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THE NATURE OF MASTER/SLAVE (OWNER/PROPERTY) RELATIONSHIPS
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 wholly-owned, wholly-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 usage 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 wholly-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
“…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 persistent 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” (i.e., 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.
(continued in the book)
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