The hanky code (also known as bandana code) is a nonverbal form of communication that arose in the Gay male club scene. By sporting a bandana of a certain color, individuals communicated their sexual preferences, intentions for the evening, even economic needs. The code served as a form of icebreaking foreplay, primarily for Gay men, fetish communities, and Bondage/Dominance-Submission/Sado-Masochism (BDSM) communities.
Origin in Legend
Some sources trace the hanky code to the Gold Rush in mid-nineteenth century California. All-male barn dances among the miners supposedly had the custom for men who would follow rather than lead to wear a bandana on one arm (alternative telling: bandana on left arm for lead, and right arm for follow). This would eventually develop into an intricate code in which color and placement of the bandana would signal specific erotic preferences.
As a general rule, bandanas are worn in either the right or left back pants pocket. Wearing a bandana on the left side indicates the desire to serve as a top (penetrator and/or dominant). Wearing a bandana on the right side indicates that the wearer is a bottom (penetrated and/or submissive).
Color and Pattern
The color and pattern of bandana indicates an activity (usually sexual in nature) that the wearer seeks. Although there are regional variations as to what colors and patterns stand for what acts, some colors are generally understood to be standard.
A light blue bandana indicates an interest in oral sex, while a dark blue bandana signals an interest in anal sex. Black is for sado-masochism, red is for fisting (putting a hand up an anus or vagina), pink is for nipple play, gray for bondage, yellow for golden shower (urinating as sex play), and brown for scat (feces). A Kelly green bandana indicates that a person is looking to pay or be paid for sex, though a lime green bandana indicates that payment need only be the price of a meal (alternative: eating food off of partner’s body). A gold hanky indicates a couple looking for a single partner or a single seeking a couple, whereas a white hanky with black polka dots portends an orgy. A coral hanky signals a propensity for shrimping (toe sucking). Often, a stripe of white, black, brown, or yellow on an otherwise solid colored bandana can indicate a racial preference for a potential partner for a specific sex act. Black and white checkers indicates safer sex practitioner.
In some cases, there is a back/front orientation for an object as well. A set of keys worn toward the front of the pants indicates possession of/need of a ride, whereas a set of keys worn toward the back of the pants indicates available/need of a place to spend the night.
Hanky Code in popular Culture
The 1980 William Friedkin film, Cruising, which was condemned by the Gay community for its negative portrayal of the Gay club scene, served as a reference to the hanky code in popular culture. In the film, the character portrayed by actor Al Pacino goes undercover to investigate a series of murders in the Gay community. He dons a yellow bandana, inadvertently communicating to others that he is interested in golden showers. Subsequently, Pacino’s character learns of the specifics of the hanky code from a shopkeeper.
“Hanky Code” is also a song by the Toronto-based singer, Peaches (Merrill Beth Nisker) who is renowned for the sexual content of her songs. The lyrics to “Hanky Code” describe what colors refer to which acts, including “Red to the wrist, pink give it a twist/Grey you’re gonna be tied up, you can’t resist.”
Friedkin, William, screenwriter. Cruising. Director: William Friedkin. United Artists, 1980.
Gage, Simon et al. Queer. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 2002.
Plummer, Kenneth, ed. Sexualities and Their Futures. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Shellhammer, Bradford. “The Hanky Code.” SUNFiltered. The Sundance Channel. 2009. http://www.sundancechannel.com/sunfiltered/2009/06/the-hanky-code/, accessed July 2010.