Hankies, Hats and Social Anxiety

Content note: mention of fears of sexual assault.

I can still remember how I felt when I first learned of the “hanky code“. I don’t remember the details of how or exactly when in my development I learned of it, but the feelings remain as vivid as ever. The only detail I recall is that I wasn’t clear that it was mostly associated with the gay scene; I thought it applied to all fetish/BDSM communities (I had not not yet understood the particular significance of the term “Leather” in this context). Not that that makes a huge difference: I was already exploring mentally my bi-ness.

What I felt was terror.

Specifically, that simply by expressing my favourite colour, I would have sent out signals that might have ended up with expectations or assumptions about me, that in turn could have ended up with sexual assault (because people would just assume I wanted it when I didn’t). And I would never be able to remember what the different colours meant, or even which ones meant things I wanted and which ones I didn’t want.

Never mind that I probably wouldn’t have worn a hanky or similar item anyway; never mind that a moment of rational thought could have revealed that the hanky served as an opening to discuss, not as the entire negotiation and consent. It was the idea that if I had thought it fun to have a hanky as part of a costume, and chosen a colour that I just thought looked good, something bad could have happened because of what others would assume about me, and that I would not have known anyone could have assumed. It was enough to put me off the idea of seeking out real-life venues and communities for several years.

I would sometimes get into trouble on IRC channels for BDSM for suggesting (where the group’s rules did not make an explicit statement either way) that although there are customs for usernames on how to indicate D/s orientation (for example) that not everyone bothers with them and it’s okay not to use those conventions if you don’t want to. I gradually felt less and less at home on those IRC chatrooms and haven’t been back for a year or two at least.

Back to being interested in gay sex. I am a lot farther down the road in terms of accepting and understanding my sexuality than I was when I had my “hanky panic” (I wanted to put “hanky panyk” so it looks like a typo, but that’s just silly – I do like wordplay though). I knew a lot more about myself and about how consent and negotiation work. I knew a lot more about the history and theory of BDSM. I’d had sex, and had enjoyed solo anal play with toys.

And yet, still, when I listened to gay male BDSMers the language was subtly different from anything I was used to in terms of communicating about my kinks. The social norms of being in a gay space while male-bodied and kinky seemed to be miles from anything I could understand. It seemed inevitable that I would be assumed to be things I am not, and to be into things that I am not into. The idea of finding in those spaces a male sexual/BDSM partner who would relate to me as me, seemed impossible. So, I still have not been able to engage fully with my same-sex attraction on a practical level.

It’s interesting to note that Carter @ Sometimes, it’s just a cigar writes today on “Leaving a club I never really joined” about feeling some of these expectations about the “Dom” identity, and I wonder if there is a generational issue about where the concerns lie, because the expectations he worries about seem to me not to exist, but he describes himself as “middle-aged”, which I think of as being ten years or so older than my current age, and I know that my perception and experience of discovering of BDSM is very different from that of people ten years younger. Or maybe I’m a bit more conventionally “Dom” (though I’m not sure how).

The experience of not knowing the proper social cues is a common one for me. The more common, and public, spaces are easier to navigate safely because there are clear safe channels and I can stick to those without exposing my ignorance (bearing in mind that it’s possible everyone else is doing the same). But move into specialised spaces or communities, and the suspicion or fear that there is an extra layer of language or nuance becomes stronger, and I tend to feel I am missing it all.

And then there’s, “Everyone knows ‘coffee’ means ‘sex’.” Or sometimes, “Everyone knows ‘dinner and a movie’ means ‘sex’.” For a long time, I didn’t know. Then I knew only because people kept saying it was so, but I still had no basis for that. I still have no experience of a situation where that was the assumption (maybe someone else has used those terms and I missed it; it makes me wonder if there were times during my life when I completely missed that someone was coming on to me or inviting me to fuck them, because I just didn’t know that X means ‘”sex”). It’s probable that in “live play”, if someone offers me coffee or “dinner and a movie”, then I am not going to make the connection that supposedly everyone knows. (My favourite example is still the scene in Brassed Off: “Would you like to come in for coffee?” “I don’t drink coffee” “I haven’t got any”)

All of which leads us onto the hats.

I like hats. I’m wearing one in the caricature I use as my image. It’s my favourite hat, and I think I look good in it. I’m not sure what sort it is, but I suspect it is either a trilby or a fedora. And that’s where the problem comes in.

I first saw the word “fedora” on the usenet group rec.arts.drwho. Someone misidentified the hat in Sylvester McCoy’s costume, and someone else posted the correction that he wore a fedora. I always liked McCoy’s Dr Who costume and the hat especially, so that’s probably why the word lodged in my memory.

Over Christmas and the new year, I set out to follow some of Dr NerdLove’s advice on style, in particular to decide on an image and become that image. I wanted things that made me feel good, looked good, that made me happy with what I saw in the mirror. A few tips from DNL on how fat blokes can dress well and I was very happy with the result. Part of that makeover was to buy that hat, because I like hats. Occasionally, random people in the street stop and say to me, “Nice hat!” Sometimes even attractive women and, if I were a bit quicker on the uptake, that would be my opening to talk to them.

So, a couple of months later, I’m reading Dr NerdLove again, and out of nowhere he throws in a weird stereotype that I’ve never encountered before, in a post called “Fuck Like a Gentleman“:

After all, “gentleman” is something of a loaded term; it carries connotations alternately of old-fashioned chauvinistic values and men in fedoras and ill-advised facial hair who think the key to dating success is to treat women with a sort of benign sexism

(DNL dislikes fedoras in general, but given that he suggests bowler hats instead, it’s clear that his taste in hats is appalling and I will never take his advice on haberdashery. The only guy who ever made a bowler hat look good was Patrick McNee as John Steed in The Avengers.)

First of all, I’ve never encountered any particular association between “fedora” and “gentleman” before (or since). Second, I had never encountered any association between “fedora-wearing” and “sexist”. But DNL treats it as though everyone knows what he’s talking about. There’s even a cartoon inserted in his post that illustrates the stereotype. Which seems to have a lot to do with saying “M’lady” as a greeting (which any 19th Century gentleman would know is a term properly only used by servants to address the mistress of the house).

Well, it was “hanky panic” all over again.

Only this time I appear to have already somehow adopted an inappropriate signal and people are already assuming things about me based on something I thought was entirely signal-free (although I still don’t know if it’s a fedora or a trilby, and don’t really care).

Then I thought, “I’ve never encountered this before; maybe it’s a USA-specific thing?” After all, I’m not getting “ew” reactions (at least, that I notice); I’m getting occasional “nice hat!” reactions.

I got a second reference point a few weeks later when a trailer came on television for some US sitcom (it may or may not have been “2 Broke Girls”) in which a guy dressed and behaving like the guy in the cartoon and the stereotype appeared. But I noticed he wasn’t wearing a fedora; his hat was… a bowler hat. (Hah!)

Then Jemima @ Sometimes it’s just a cigar also used “fedora” as a pejorative, signifying something unsavoury or sexist, and I cringed. It turns out that SIJAC has a history of using “fedora” as a shorthand for – something. General naffness in the topic?Ill-formed views on gender issues? I don’t know the stereotype, and I’m not sure they’re using the same one as DNL was, even. But my overriding emotion was, again, “What have I accidentally got myself into?”

After the ridicule poured on the phrase “but not all men”, particularly through the hashtag #NotAllMen, it is quite awkward to approach this without imagining a similar sequence playing out with the hashtag #NotAllFedoras – in fact, I can imagine that being quite fun to follow! But it’s true that the vast majority of fedora-wearing people I have encountered (although they may actually be trilby-wearing. Still not clear on the distinction, still not caring enough to find out: a nice hat is a nice hat) do not appear to fall under the stereotypes being attached to the hat.

What I have observed as a significant correlation is, in DNL’s words, “ill-advised facial hair”. That is a stereotype that I would recognise. Any affectation with the facial hair seems to correlate with somewhat troubling conceptions of social dynamics. In fact, it can be generalised that affectation (of which a hat may or may not be an element) seems to be the problem, rather than any particular item.

I like hats. I can’t afford to buy a new one just because it turns out now that the one I chose might inadvertently be some people’s chosen symbol for a negative stereotype. (I wish I could afford one like the hats Cpt. Hastings wears in the ITV Poirot adaptations – although maybe that’s where the whole “gentleman” thing comes from?) I’m going to go on wearing my hat (although now it’s summer, I’m wearing my straw hat instead, because it allows my scalp to keep cool better and I like it almost as much) because in my everyday life, no one has given me reason to believe it means anything bad about me, because I am still convinced that it looks good, and besides, if someone did leap to conclusions based on it, I’d think they were a bit of a jerk, frankly. The key thing is that I act like me, I dress like me, I wear hats like me, and I try to be the best me I can be. None of that seems to resemble the stereotypes or attitudes that DNL, SIJAC, or anyone else might hold.

And yet…

I still worry about the codes that everyone else seems to know, and whether somehow just being myself leads to misunderstandings.

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Language, SCW, Social so-called life and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Hankies, Hats and Social Anxiety

  1. jemima2013 says:

    Not male bodied, not Dom but i recognized so much of this post! I never understand how others seem to just know those signals, and know how to respond appropriately, sometimes i feel like the world got a code book at primary school, and i must have missed that day.
    Its one of the reasons I really enjoyed swinging and really enjoy my job now, its so simple, you ask someone if they want sex, they say yes or no, without all these codes and mystical knowledge.
    I am hoenstly sorry i caused you worry about the hat tho i love hats (ask Carter!) i dont know who first started using the fedora as shorthand for a certain type of male supposed ally, but i am sure you have never been mistaken for that kind of person 🙂

    • ValeryNorth says:

      Thank you 🙂 Like I said in the OP, the hat works for me, gets me “nice hat!” so I figure I must not be that bad. And hats are lots of fun.

      The worry is not caused by you, if the stereotype exists then it doesn’t matter how I hear of it, it’s the stereotype, not the information source, that causes worry. And hey, there <i.was an element of “not all men” about the reaction anyway. I’m not perfect.

      Like the Oliver Burkeman piece I linked in the OP, I think lots more people feel the “i must have missed that day” thing than we tend to imagine, but it doesn’t make it any easier for those of us who really struggle with it. (Your piece on attraction and fitting in really resonated, and the same week there were DNL and Burkeman articles on a similar topic, probably going to be the basis of my next post.)

      As for “never been mistaken for that kind of person”, I try hard not to be the sort of person who would be mistaken for them. But rewind to my uni days, and I definitely had the “ill-advised facial hair”, and my understanding of gender issues was much less well developed than it is now (seriously, I was a walking talking “house” on any social justice bingo card! I cringe to remember some of the lines I used to come out with without a trace of irony) so back then, though I didn’t have the hat, I was that person. But I got my “101” on, listened to a bunch of people who lived it, and now, twice as old as I was then, I do a lot better at this stuff.

  2. Pingback: Hats, opera, and congruence | Valery North - Writer

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