As a BDSM practitioner and writer I am always happy to share my knowledge and experience. Of all the many questions I’m asked on a regular basis, the most frequent one is some variation of ‘Am I a Sub or a Slave?’ Or ‘Is there a difference between a Sub and a Slave?’ It’s a subject about which everyone has an opinion, and the debate has been around for as long as there have been people to discuss it. For the m/m writer the topic can be a minefield of misinterpretation.
For most people, the terms are interchangeable and the boundaries are woolly. For some the definitions are more rigid, or at least very personal and individual. I would maintain that there are no wholly right or wrong answers, but that does not mean that we don’t need some clarity of thought or some acceptable descriptors. These at least give us a baseline from which to form opinions and arrive at acceptable definitions which work for each individual person or couple.
For me, the basic definitions start with the words themselves. Slave is a noun and so a slave is what you are. Submissive is an adjective and so it describes what you do.
In BDSM relationships, submissives make their own decisions and choices, holding on to their own rights and freedoms. Submissives also set their own limits. Whilst a sub may choose to be ‘owned’ but the terms of the ownership will be jointly negotiated and it will only last as long as they choose to allow it. Submissives characteristically seek out casual contacts or relationships, moving in and out of their role freely as they go about their lives.
A true slave is a very different person completely. While a submissive may choose how, when and to whom they submit, a true slave will submit completely at all times to their chosen owner, with little or no negotiation. Slaves usually seek ownership, preferring to give themselves wholly to another dominant person. The slave has no rights or freedoms and certainly no choices. Of course in reality this only works where great wisdom, common sense and profound trust exist.
I can hear a whole chorus of ‘buts’ as I write this and I respect them all. Every slave or sub is different and every situation is unique and individual. At the end of the day, our roles are defined by our relationships and seldom the other way around. The sub/Dom roles derive from the type of relationships we enter into, after safety and personal limits are agreed.
We must accept that any definition is merely another form of labelling imposed by the wider society. Labels are a way of compartmentalising things which we might otherwise struggle to understand. Once you are labelled, you are ‘understood’, but of course real life is seldom so easily pigeon-holed. Every couple needs to arrive at their own working definition for what they have.
It should be clearly understood that the definition is a work in progress and will change over time. Every aspect of a relationship needs to be placed on a grey-scale where the two extremes are ‘black’ and ‘white’ but all our life choices rest somewhere along the line between the two. Anyone who thinks that there are only fifty shades of grey (pun intended) is in for a big surprise!
A submissive may choose to submit sexually, but outside the bedroom (or dungeon) they will may still behave as equals with their Master or Mistress. The sub may choose to be a domestic servant but still maintain equality in their relationship. The mutually agreed level of control may be quite extensive and in effect be the same as slavery but of course the sub retains the ability to walk away or simply to say ‘no’ at any time.
A real slave, in contrast, wishes every aspect of their life to be controlled by the Master or Mistress. The slave will often describe themselves as “incomplete” without ownership and they will seek out a powerful dominant to control them. Of course in reality they will seek out their owner and so will be making choices regarding who that person is. At the end of the day they can still choose to end the relationship at any time.
Another point to consider is that not all slaves are submissives!
There is no doubt that I shall be returning to this topic in the future. One area that I would like to look at is the link between BDSM and sexuality. As a gay man I have met a great many heterosexual men who submit to other men. This does not in my opinion, make them gay!
Consider the various definitions, but do not be limited by them. Find what works for you and go with it. BE a slave, or DO submission, but have fun!