(c) 2004 by Deborah Teramis Christian. All rights reserved. Contact the author for permission to reuse.

There seems to be a common pattern of misconceptions about Owner/property relationships (also called "Master/slave" relationships, although I have issues with that terminology) - and the nature of persons who become involved in consensual slavery as the slave. A flock of comments in this regard cycled through one mailing list a while back, and spurred the following commentary. Thanks to Lenora for her thoughtful grist for the mill. Her name and comments are used with permission.

M/s Relationships & the “slave” word

Many, many people are involved in D/s of various degrees of control, using the terms “Master”, “Mistress” and “slave” for the erotic charge and symbolic meaning of it. Relatively few people engage in an M/s relationship in its original and traditional sense of owning obedient human property, using the words “Master” and “slave” in their literal sense, or as close as it is possible to approach in this culture. As I have no doubt made excessively clear by now, I generally use M/s in its original sense, use the terms Master and slave literally, and call everything else D/s.

Master/slave relationships - or more aptly called, "Owner/property" relationships - have a set of unique attributes. Some of these are:

* an acknowledgement and awareness of the chattel nature of the relationship. Both Owner and slave see the slave as human property. This is not a figurative concept but a literal one: occasionally slaves are indeed sold in this sort of relationship configuration, and the slave in question - if they wish to remain a slave - goes obediently (perhaps happily, perhaps not) to the new Owner.

* The slave makes a choice to live in voluntary servitude, and thereafter lives out a commitment to obedience.

* The Owner assumes ultimate responsibility for the well-being of another human being.

* The Owner is the final decision maker in all things, except whatever s/he may have chosen to delegate to the slave as the slave’s sphere of responsibility.

* There is no part of the slave’s life or being that the Owner does not have the option to control, if s/he wishes to do so. How much is actually controlled is the Owner’s choice and decision, but there is an agreement that the Owner will in fact control and command the slave (to an extent determined by the Owner).

This is as close to “slavery” as we can come today, given that statutory slavery is illegal in this country. Nor have I ever heard anyone seriously aspire to be in servitude against their will, so the involuntary slavery parallels of the past do not map to what we do consensually. Yet if one insists on finding an historical analogy for this (as some do), the closest that might have real bearing are the practices of ancient Rome where people could voluntarily enter slavery, and could re-acquire their freedom under certain circumstances if they so desired. I urge people with popular notions of slavery-as-echo-of-African-bondage to put that out of their mind. That was and is an ugly chapter in human
history, and has no relationship to contemporary consensual slavery. If you who are reading this have issues around the word “slave”, you might try on “voluntary servitude” for size instead. It bypasses a lot of our historical baggage around the “s” word.

A lot of people like to use the word “slave” because it has erotic juice, and that is where a lot of confusion comes in: as if there were different styles of “Master/slave” relationships. In my analysis, there are no different styles of M/s relationships if we are talking about the essential Owner/property agreement. It is demonstrable that there are many different styles of D/s relationships, some of which include use of the term “slave”, and varying degrees of control. But there is only one kind of literal Master/slave relationship: the very meaning of those words reflects that this relationship includes an Owner and his/her wholey-owned, wholey-controlled human property.

I also recognize that, as happens with language, the terms slave and M/s have been absorbed wholesale into the broader kink community and are often used with little or no understanding of or regard for the current or older meanings of those words. I think this happens from ignorance, not an intent to co-opt or redefine terms, but it certainly adds to the confusion when people think the term “slave” has any meaning they want it to have.

From oral history I have heard in various parts of the leather community, the term “slave” used to be used far less frequently than it is today. A dominant woman who is now in her 70s, who has been active in kink since the early ‘60s, told me once, "It used to be that a slave was someone’s slave. They were property. People don’t often mean it that way anymore.”
So rather than thinking that the M/s community has taken its word “slave” out of common useage and made something arcane and weirdly qualified out of it, it appears that the word “slave” has been borrowed from the M/s segment and has since been absorbed into the broader SM community. It is now used loosely, inspired, I believe, by the archetype of what “owned slave” is assumed to represent.

For people who are not wholey-owned property but who are calling themselves slaves, be aware that you are using a term with a very specific meaning to the M/s subset of our community. The “slave” of a D/s relationship, be it ever so controlling, is not the same creature as the slave of an M/s relationship. They are fundamentally different.

A Slave is Not a Doormat

Lenora wrote:

"...and when you say that a slave has no right to make any decisions about their work/finances etc., well- ...[my partner] wants me to be a full, well rounded person, not a door mat who has no rights or input to affect my life."

This is one of the persistant myths about slaves, and it drives me buggy every time I hear it. Slaves are not doormats. To speak to this I want to back up a bit first and reference an earlier comment from another poster:

"For me, the only negotiation with a bonded partner is that they agree they have no rights."

While I think I understand what she meant by this, personally I avoid using the word “rights” in M/s discussions. This topic usually gets into the huge can of worms about whether or not we can surrender rights that are “inalienable” according to ethics or our Constitution and our legal system, etc. So I will skirt this charged and amorphous word, “rights”, and recast this statement in another way.

To wit: when she says “a slave has no rights”, I find that reflective of an Owner’s desire to avoid a scenario where, for instance, the slave stands up and says, “You can’t do X because I have a right to do Y.” (For example: “You can’t forbid me to vote, because I have a right to vote,” or “You can’t tell me to stay home because I have a right to go to school if I want to.”) People often fall back on claims to their “right” to do X or Y or Z. In M/s relationships, whether or not they literally or legally have a “right” to X, this assertion of entitlement to an action sets up the potential for disobedience to dominant command. To say a slave 'does not have rights' is essentially saying that a slave may not claim entitlement to do what s/he wants, and thus be self-determining in lieu of or in despite of the Owner’s desires.

Put another way, “a slave has no rights” is equivalent to saying, “the slave must at all times be obedient, even if the Master’s orders oppose something the slave thinks s/he is entitled to”. Seen this way, the “rights” issue is an aspect of the larger meta-issue of obedience, which I think is easier to discuss in particulars anyway.

So, to return to Lenora’s comments:

"...and when you say that a slave has no right to make any decisions about their work/finances etc..."

I didn't say that. A slave may in fact have a “right” (ie, the authority) to make decisions in these things, if the Owner has given the slave that latitude.

"...well-...[my partner] wants me to be a full, well rounded person, not a door mat who has no rights or input to affect my life."

I think I have addressed the “no rights” issue above, which leaves this concept of a slave not having input to affect his/her life.

Where in the world did you get that idea?

Just because a slave is expected to be obedient to the Owner, does not by any stretch of the imagination mean a slave becomes a mind-dead zombie, bereft of opinions, creative ideas, input, desires, even temper tantrums and vocal demands for something s/he wants in his/her life. A slave can bring all those things to the table and more (and usually does <g>). The only real difference between a slave interacting with an Owner, and any other relationship couple in the world, is that The Owner Gets to Decide.


The slave has a voice and often gets a vote. However, the slave does not get to make the Final Decision - which fact we
presume is an arrangement the couple is happy with, since this is the dynamic they both consented to in M/s.

Also on the doormat topic, which is closely related to two other myths (that slaves need to be told what to do, and that they cannot be responsible for themselves -else why would they need someone to order them around?):

Owners have slaves because a slave provides something valuable to their life, and that value extends far beyond simply having someone to boss around. Slaves are highly responsible individuals who run households, businesses, support and caretake others in a spectrum of activities ranging from the menial to the highly skilled and/or creative, and all of this, on behalf of the Master or Mistress in an M/s relationship. I have
never seen someone so lost as an Owner whose highly competent and effective slave is out of town on vacation or a business trip. Slaves are often dominant in their own right; it takes a certain amount of self-directed take-charge-ness in order to effectively serve a demanding Owner.

This is not the profile of a doormat or an irresponsible twit. People who think slaves are those things do not grasp what a slave is or what a slave does in an M/s relationship.

Can People Really Do This Stuff?


"I believe that i understand the concept of being completely owned by someone, but i'm not sure how much i really believe it works...and I feel... that when you are describing your meanings for the word slave as opposed to submissive that you are describing a fairly unrealistic thing."

[Sidenote: Lenora is referring here to my essay regarding the differences between a slave and a submissive. See A Slave is Not a Submissive.]

If you simply don't think it's possible to live in a committed state of obedience to a partner, I refer you to certain styles of traditional marriages the world over to see how "one person calling the shots" can work out in practice. It is interesting to observe that the elements of the Christian Right in this country promoting wifely submission to the husband - and those who live that way - are following M/s precepts in all but the chattel concept.

However - and perhaps more to the point of this comment - If you don’t do this yourself, don’t frequently see it modeled in community around you, and have no other experience of it, then I can see why you might think my descriptions are unrealistic or that this kind of relationship may not really work. In this instance, though, I would say it is your experience base (or lack thereof) that is coloring your perception. I know that I have lived this way in the past and have no doubt I will again at some point in the future. There are hundreds if not thousands of people living in Master/slave (Owner/property) relationships in this country right this very moment. The attributes I ascribe to slaves (in contrast
to submissives) come not out of my imagination, but from seeing and corresponding with and talking with slaves who have those attributes in common.

It can be challenging to become more connected with the M/s community, this minority-within-a-sexual-minority. There are few organizations which draw M/s folk together (though MasT is one, Masters and slaves together; see their website for more info at http://www.mast.net). In my experience, the vast majority of M/s folk are either invisible – blending as apparently “ordinary” het couples into the mainstream community wherever they may live, and living secretively about their kink – or they are ghettoized and identifiable in numbers only in places where a minority bands together for support in numbers (such as in the gay men’s leather community in various cities large enough to support a concentrated population and hence a certain critical mass of Master/slave couples). Many M/s folk avoid the organized BDSM community entirely because they feel (often with good reason) that their lifestyle is not understood and is attacked by people
they would otherwise expect support from.

"I'm not sure how much i really believe it works."

M/s relationships work as much and as well as any relationship does. If the couple is on the same page with their expectations, operating by the same rules, and have (or develop) a good relationship skill set, then they have the ingredients to create a relationship that endures. Or not – with pretty much the same likelihood of success anyone has in forging any type of relationship. I don’t think the secret of success is in the type of
relationship configuration one chooses (M/s, poly, bedroom D/s,
what-have-you) so much as it is in the qualities and skills the individuals bring to the table.

"From the people i have talked to who have attempted this type of relationship..."

I wonder, when you say this, if by “this type” of relationship you
mean a chattel property one such as I described at the start of this post, with those same hallmark characteristics.

"...I haven't heard of anything with a shelf life of over 5 years."

People don’t do M/s relationships because they guarantee longevity. No relationship can guarantee longevity. I think all the relationships we have are subject to ordinary human emotional issues, and social/cultural forces we are all influenced by. I know of M/s relationships which cover the gamut from an abortive few-months long attempt, to those which have lasted 20 and more years. I suspect the breakdown of “how many relationships last for how long” follows a pretty typical curve that is common in our country: most couple-relationships reach dissolution in decreasing numbers at the 2, 5 and 10 year marks. 50% of first marriages end in divorce, and the median length of marriages that end in divorce is 7.2 yrs (US Census Bureau and National Ctr for Health Statistics figures). It doesn’t seem that M/s relationships that last a few years or five years are out of the norm for relationships in general.

It would be a mistake to assume that because the Owner is in control of decision-making, that this ensures longevity that is different from any other relationship. I know many Owners who have terminated a relationship with a slave because the relationship was not working out, or it was not in the slave’s best interests for the relationship to continue. Then there are those which fall apart because of dysfunctional dynamics, with ugly uncollarings or slaves doing that traumatic vote-with-feet thing. And then there are those where the people involved surmount the hurdles that come along and have a really nice relationship for a long time.

M/s is no different from any other kind of two-person bond. It takes work to make it work. Its distinguishing features are the decision-making and obedience and chattel factors, but the rest of it is good old meat-and-potatoes relationship stuff: communications, conflict resolution, trust-building, etc etc.

When all is said and done, I see M/s as a very straightforward kind of relationship structure: one has the final say, the other obeys in all things. That is the very essence of it, and it is really not very different from military duty, a samurai’s oath-bound service, or traditional marriage patterns. Yet this is a very unbending structure in these defining particulars and the reality is that most people find this constraining in ways that they do not like. Very few people are willing to live as another’s subordinate at all times. ("What happened to equal partners?") Others feel it is burdensome and limiting to assume the all-encompassing responsibilities that an Owner must. The people who do this are those whose core needs and kinks are fed by this lifestyle. One of those kinks is what I call “the control kink”– that is, the need to
control, or be controlled - and the other is the need to possess or be possessed. Notice I say need, not desire. There are other attributes as well but I think those are probably the biggies.

People who come wired this way often find the M/s lifestyle a compatible fit for their needs. Those who are not wired this way, do not.

© 2004 by Deborah Teramis Christian. See this for reuse info.



The Nature of Master/slave (Owner/property) Relationships