on being a gentleman, or, three official guidelines for kinky etiquette

Gentleman * n. (pl.men) 1 a courteous or honourable man. (Concise Oxford Dictionary, Tenth Edition)

Gentleman c (1): a man who combines gentle birth or rank with chivalrous qualities (2) a man whose conduct conforms to a high standard of propriety or correct behavior (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition)

The other day, I was fortunate enough to enjoy a very intriguing conversation with a new friend. She’s a rather rugged older butch dyke—the sort who wears a suit and tie without a trace of irony, who shows up for a date with flowers even if the date isn’t about getting laid, who holds the door as a matter of course. In short, she’s the sort of woman who predictably makes my knees weak but who often doesn’t entirely “get” me since, for all that we agree on lots of things and the chemistry is usually delicious, our politics and practices are a generation apart.

Interestingly, in this particular case, the reason she wanted to meet up with me was precisely that: generational and community differences. Specifically, she wanted some help wrapping her head around the complexities of how gender works in tandem with power dynamics in the women and trans leather community, into which she’s just beginning to make her first forays. She had realized that some of her gentlemanly actions, her everyday ways of behaving, were being misunderstood or could potentially be misunderstood by the people she has begun to encounter. “Sometimes,” she said in exasperation, “I get the feeling that to make sure nobody else feels uncomfortable, the best thing for me to do is nothing at all, even though that makes me feel totally uncomfortable!”

In the interests of preserving privacy, I’ll skip the details of the conversation itself and simply lay out the concepts that my fine gentleman friend inspired me to articulate.

The kink/leather community presents us with a curious “free zone” when it comes to courtesy. While I maintain that basic standards of polite behaviour don’t change based on social situation, in the kink world we are very much in a space where the spirit of courtesy matters far more than the letter, which can make it very challenging to navigate. The delightful book The Bride Wore Black Leather, And He Looked Fabulous! An Etiquette Guide for the Rest of Us, by Drew Campbell, certainly conveys the message that even the most alternative of circumstances can be navigated with ease if one shows basic respect to others, but it doesn’t cover every possible situation. And while it does a fine job of laying out a diversity of possibilities (How do you address a wedding invitation to people in a polyamorous romantic arrangement? How should a vanilla person deal with their partner’s slave? What’s the right way to greet someone in a non-kinky public context when you only know their scene name?), it doesn’t always do a thorough job of conveying the essence behind each of these social interactions, so it’s not always easy to extrapolate from them into the myriad other situations in which we may find ourselves.

And don’t go looking to traditional etiquette guides for relief. No sirree. I recently picked up a copy of Emily Post’s completely revised and updated (and humungous) book titled simply Etiquette, now in its 17th edition—the original was published in 1922—and I was dismayed to note just how gender- and class-based its advice still remains. Apparently good etiquette does not include queers, unless of course those queers are the same-sex parents to whom you must be polite when you encounter them at your child’s daycare centre (we must be tolerant of diversity, don’t you know!). Even in the book’s extensive section on dating, pairs are assumed to be heterosexual. (Apparently we can reproduce but we can’t hook up. Funny, I always thought it was the other way around.) And when it comes to appropriate styles of attire, the paralyzingly rigid prescriptions are so middle-class and heteronormative as to be nauseating. For instance, according to Emily Post, visible tattoos and piercings are, by their very existence, a breach of etiquette because they make people who see them uncomfortable. Jeezis… I guess I won’t be asking her what the appropriate etiquette is for letting someone know their tampon string is hanging out from their leather thong, or who’s responsible for cleaning up the lube puddle after a double-top fisting scene involving no D/s power dynamics. (My answers: 1. Do so discreetly. 2. One top does aftercare while the other cleans up; if we did our job right, the bottom’s too loopy to be doing anything at all, while everyone else in the room is so worked up they’ll be wanting the play station posthaste.)

So, back to the spirit versus the letter. Simply put, to be polite in kinky company requires a keen sense of observation, a very open mind, and perhaps a bit more effort than you might normally expect… because you can’t assume anything. That last part is key. In fact it’s so key I will make it into Official Guideline #1: Do not assume anything about the meaning of the acts you witness when you’re in a kink space. A given act (or gender identification, or role preference, or visual marker, or style of dress, or element of vocabulary, or…) can have so many meanings that any assumption that you actually know what’s happening, and therefore what an appropriate response might be, is dangerous. (Unless, of course, someone is entering your personal space or touching you without consent—there’s no confusion there, that’s just inappropriate.) True etiquette among kinksters involves a great deal of question-asking. Let’s make that Official Guideline #2: Ask genuine, polite questions about how to best be respectful in the situation at hand, and then behave according to the answers. If you are new to the world of kink and/or non-monogamy, or for that matter, if you’ve been around forever, I highly recommend that you endeavour to develop your ability to ask questions.

The thing the books won’t tell you is that even in vanilla society, etiquette is always about power. It’s about the expression of power—about the appropriate ways to demonstrate power (chivalry, generalized helpfulness, social grace), and the situations in which to withhold demonstrations of power so as not to challenge another’s power (i.e. offend). Really, etiquette is about how to maintain harmony among the potentially warring factions that are human beings, whether individually or in groups—how to avoid metaphorically throwing down a gauntlet. Books like Emily Post’s characterize that dance of power using assumptions about gender and class and heterosexuality and conservative ideas about sex, bodies and intimacy, among other things. But in the world of queer and kink, those are no longer appropriate principles on which to rest one’s concept of what’s polite. In kink, power itself is something we engage with, sometimes for sport and sometimes in great seriousness. In a world where pain is sometimes the greatest pleasure, taking someone for granted is sometimes the highest praise, depersonalization is sometimes the deepest intimacy, drudgery is sometimes the most cherished reward, and “public” displays of all manner of sexual activity are par for the course, we must necessarily develop some other principles on which to rest our ideas about politeness.

This could lead to an enormous essay about the various iterations of kinky etiquette—yeah, I know, I’ll add it to the list of books I really need to write one day. But for today, I want to get back to the questions that my new friend was asking.

In short, she wanted to know, how is she supposed to move through this queer and kinky world as her gentlemanly self without causing anyone to react with offense? She’s modelled her personal sense of courtesy on her father’s, which means her manners look a lot like those of a man growing up in the 1930s, where gentlemen opened doors, picked up the tab and so forth. But in the kink world, all of these acts are filtered through the meanings that others impose… and those possible meanings are multiple. I figure they mainly fall into the following categories:

1. She’s holding the door for me. Clearly she’s trying to show off her dominance and treat me like a helpless submissive. Fuck, that’s really hot. I wonder what else she’s got up her sleeve…
2. She’s holding the door for me. Clearly she’s trying to show off her dominance and treat me like a helpless submissive. She can just bloody piss off—she never asked if that was okay, and it’s really not my thing.
3. She’s holding the door for me. Clearly she’s trying to demonstrate just how attentive and eager a service submissive she is. Fuck, that’s really hot. I wonder if she gives a good pedicure….
4. She’s holding the door for me. Clearly she’s trying to demonstrate just how attentive and eager a service submissive she is. She can just bloody piss off—she never asked if that was okay, and it’s really not my thing.
5. She’s holding the door for me. That was helpful!

In other words, any gentlemanly act can be easily interpreted as either an act of dominance or an act of service, and depending on the receiver’s personal relationship to those concepts, that interpretation can incite a variety of reactions across a wide spectrum that runs from deep appreciation to deep offense. When it comes down to it, even in vanilla contexts, the same gentlemanly acts can be performed from a place of dominance (“women are weak and inferior, so they need my help and protection”) or from a place of service (“women are the fairer sex, so they deserve my service and courtesy”). Both of those reasons for gentlemanly behaviour tend to place women in a position of not being quite human, whether by reason of inferiority or of superiority. This is probably why so many women find such behaviour to be appallingly out of place, even downright offensive, in modern society.

And yet, it’s entirely possible to perform the same gestures regardless of gender and independently of any sense of an inherent power dynamic. Door-holding is not a gendered act; it’s just a way of being helpful and polite. If you’re truly a courteous peson, you’d hold the door regardless of the gender identifications and power dynamics of the people in question, because the point is simply to facilitate social harmony by being considerate of others nearby. Doing so as a gentleman—whether such an individual is a male, female or trans—simply adds a particular flavour to the gesture, a specific form of packaging for that politeness.

In truth, my gentleman friend is simply behaving from a 5 sort of place, but she’s noticing reactions that lead her to believe that various others are interpreting her along the lines of 1 through 4. What’s a hot butch top to do?

Well, if everyone followed the don’t-assume-anything guideline, then my friend would be just fine. But most people do assume things. And the problem is that we assume things for a very good reason: because we like to flirt, and flirting is a dance of half-stated assumptions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for people stating their intentions up front—certainly, my most successful come-on lines have usually sounded a lot like “Hey, you’re hot and I’d really like to fuck you silly.” (Hey, efficiency beats poetry any day.) But there’s also something to be said for the raised eyebrow, the studied gesture, the half-smile, even the half-sentence (“Mmm, nice hankie.”). Personally, as a flirter, I don’t employ the subtler techniques unless I’ve taken the time to observe enough cues to think they’ll be welcome, but in the split-second it takes for someone to open a door, such cues might be in short supply. So I understand how it is that someone might (mis)interpret such a gesture in any number of wildly differing directions. And yet, I also understand how the door-opener might find this incredibly frustrating when all she wants to do is behave in a way that’s consistent with her concept of basic courtesy.

So the next counterpart to the don’t-assume-anything guideline—which, sadly, we can’t reliably expect others to follow—is Official Guideline #3: State your intentions clearly. It might sound odd, but if you realize that the people around you are misinterpreting your actions, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with explaining them up-front. “I don’t mean to offend, this is just my way of being polite.” “I’m not very service-oriented, but I am a gentleman, and a gentleman holds the door for whomever walks through it.” Depending on the situation, there are any number of perfectly pleasant ways to express your intention and diffuse some of the tension that may be created by mistaken assumptions.

Will these three official guidelines solve all the etiquette problems of the kink community? Probably not. But they might create a little more space for the old-school butches of the world—and the bisexual women, and the young genderqueers, and the aging leathermen, and the visiting suburbanites, and the gentle computer geeks, and the master/slave couples, and the weekend foot fetishists—to engage with a community of people who share common or related proclivities even as they come at their experiences from radically different perspectives.

In sum, the three guidelines for etiquette:

Official Guideline #1: Do not assume anything.

Official Guideline #2: Ask genuine, polite questions.

Official Guideline #3: State your intentions clearly.

I must say, I think these could apply in many places other than a dungeon. Emily Post, take note.


9 thoughts on “on being a gentleman, or, three official guidelines for kinky etiquette

  1. I agree with these guidelines and find them to be relevant in my daily life in pretty much all situations. For example, I saw a guy struggling with his wheelchair in the snow yesterday. Of course, it would have been easy for me to assume that he wanted help but I refrained, knowing that some people value their autonomy, even if it means they have to struggle. So I ASKED him if he needed and wanted my help to get across the street, to which he enthusiastically responded “Yes please!” Sounds trivial but I always find it more respectful to ask people if they want my help first.

    Also, in a culturally plural society, these guidelines are highly applicable. No, it doesn’t always work because some people will always get offended no matter what you do or no matter how polite you try to be. But it can go a long way.

  2. When I was quite young, I got exceptionally annoyed when people (especially men) would hold doors open for me, and would often refuse to go through them. At a later point in life, I started hanging out with a group of coworkers, one of whom was a pro at door holding, who would do it so naturally that it wouldn’t even occur to me to object. Now I seem to be at a stage where I expect people to open doors for me sometimes, and will imperiously wait for it.

    Until your post, I had thought about it only in gender role terms, not in power dynamics terms, but the whole thing makes way more sense as a power dynamics issue. Thanks!

  3. A few months ago, I was explaining to friend how I’m usually annoyed by men who, say, open doors for me, and yet was touched and pleased when a man carried my toy bag back to my car after a play party. In the typical door-opening case, I infer that this is a man’s way of saying “I’m the man. I’m here to help you, the weaker sex.” At the play party, the man carrying my bag was a submissive I’d played with a few weeks earlier, and this was his way of acknowledging my dominance over him. Same action (or class of actions), different power dynamic. (And yes, had that been a submissive that I did not know, I would again have been irritated.) Thank you for articulating this far more clearly than I’ve ever been able to.

  4. There is a vast difference in meaning and impact between my opening the door in particular – and making life easier in general – for my Mistress, and doing exactly the same thing for a femme I am dating with whom there is no power dynamic outside the bedroom. In the former, I do it as her boy in service, and in the latter, I do it as her butch lover🙂

  5. I very much like the Swedish etiquette guru. One lass recently asked her whether she should cover up her tattoo at the Nobel dinner. The etiquette expert said that presumably she got the tattoo because she found it pretty, so why would she cover it up? Struck me as a nice ability to move with the times…

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