submissive explores the piquant terrain of the surrendering of power. It is
not surprising that folks engaged in D/s often spend a fair amount of energy
determining what are the appropriate bounds of submission and control to incorporate
into their play. For those for whom this kind of power exchange is a lifestyle
expression, the scope of dominance and submission excercised may be quite
this mix then often comes the tricky word of "slave" a concept
which never fails to muddy the water, especially in discussions on the internet
or among kinksters with limited D/s experience. While some people insist that
the word "slave", like the word "submissive", can mean
to the individual anything they want it to mean, it is neverthless a fact
of the established and more experienced leather community that slavery in
an M/s sense of the word has specific connotations, and that slavery differs
from submission in significant ways. I want to explore those differences here
and illustrate why I believe that a submissive and a slave are two entirely
different creatures, as unlike as apples and oranges.
start this conversation I will offer a definition of submissive and slave
first put forth by Steven Davis on the old alt.sex.bondage newsgroup on Usenet
in 1995, paraphrased here with permission. (Also, when speaking of D/s which
is a gender-neutral endeavor, I tend to use the gender neutral pronouns of
sie and hir in my discussion. I write for an audience that spans many orientations
and I find it helps avoid the pattern of thinking of D/s as happening in any
one set of gender configurations). That said:
renews the choice to submit every time a demand is levied upon hir. A slave
makes a one-time choice to submit, up front, and thereafter it is incumbent
upon hir to obey.
am fond of this definition because it describes not only my personal experience
of submission and slavery, but with some minimal qualification also applies
to every submissive or slave relationship I have known of. To elaborate, then....
the heart of submission is the choice to submit and the option to say "No".
The submissive decides how much authority sie will cede to another, how much
control sie will bow to, and what aspects of hir life sie will surrender to
the dominant's command. Submissive power exchange is about choice: about the
option to decide how one feels about a demand and what one is going to do
about it. At any point that the sub is not comfortable with this arrangement,
it is within hir rights to say "No, I'm not going to do that", and
this becomes a signal to the couple that they need to renegotiate something.
It does not completely derail the power dynamic between them.
chooses to submit and has the option to say 'no' in at least one aspect of
submissive who is controlled in large tracts of hir life hir sexuality,
work, dress, social habits, etc - may fall into a space of obedience where
orders in those arenas are never mulled over or reassessed (in the sense of
"renewing the choice to submit every time a demand is levied upon hir").
I contend that this is not counter to the definition I offer above but a special
subset thereof: even for such a closely-controlled submissive, there remains
some area of hir life or aspect of hir person where sie retains autonomy,
or where it is hir option to decide if sie wishes to submit in the moment.
short: a submissive chooses to submit and has the option in some area or another
to say "no" to a dominant command.
then, does consensual slavery differ from submission?
and foremost, slavery hinges upon a commitment to obedience. The slave does
not revisit issues such as "should I submit?" or "How do I
feel about that? Will I say yes or no?" When a dominant order is issued,
whether or not the slave agrees with it, sie is obedient in the same manner
that a soldier is who has enlisted in the Army. (That military analogy is
one of several I think holds very true for the power dynamics of M/s relationships.)
in consensual slavery a person gives themselves over to the control of another
as completely as is humanly possible. This means not only a high degree of
obedience, but that there is actually a chattel property context to the relationship.
I refer not to a legal relationship, of course, but to a mutual understanding
of ownership and property status that arises between the parties. While both
slaves and submissives are often fondly referred to as "property",
in the sense of consensual slavery the slave becomes literally (by mutual
agreement) the property of the Owner. It is not unheard of for slaves to be
sold by an Owner and to go willingly to their new Master or Mistress.
commits to obey. A 'no' becomes a dealbreaker in a way it can never be for
a slave cannot say "No" without completely abrogating the very basis
of the Master/slave agreement. A "No" from a slave is a terminal
deal-breaker in a way that it is not for a submissive. One analogy I offer
is this: a submissive is like an employee in the workplace, who can protest
directives and hope to resolve conflict with management (the dominant). A
slave, on the other hand, is like a soldier who, if sie disobeys orders, has
put hirself in a position of mutiny with much more dire consequences to hir
relationship to the military (the Owner) than if sie were a civilian disputing
a less-controlling authority. The military cannot function if command authority
is questioned, and neither can a Master/slave relationship.
I said, "The submissive decides how much authority sie will cede to another,
how much control sie will bow to, and what aspects of hir life sie will surrender
to the dominant's command." Slavery differs in this regard: these decisions
are not made by the slave, but by the Owner for the slave, after the
general commitment to obedience is in place.
is much more to be said about the characteristics and nuances of consensual
slavery, which I get into in other essays dedicated to the topic. But I believe
the above serves to illustrate the key differences in the submission and obedience
factors of sub and slave.
are commonly viewed as falling upon a spectrum. At one end is one who submits
very little or only in scene-delimited context; at the other, one who submits
as a constant in a lifestyle context and is very controlled, and everyone
else falls somewhere in between.
big error occurs, I believe, when people assume that a slave is simply another
point on that spectrum, a more extreme form of submissive than is found in
the ordinary range of submission. I think this is to fundamentally misunderstand
the internal dynamics of slavery. A slave is not an ueber-sub, someone "more"
submissive than the "ordinary" submissive. For that matter, a slave
may not even be submissive at all. Slavery is not about submission or submissive
behaviors. It is about obedience.
are other characteristics unique to slaves that distinguish them from submissive
mentalities and reflect a different kind of internal wiring. I will touch
upon those in other essays as well.
word "slave" has a lot of charge to it. It has erotic juice for
those who would be love slaves or service slaves. It has cultural charge around
the non-consensual chattel slavery history experienced by blacks in this country.
It is shunned by those who do not like the cultural baggage, and embraced
by those who like the eroticism that the word suggests.
as I use it here and as much (most?) of the M/s community employ it, has a
distinctive character. It is a narrowly defined construct with fairly specific
meaning at its core. A slave who is property, who offers obedience across
the board, even potentially to the point of being sold, will at times look
askance when this label is bandied about by bedroom players or used to describe
relationships that are D/s even very controlling D/s but not
M/s, in nature.
people refer to themselves as slaves because they enjoy erotic or other types
of control on a limited basis, as long as it doesn't interfere too much with
other areas of their life they hold off-limits. And the more controlled a
submissive is, the more that person's state resembles that of a slave, and
so may be commonly referred to as "slave" without fine distinctions
being made in conversation. But when we are speaking of degree of control,
a slave is someone very specific.
and Their Meanings
is the nature of popular jargon, perhaps, that words like "slave"
will be adopted by those who find it sexy or apropo to some aspect of their
lives, and the distinctions between that and "submissive" will blur.
But it is necessary when speaking of M/s relationships to be more precise
about these meanings. Slaves and Owners of my acquaintance distinguish sharply
between the "Master" and "slave" of delimited D/s, and
the Master and slave of an obedience-centered chattel property relationship.
have offered this discussion to distinguish beween key elements of submission
as contrasted to slavery. "Slave" has a particular meaning to an
established segment of the BDSM community, and the aforegoing is intended
to illustrate ways in which this mode of obedience differs from the more commonly
encountered D/s styles of submission.