There is no more powerful and widely recognized symbol of submission than the collar. Collars are used in all kinds of different kink communities and in a myriad of styles, from a leatherman’s heavy chain and padlock to a kitty’s belled ribbon, but everywhere they are understood to signify ownership.
Some people, and a few communities, have developed very specific expectations around exactly what sort of ownership a collar ought to signify, how collars ought to be worn, how they ought to be given, etc. Some of those folks will tell you that their set of expectations is the universally correct way to use and understand collars and that if you don’t follow the same rules they do you are doing collars wrong. As is usually the case with One True Ways, this is bullshit. There’s no one correct set of collaring rituals that most kinky people agree on, no standardized criteria for when granting a collar is appropriate, and the really important question is simply whether the way you use collaring works well for you and your partners.
What does really exist are a few common assumptions about collars that are good for folks participating in kinky communities to know about, and a few loose guidelines for behaving in a way that most people who use collars are likely to find respectful.
Common Collar Assumptions
Collar Assumption #1: Collar = Submissive
The most common kinky community assumption about collars is that someone wearing one is either submitting or desiring to submit. Mainstream media loves to portray slinky, leather-clad dominatrices wearing collars, but within kinky communities wearing a collar is almost always a sign of submission. That doesn’t mean you can’t sport a collar you like the look of even if you have no interest in submitting to anybody; just be prepared for lots of people to assume you’re wanting to be on the bottomy side of things.
Collar Assumption #2: Collar = Taken
Only slightly less common than assumption #1 is the assumption that someone wearing a collar is in some way claimed. Collars are often used in kinky communities as relationship tokens. Whether that’s a lifetime D/s relationship or just a kinky date for the evening it’s a sign that the collar-wearer is in some way spoken for in this moment. This assumption is common enough that if you are wanting to advertise yourself as available to submit, wearing a collar—even though it is a clear flag of submission—may be counterproductive.
Collar Assumption #3: Collar = Serious Commitment
This isn’t as overwhelmingly common as the first two assumptions—lots of people do use collars for lighthearted or casual play—but many folks will assume that if you offer them a collar or accept a collar from them it’s a signal that you are wanting big, serious, heavy duty commitment with them. More than a few folks think of a collar as signifying the same degree of commitment as a wedding ring.
Good Collar Manners
Given all that, there are some good guidelines for behaving around collars in kinky communities. I’m not calling these “rules” because they aren’t universal rules, but they’re pretty good guesses about how many people would like to be treated.
Collar Guideline #1: Don’t flirt with someone wearing a collar unless they flirt with you first.
Sometimes people are wearing collars simply as fashionable accessories, or the relationship signified by their collar is not an exclusive one, but the use of collars as a symbol of unavailability is common enough that it is prudent and polite to not flirt with or pick up on any person wearing a collar unless they’ve made it abundantly clear to you that they desire to be flirted with.
Collar Guideline #2: Treat people’s collars with great respect.
Assume, until you learn otherwise, that a person’s collar is an object of deep personal significance to them. Don’t make jokes or irreverent comments about someone’s collar. Even if you have consent to touch a person, still don’t touch their collar unless you have specific consent to touch their collar. There are few faster ways to trample someone’s boundaries and royally piss them off than by grabbing the ring of a collar that isn’t yours.
Collar Guideline #3: It’s okay to ask people about their collars.
If someone is wearing a collar and you aren’t sure how you should interact with them because of it, very few people will take exception to a polite question like “Does your collar have special significance?” Then they can tell you what it means to them and you can interact with them accordingly.
Collar Guideline #4: Watch for special protocols around people’s collars.
Some people are “on duty” in some way when they’re wearing their collar, and not free to socialize as they normally might. For example, they might not be allowed to talk to anyone without first getting permission from their dominant. Protocol like this is relatively uncommon, and of course you cannot know what someone’s rules are if they haven’t told you. What you can do is be aware of the possibility of protocol and pay attention to how a person wearing a collar is behaving. If they are standing at attention and not speaking to anyone, or sticking close to a partner and letting that partner do all the talking, consider that they might not be open to interaction in that moment. If you aren’t sure, few people mind a respectful question like “Are you free to chat?”
Collar Guideline #5: Don’t expect others to automatically know what your collar means.
While it can be sexy to imagine a world where everyone knows and follows the same rich traditions of collaring, that just isn’t the world we live in. If you have rules about how your collar means that other people ought to interact with you or your partner, be prepared to tell them about those rules without scolding.