler.
4. Bob Damron's Address Book
5. Colour Codes From Bob Damron's Address Book, 1980
6 & 7.Illustration: Andy Simmonds
8. Hanky Code Merchandise at REMO HERE (BYO Marker Pen)

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