A Brief History of the Hanky Code

June is LGBTQ Pride Month, and what better way to celebrate than highlighting a piece of LGBTQ culture and history that doesn’t get much discussion — the hanky code! Believe it or not, there’s even a code for sex toys.

What is the Hanky Code?

What is the Hanky Code?Put simply, the hanky (handkerchief) code is a way of communicating interest in particular sexual activities to potential partners using colored handkerchiefs and their placements. Traditionally, a back pocket placement was used. A hanky placed in the left pocket indicated an interest in being a top or the active participant in an act. Placement on the right indicated an interest in being a bottom or the passive participant in an act.

For example, a person wearing a light pink handkerchief in their left pocket tells you they enjoy using sex toys on other people. While somebody wearing them on the right means they want sex toys used on them.

The Hanky Code Originates in the LGBTQ+ Community

The hanky code, also known as “flagging,” has its origins in the LGBTQ+ community as a method of non-verbal communication of sexual interest. This was especially important in eras that criminalized LGBTQ+ sex, and explicit discussion of sex lead to the arrest of LGBTQ people. The use of the hanky code has become less common as social attitudes changed. Online dating and hookup apps make it easier to communicate wants and desires, but it is still used today.

The History of the Handy Code

The History of the Handy CodePlenty of debate surrounds the origin of the hanky code, but one theory says that it originated from the gold rush era San Francisco. More men than women lived in the area, so at square dances, men danced with each other. Bandanas were commonly worn by the cowboys, steam railroad engineers, and miners who moved to the area. Square dancers developed a code that men wearing blue bandanas took the male part in the dance, while men wearing red took the female part.

The modern hanky code gained popularity in the 1970s, although again with different claims to the start. One theory says that Mr. S Leather created the modern code. Their supplier of red and blue hankies accidentally doubled their order, and an expanded modern code was needed to help them sell the extra colors. Another theory says that the New York paper The Village Voice started it, again accidentally. The story goes that a journalist joked that instead of just wearing keys on the left or right to indicate being a top or bottom, it would be more efficient to use different colored hankies to indicate particular sexual interests.

Regardless of its origin, by 1980 the hanky code became widely used within the LGBTQ+ community, especially in the LGBTQ+ leather community.

How do I use the Hanky Code?

How do I use the Hanky Code?If wearing a handkerchief in your back pocket isn’t your thing, don’t worry! There are other ways to flag with hanky code colors. Some people tie a bandana around their neck to indicate being a switch. The side where the knot is placed indicates that somebody is a top or a bottom. Some people “femme flag,” by using nail polish on either their left or right hand to indicate particular interests.

There are more flagging colors than I can outline here. To get you started, here are a few of the more common colors and what they represent.

Navy Blue

Navy blue traditionally indicates an interest in anal sex, although some people use it for an interest in vaginal and/or anal penetration. If somebody wears dark blue on the left, they want to penetrate their partner, while on the right they want to be penetrated.


Black indicates an interest in sadism and masochism, although the specific acts vary from person to person. For some, it may involve heavy spanking, while for others it might involve particular kinds of dirty talk. This lack of specificity reminds us that the hanky code isn’t a substitute for communication with a partner about your mutual desires.

Light Pink

As stated earlier, light pink is for play involving sex toys. A person wearing light pink on their left uses (or wears, in the case of strap-on harnesses) sex toys. Wearing light pink on their left means they want sex toys used on them.


Grey indicates an interest in bondage, which overlaps slightly with black. However, grey generally indicates lighter play or just an interest in bondage without other BDSM play. A person wearing it on the left wants to tie somebody up (or down!). Somebody wearing on the right wants to be the one tied.


The hanky code has a long history, and even though it’s less common now, it can be a fun way to communicate or express your sexuality! What colors would you flag?

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