Several people have asked me lately about one of the traditional BDSM accoutrements, the collar. What do they mean? What are the rules about wearing one, or interacting with someone who's wearing one? There are some generally agreed upon beliefs about collars in the BDSM community, and then there is plenty of misinformation--especially online--that confuses people. Let's sort it out.
Generally agreed upon belief number one: Collars are optional. I myself don't use them much. Other people like them. It's a matter of taste.
Number two: In the BDSM community, a person wearing a collar is generally perceived as a submissive. So please, disregard those porn videos of whip-wielding women wearing big leather collars about their necks.
Number three: There are no carved-in-stone rules about the specific responsibilities and privileges of collars. Expectations should be discussed, whether it's a just-for-the-evening thing, or longer-term. Someone asked me if there were different "levels" of collars, like military rank. The short answer: nope. If you want to create that structure for your submissive, that's just fine. But there is no historical BDSM tradition about it.
Number four: A collar doesn't have to look a certain way, be a certain color, or be made of any specific material. If the people involved say it's a collar, then it's a collar. A collar that looks like jewelry is easier to wear in vanilla settings, but it may require explanation to BDSM folks to have them respond to it appropriately.
So what's an appropriate response? Here's a big one: Don't touch it. Don't grab it playfully, or to see what it's made out of, or because you figure if someone's wearing a collar, they're asking for it. Touching someone else's collar is a grievous social error that will immediately brand you as a clueless asshole.
If you're cruising for submissives, know that if someone's wearing a collar, he or she is usually signaling "I'm unavailable." Single people do sometimes wear collars to try to attract dominant partners, which I think is a bit like wearing a wedding ring because you want to get married. So it can be worth doing a little reconnaissance about that collared cutie, but step carefully.
BDSM etiquette is complex, and sometimes confusing. When in doubt, I suggest you fall back on the Mistress' Golden Rules: Assume nothing, don't touch, and ask politely. That'll always get you points, whether you want to be on the inside or the outside of the collar.