Rethinking the “Safer Sex” Hankie
It was a perfect summer evening, and I was spending it most enjoyably on the recently expanded patio of the eagleBolt Bar in Minneapolis. The occasion was a cigar smoking party presented by the Atons of Minneapolis. The evening got even better when I saw something I seldom see: someone who, like me, was wearing a black and white checked hankie in the back pocket of his jeans.
In 1993, when I first got into leather, one of the first things I learned about was the practice of “flagging” according to the hankie code. In leather circles, flagging means wearing various colors of hankies or bandanas in the back pocket of one’s jeans to indicate an interest in various kinds of sexual encounters or activities. A gray hankie, for example, indicates interest in bondage; a purple hankie indicates interest in piercing; and a tan hankie indicates interest in cigar play (which would be appropriate for the theme of that recent evening on the eagleBolt Bar’s patio).
I also learned that a hankie with a pattern of black and white checks is not quite the same as the other hankies because it doesn’t indicate an interest in a specific activity or fetish. Rather, it indicates an commitment to safer sex practices, whatever the specific activity may be.
I made a decision back then that, no matter what other color hankie I might be wearing, whenever I was at a leather bar or event I would always have a black and white checked hankie in my back pocket.
Remember, this was in 1993. HIV infection was still considered a death sentence. Most modern anti-HIV drugs did not yet exist. The main tools we had at our disposal to prevent HIV transmission were condoms, dental dams, and other barriers. In 1993 we equated “safety” with “condoms” because they were all we had in the fight against HIV. (Well, to tell the truth, there was another safety strategy that some men adopted to prevent HIV transmission: abstinence.)
My decision to consistently wear a black and white checked hankie, and my reason for that decision, showed me that this hankie color was not like the other colors in yet another way. While I wore other hankie colors as a signal to other people, I wore a black and white checked hankie primarily as a reminder to myself.
Over the years since 1993, while I have been pretty sure I was not the only person who was concerned with safety, I have observed that at any given leather gathering I usually have been the only person flagging black and white checked. Now, in 2017, on the patio of the eagleBolt Bar, a much younger person also was flagging black and white checked—a person too young to have lived through the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.
That got me thinking—and questioning. What does a black and white checked hankie mean in 2017? Does it mean today what it meant in 1993?
The meaning of most of the other hankie colors has not changed over time; some hankie colors or patterns have been added in the last 25 years, but once established, the meaning of the hankie colors has been reasonably stable. But because of recent advances in medical technology, including the availability of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) as a defense against HIV transmission, I found myself wondering if I needed to rethink the symbolism of the black and white checked hankie.
On further reflection, my answer is yes—and no. Yes, the possibilities and options for safer sex have increased. A proper PrEP regimen offers protection against HIV transmission even if bodily fluids are exchanged during sex. That’s a big and long-awaited advance.
But PrEP, unfortunately, is a bit of a one-trick pony. There are many other sexually transmitted diseases besides HIV, and PrEP offers no protection against them. A safer-sex strategy that protects against other sexually transmitted diseases still calls for other strategies.
There are other safety issues, not specifically related to disease, that are also represented by a black and white checked hankie and that have not changed. These include such things as refraining from excessive use of alcohol or other mind-altering substances that can interfere with making good decisions concerning personal safety. In addition, there are the special safety considerations that especially apply to BDSM activity. It’s important to know how to do BDSM safely for everyone involved—how to tie someone up without cutting off circulation, how to do fireplay without causing serious burns, or even something as simply as doing appropriate negotiation before a BDSM scene or respecting a safeword during a scene.
And here’s one more thing that has not changed with the passing years: by flagging black and white checked, a person is still saying they are conscious of and committed to safety. And that’s always good to see.