Or manipulations?

They told me they would all line up to beat me, and I decided against attending that party in their fair city.

It was my birthday, and I was discussing a trip to attend a play party. It turns out women in this town had evolved a somewhat startling tradition of foisting a birthday beating on any leatherdyke who had the misfortune of being born near the date of the party-whether the birthday girl wanted it or not. Anyone present could step up and swing a whip or a paddle. It was simply proper protocol, they said, with the air of having said something quite clever.

Protocol is our name for social guidelines for leatherfolk. In the intimate sense, protocol is agreed upon individually by a top and a bottom. This has the pleasant function of reminding that couple, in scene or in their lives, about the interplay of dominance and submission betwixt them. In a larger sense, knowing the general protocol allows newcomers to make friends at a play party without committing the faux pas of standing in the centre of a scene in progress, asking the bound bottom whether or not that actually hurts, and where did you get your corset, dear?

Unfortunately, Protocol is also the name of manipulative peer pressure. This sort of protocol may change according to region, leather group, age, and the whim of the speaker. These variations of BDSM-related social rules (to be solemnly obeyed as if chiselled on stone tablets) are bewildering, especially when couched in terms like “always” and “everybody.”

I hear that everyone, top and bottom, should earn their leathers. But, I bought my first leather jacket at age 14 using money from babysitting all summer. Go ahead. Tell me I didn’t earn that jacket.

Every slave walks three steps behind his master and to the . . . left or right? Damn. Which was it? All service submissives must be able to anticipate a top’s every need. Does that mean knowing when the top has to change her tampon? And how does that jive with not speaking until spoken to? In our written interactions, bottoms may be summarily deprived of the use of upper-case letters, while tops are presented in turn with Those Same Superfluous Capitals.

Look: No complex set of rules works for everybody, or fits in every situation. Luckily, we learned the simplest protocols when we were young children. Although we’re out of footie pyjamas and into chaps and leather vests, those guidelines haven’t changed: Don’t touch anyone’s stuff without permission. Share. Don’t break anyone else’s toys. Clean up after yourself. Play well with others. And, if you really really like someone, pull her hair.

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