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Submissive vs. Slave

posted Sep 30, 2009, 3:34 PM by Mr. M   [ updated Sep 30, 2009, 3:37 PM ]

The Difference Between Submissive and Slave in BDSM Relationships

by Mr.M 

             One of the questions that come up frequently in my discussions within the scene is the difference between a submissive and a slave. I am aware that I am walking into treacherous waters, this is a topic about which many have very strong convictions. These are my personal opinions on the subject.  I hope these thoughts will help some folk clarify their vocabulary and promote discussion as opposed to being seen as a proposal of rules to end it.  When it comes to defining a submissive versus a slave I tend to place them in terms of quantity and level of service.  But I wish to be clear that I do not think of one as being superior to the other. A submissive to me is someone who has a Top, someone who enjoys a DS dynamic, but still retains much autonomy. This in contrast to a slave who has undergone much more negotiation so that even their autonomy is understood to be a gift that can be taken away. This can be proven in such simple examples as the ability to pick out his or her own clothes each day. The Top is allowing this to happen but should they wish, the slave would have to budget in time to get approval, or even just trust and not complain about what the Top chooses.  This can be just as true for meals, free time, etc.  Training I leave to individuals to decide what is appropriate, but it is that level of negotiation about what is to be regulated that I feel creates the divide.  Generally I would also suggest that a slave should have duties that they are required to carry out with punishments for failure. Moreover that these punishments are actually not enjoyable, as in not for their pleasure, but done because of the dynamic.  For instance A friend of mine is a very cuddly Bottom, so her principle punishment is not being allowed to touch her Top.  She is refused something she regards as an affirmation of status and affection unless she has demonstrated she deserves it.

            There is an element of ritual that I think comes as part of this lifestyle. A couple I spoke to suggested a slave exercise they practiced. This involved the Bottom stripping naked every morning whereafter her hair was grabbed and she was forced to kiss the Top’s feet. I was asked whether I believed this to be a slave behavior, or a submissive behavior, to which I responded “I would say that it could be either, what I would ask is this: what happens if she doesn't?” This couple was not very comfortable with the activity, as the Top did not like their Bottom kneeling before them.  They had been doing so primarily because they had been told it is what a “real slave” should do.  Each and every relationship is different. Once again, I find the negotiation and the defined consequence to be the defining difference between a submissive and a slave.  I had a live in slave at one point whose work always ended significantly before mine (ah, real world).  We had a knock so she knew I was coming in and I was alone, which was generally the case. She was required to be waiting on her knees just inside the door to greet me.  Now she was not a masochist and also was a bit ADD so it was understood that if she was not ready she would be subject to the old school punishment of  writing lines (I will remember to greet Master when he comes home. x 100). I often use this technique and I generally compound this by having them write with a dip pen (penmanship counts).  She would sit in a hard straight backed wooden chair to write and it was known that I would not accept her discomfort as an excuse for being sloppy.  More than once I would tear up the paper she was working on for poor work and have her start again.  This was not about sex between us, it was about an understanding of her duties as my property and the consequence of her not fulfilling them.  By the same token, she could not refuse except for a major health reason and I would not fail to follow through because I was bored or tired from work.  Thus we both fulfilled our negotiated dynamic for the purpose of her improvement.

            A submissive to me would have a lot more flexibility within their dynamic.  With their Top a submissive would not be under that level of control. In a way, it comes down to a level of trust.  How much can the Bottom trust you to make decisions for them and take care of them, and how much can you trust the Bottom to fulfill their obligations.  There are no hard and fast rules, no definitive milestones that make someone a slave as opposed to a submissive, only guidelines and belief by those involved. As in many things, attitude is everything.  Generally most tasks should come down to the following; for the Bottom: What am I doing to make life better for my Top? And for the Top: How am I helping to improve my Bottom? Referring back to the previous couple who did not like ritual kneeling, they discovered that it reinforced their dynamic a lot more for the Bottom to bring the Top coffee when he was waking as opposed to having her kneeling. It was something he, as a Top, enjoyed and something she, as a Bottom, could do to make herself useful. Not all pleasures are sexual, and many of the best ones in a D/s dynamic have nothing to do with fucking. For me this is the essence of someone being a slave, the ability to be consistent as opposed to occasional, in providing everyday pleasure to a Top.  Now I personally do enjoy a good bow and kneel, but I don't say that it is correct, just fun for me, and that’s at the heart of the matter. The kneeling isn’t done because I am the great and glorious MASTER, it is done because it is something simple I enjoy. A Bottom kneeling for me is providing me with a pleasure, one by which they demonstrate their respect yes, but also their willingness to find joy in my pleasure.  I also very much enjoy a correctly set table, having my back washed in the shower, or even giving someone something to read so that we can discuss it later.  The following through with my desires for elegance, intelligence, and service shows an every day understanding of deep and simple pleasures that a Bottom wishes to provide. At the same time the enforcement of such actions within their lives’ allows me, as a Top, to improve and provide those self-same pleasures to those that choose to follow my auspice. 

            When a couple (or more-some) asks me whether or not they should do something, or more specifically, if something should be done as part of their dynamic my first question is “do you enjoy it?” Followed generally by “and if you enjoy it, why shouldn't you do it?” People all to often forget that service has been an art form separate from, and just as glorious as, BDSM throughout history.  Many in the scene feel the need for their actions to be constructive as opposed to being done simply for the sake of ritual.  They forget that all lifestyles, including this one, should have the goal of joy as a principle motive. Therefore, when no other reason is available, the reason of joy should always be considered. Does something make you happy? If so then it is constructive.  Whether a submissive or a slave, mundane or kinky, lives between two people in a relationship should be filled with love, trust, and pleasure; otherwise what is the point. The why becomes more central to the matter when considering a slave versus a submissive.  In my own personal theory we once again return to the subject of negotiation and understanding of relative status.

            Referring back to the goal of Bottom betterment via Top discretion, one should be very aware of motive in regards to behavior management.  I spoke to a couple once in which the Bottom often woke up grumpy, which often resulted in insolent behavior and disregard for the Top’s desires.  The Top’s response to this was to take her over his knee and give her a good spanking.  The Top came to me because he was getting irritated that despite the spanking the Bottom’s morning attitude remained a constant.  In our discussion I discovered that the Bottom in this relationship very much enjoyed a thorough spanking. The Top’s goal therefore was being thwarted by his very action to attain it. Rather than punishing her, he was in fact merely cheering her up. This fixed things in the short term, but in fact rewarded the behavior thus insuring its continuation. So here we have an opportunity to consider one’s position as a Top.  If they consider themselves as a more bedroom oriented dynamic, then what he was doing was completely correct. He was giving them both some short term joy, but not actually modifying her behavioral norms. However, if his goal was to mold her towards a mutual goal of perfect service, then he was failing his obligation. A Top must consider motivation and status before engaging their Bottom. For the relationship will be defined, refined, and described by such actions, not merely by what name you call your Bottom. A Bottom whom’s Top does not correct them can, in my opinion, never be considered a slave.

            In the end there is no correct way to define a submissive versus a slave, as all relationships are relative.  What truly matters in a relationship is, in fact, the relationship.  For me though, the difference comes down to the goals you set for one another. For in setting a goal for one, you set an equal and opposite goal for your opposite number.  Are you in it for pleasure, or purpose? Is sex central, or separate?  Does pleasure come from action or achievement? By these questions will your dynamic be circumscribed, and reinforced. However you wish to define yourselves, I remind you of this crucial fact: Relationships require more than one person, so before deciding what someone else is to you, be sure you can handle being the opposite to them.