by Non-Famous Lauren
(edited slightly for clarity and to update – by AIS)
Note on source & credit: This article has been on the APeX website since time immemorial. The creator of our original website, Mayafire, was always careful to obtain permission before reposting any material on the site, so we believe appropriate permission was granted. Unfortunately the credit & original source were not preserved. Google indexes a copy of this article at http://www.adventuresinsexuality.org/barak&sheba_articles/AIS_2007_etiquette.html, with the additional paragraph of credit referencing alt.sex.bondage. This following paragraph was added 24-May-2018 to provide additional source information for this post.
The following document contains some valuable information about BDSM play party etiquette. It was written for users of the Usenet newsgroup alt.sex.bondage, (which no longer exists) and is intended to cover both events held in public spaces and events held in private homes.
Although not every suggestion here is relevant to every situation (for example, it is not generally necessary to bring food to public fetish nights held in public spaces or to hang around to clean up after these end), the basic ideas of “not touching anyone or their toys without permission”, “not interfering with scenes in progress”, etc. are pretty much universal.
The following is an edited post I've been asked to repost to ASB many times. The goal of this post is not so much to state play party "rules" as to describe play party customs and etiquette that often are not stated in the rules.
Etiquette customs differ slightly in different circles. Even in the ASB group, I have seen different etiquette styles on the opposite coasts. But some pretty uniform rules of thumb for etiquette include:
Do not touch people, even in what you think of as a friendly way (like touching someone's arm in conversation) without asking permission. In some circles, hugging even strangers hello and goodbye seems to be the norm—watch and see if someone goes to hug you or if you are invited to do so. But in most BDSM circles I know of, hugging someone in even a casual way without the prior verbal assurance it is welcome is considered overstepping the bounds. And just because a woman (or man) is standing naked next to you getting a soda and smiling does not make it ok to stroke the person's ass—in fact, it is not ok to stroke even the person's arm! The working assumption is that touch of any kind is not ok without asking. On the other hand, asking to hug or shake hands or look at the piercing someone is flaunting is certainly acceptable and not considered an offense in any way, just so long as the asker does not act offended if the answer is not what he wanted to hear.
Leave space for the top to move, swing a flogger, etc. during a scene. If the room is too crowded, stand against the far wall or leave the room. If the top asks you to move, then move! In most play circles, if you get close enough to disturb the scene, the top would be within his rights to swing the whip at you.
Be quiet while scenes are going on, or go to the social space to chat! The admiring or joking comment you think you are quietly whispering to the person sitting next to you is often heard by the bottom or top, whose senses are sometimes hyper-tuned and on edge. Would you want someone to whisper something about you right before you reach the point of orgasm? Be polite, and don't talk or whisper. Yours could be the remark that ruins a wonderful scene for someone.
Novices attempting to start conversations with the top or the bottom during scenes is one of the most common and astonishing etiquette errors at play parties with newbies in attendance. It should be obvious, but perhaps it is not, so I will say it outright: Do not address comments or questions to the top or the bottom while they are playing! Similarly, do not try to start a conversation with the partners while they are cuddling together after a scene. What looks to you like a lull in the action while the top steps away to get a new toy or while the partners are whispering intimately together after a scene is not the moment to walk over and ask where they are from and how long they have been doing this! The partners are very focused on each other and on the intimacy of whatever they are doing together, and they want to maintain that focus even during short breaks. If you feel an uncontrollable urge to ask how the top ever learned to wield a knife so steadily, or to ask if the bottom isn't scared of having a nipple cut off, then go get a soda and ask someone in the social space.
Do not ever touch or get too close to the bottom during—or after—a scene. Bottoms are dependent on their tops: the bottom's physical and emotional well-being are the top's responsibility during and after scenes. After a scene, give the players a quiet space on the sofa if they want to cuddle together. The closeness and aftercare following scenes and the bottom's emotional fragility usually last longer than it looks to outsiders. Give people time to come down. If you need to ask a quiet question, like "Would you like this blanket that's here behind me?," address the top, not the bottom, and be as unobtrusive, succinct, and quiet as possible.
Do not join in scenes, even if it looks like they are free-for-alls. A scene that might look to you like lots of folks are joining in to pleasure or otherwise play with the bottom might in fact be pre-arranged between the top and other acceptable players to look casual. Or it might be that the top is subtly signaling audience members he knows to be acceptable. Join in only if the top clearly beckons you in. If in doubt, check with the top.
Do not come on to women (or men—whoever you are sexually interested in) in a clueless manner. If I have to explain this you do not belong on ASB and you will not last long around here! Hounding, harassing, or puppy-dogging after the object of your sexual interest will guarantee that you will not be invited to any more parties; you might even be thrown out of the one you are at.
Most people like to be complimented on their scenes. If you like a particular top or bottom, telling them what you liked about their scene is usually well-received. But wait till they are walking about and socializing again! Asking interesting how-to questions is also a good way to make friends.
Do not intervene in scenes. If you are bothered by something you see because it seems extreme, risky, or even impossible to be consensual to you, find a host or DM to check on the scene, explain it to you, or reassure you. If a corrective action like a safety improvement needs to be taken, the host or DM will take care of conveying that to the top in an appropriate manner. When you are more experienced you will be able to recognize if something is possibly nonconsensual or unduly dangerous. At your first few play parties, plan to absorb and watch and learn. If something is too extreme for you to enjoy watching, then simply leave the room quietly.
Do not touch people's toys, floggers, etc. that are lying around without finding the owner and asking. Even if someone lets you hold a flogger, it is also courteous to ask again before swinging it through the air at an imaginary target or your forearm. Do not run a knife or wartenburg pinwheel along your skin to test its sharpness—the owner might have gone to pains to sterilize the blade in expectation of an upcoming scene, and sharp edges break skin without always leaving marks or drawing blood.
Clean up play furniture or play areas when you are done using them. Pick up your toys so someone else can use the play area without stumbling on your belongings. Wipe down the play furniture so it is not sweaty for the next person, and if any bodily fluids were spilled accidentally, clean them up thoroughly—hosts often provide appropriate cleaning materials if you don't have them on hand.
Do not hog play furniture for hours on end with your own scene. If play furniture and play space are scarce, ask the host for an estimate of a reasonable amount of time to use it.
At the party, relax, be yourself, be open and friendly; ask questions about BDSM technique and about ASB if you need to make conversation (but try not to computer geek too much if you are into computers!); listen to what others have to say. Bring your sense of humor.
Bring munchies if the hosts suggested it. Quality breads, homemade desserts, and fresh fruit are desirable food items in many play circles, more welcome and more likely to be devoured and complimented than a bag of chips. In many play circles, alcohol and illicit drugs are forbidden at play parties; do not bring these without checking with the host.
Help clean up before you leave! Don't offer and then wait for instructions—just do it. Those ten used plastic cups you gather up and toss out, or the empty dip dish you wash and leave in the drainer to dry at 3 a.m., or the ice bucket you refill mid-party just because you noticed it was empty will save the host a lot of work and mean more parties in the future.
Do not mention anyone at the party to those not at the party without that person's express permission to name him. Especially do not post to a BBS or to ASB or any other public forum in a way that identifies someone else without permission. Even mentioning someone in email without that person's permission can be considered a violation of etiquette. How will you feel if the friend you think couldn't know the person you are talking about turns around and playfully describes the person to his boss or co-worker or cousin, who ends up recognizing the person in shock because of the person's name or nickname or some small detail about the cool haircut or clothes that got passed on? It's a small world, and outing someone else because you thought it was way cool to describe some hot scene you got to see is Not Ok. It is usually ok to describe people's scenes in a manner that leaves the participants—and the hosts—unidentifiable, but even then it is customary to ask first. It is also customary to email copies of anything you post in a public forum to all people referenced or described therein, sometimes in advance if there is anything you are unsure of. Ask the party host if you are in doubt about whether the party is mentionable or not. The rule of thumb is that parties are not mentionable publicly unless stated otherwise.
Clothes and gender usually don't tell you anything about a person's interests, predilections, or experience levels. Unless the party rules specify that fetishwear is required, people generally dress however they like to dress. Some people use clothes and flags to signal their interests, but in practice the majority of experienced players do not unless clothing styles are separate pleasures for them. Many deeply devoted and owned submissives do not wear collars and do not hover at the feet of their owners at parties. Other folks wear collars even when they are not owned and sometimes not even looking to be owned, just because they enjoy doing so. And just because someone is decked out in a cow's worth of distressed black leather and carrying a flogger does not make the person an experienced, respected top. That innocent-looking barefoot woman in a white silk nightgown and the unprepossessing man dressed casually in a preppy tee shirt and jeans chatting warmly with each other in the social room might not be the submissive woman and newbie top-wannabe you think they are—they might be, but they also might be the hottest tops at the party just catching up on each other's lives. In short, clothing—black leather, boots, latex, PVC, high heels, corsets, collars, etc.—are separate fetishes, not signals that someone is into BDSM. Wow, you never knew that, right?! grin
Don't gape at scenes, behavior, or sexual proclivities that are new for you to actually encounter in real life even if you've heard of such things and wished for years you could actually see it. There is a fine line between open-minded curiosity—the desire to learn and understand something that is new for you from those who indicate (in the social room!) that they are willing to take the time to share and converse with you about their play styles and sexual interests—versus prurient judgmentalism, gawking, or tiresomely asking someone who is sick of being asked what he or she can possibly enjoy by doing whatever astonishing thing you saw the person do. Be sensitive about when and who you ask, and be sensitive while you watch. People at play parties are not there to entertain or educate you, even though many folks who choose to attend play parties do also enjoy the exhibitionist and educational aspects of what they are doing. Be sensitive to what each individual is offering to strangers, and don't rudely assume they are offering you a private show, lesson, educational experience, or opportunity to giggle like a schoolchild at some porn you have amazingly gotten lucky enough to see outside of a magazine.
And also, be tolerant of things you didn't expect. In particular, even if you are fascinated, try not to gawk noticeably at stuff you personally have never encountered before. Watching and learning are fine—and are often exactly the point!—but there is a social norm in each group about what is appropriate astonishment to show to those around you. If you have never seen two males play sexually and lovingly together before, or if you find watching the two women playing together across the room really hot for you as a voyeur, or if you have never talked to a cross-dresser close enough to actually hold a social conversation while you are standing around getting soda in the social space, get a grip on yourself before you start behaving like a ten-year-old telling a joke with a naughty word in it! If you never expected and are shocked by the amount of blood flow from a ritual cutting, or by what appears to you to be the hate-filled screaming and cursing of a bottom raging at her top at the height of a difficult scene, or if you never envisioned seeing a piercing of a needle right through someone's nipple, or if whatever else you didn't expect and are suddenly encountering seems extreme to you, then the astonishment is probably yours. Get a grip.
In advance of the party, read a few books on BDSM and try to pick up a few pointers about what you might see. You might even pick up some fine points of etiquette, like how to behave toward a slave in the presence of the master. Like: never treat a slave as if he is a slave to you!
Actually, this rule of thumb goes for submissives, bottoms, tops, and doms of all kinds. No one who is not your own personal partner owes any deference to you beyond common, everyday courtesy. No one is required to fetch you a drink or defer to your opinion in conversation. And addressing a stranger you are chatting with or need to grab some ice in front of as `Mistress' or `Sir' just because the person is or appears to be a dom is considered bad form in many play circles. People in the Scene usually introduce themselves and address each other by their ordinary names or nicknames. (Though in some very rare play circles, a few parties are arranged such that the subs who attend are submissive to all the doms at the party, by prior agreement—but in my observation, that is extremely uncommon as a party style and is usually a special private event with only a close circle of pre-approved friends in attendance. Ask the hosts if you are unsure.)
But the details of d/s etiquette are tricky and there are some uncommon etiquette delicacies there. Even so, I found these customs nearly impossible to get from books—I had to see d/s in action to get a clue, and even now I fuck up occasionally. Come to think of it, I had to see SM in action to get a clue, as well. Nothing about BDSM is clear until you see or do it. smile
You can and should talk to the host during the party or, if more appropriate, afterwards to ask unanswered questions, say thank you, and follow up in any ways you like. If you felt uncomfortable about anything at all at the party, talking to the host afterwards is an excellent idea! Hosts usually very much want to help their guests learn and sort themselves out according to comfort levels. Hosts also desperately want feedback so they can create environments that accommodate a variety of comfort levels and so they can decide what kinds of play and which attendees make for enjoyable parties. And if the host ran out of the kind of soda everyone was standing in the social room dying for, the host wants to know! If a host never hears about the individual you felt harrassed by in the social space or while you were playing, or that you felt some kind of play you watched was unnecessarily dangerous and you had no DMs you could approach and didn't know the customs about how to handle the situation, the host cannot possibly make the necessary reforms. The host wants to know, and it is your responsibility as a responsible attendee to take the initiative to inform the host.
And it is your responsibility to thank the host! 🙂 Follow up email is the bread-and-butter note of the '90s, and don't think for a moment that hosts do not notice those who take a moment to send a thank you, even if they already said thanks when they left the party. 🙂