A 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 extensive.
Into 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.
To 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:
A submissive 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.
I 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....
At 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.
A submissive chooses to submit and has the option to say 'no' in at least one aspect of hir life.
A 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.
In short: a submissive chooses to submit and has the option in some area or another to say "no" to a dominant command.
How, then, does consensual slavery differ from submission?
First 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.)
Secondly, 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.
A slave commits to obey. A 'no' becomes a dealbreaker in a way it can never be for a submissive.
Thirdly, 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.
Earlier 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.
There 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.
Not a Spectrum
Submissives 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.
A 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.
There 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.
"Slave" Used Loosely
The 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.
Slavery 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.
Many 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.
Words and Their Meanings
It 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.
I 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.