The difference between a slave and a submissive

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The difference between a slave and a submissive

(Original article from

Well, if I had a dime for every time someone asked this, I’d be writing this on a laptop on a beach somewhere in the Caribbean. Lately I’ve resisted the urge to answer this question, because I know someone else will argue every conceivable explanation and I can put my time to better use on other more definable philosophical arguments, like how many chucks could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

But since people will still be asking this question (and I’ll still be unable to resist the compulsion to answer) when I’m 97 and senile, I might as well go ahead and write my “definitive” answer to this question now; that way it won’t matter if I go all soft in the brains department, I can just refer to my notes that say, “This is your opinion on such-and-such, remember?”

So what is the difference between a submissive and a slave?

I could begin by telling you what others might say, or have said:

  • A submissive is someone who negotiates; a slave does not
  • A submissive has limits; a slave has given up all limits except those which his/her owner sets for them.
  • A submissive obeys and serves by choosing to do so each time and retains her will. A slave initially makes a choice to obey his/her master/mistress at all times and then submits to the will of  his/her master at all times.
  • A submissive accepts submission, while a slave accepts obedience.
  • A submissive has retained some rights within the context of the D/s relationship, whereas a slave has given up all rights and becomes, in effect, property.
  • A submissive is owned, but a slave is possessed.
  • A slave is not allowed to sit on furniture or wear clothes, and always kneels at his/her owner’s feet.
  • A submissive has a safe-word to end play, while a slave has consented to no-consent.
  • A slave must be a submissive, but a submissive is not necessarily a slave.
  • Being a submissive is just a step on the way to the “ultimate” state of submission, which is being a slave.
  • A slave is more submissive than a “mere” submissive. Submissives are just playing; slaves live the lifestyle.
  • A submissive has more self-respect than a slave. Slaves are crazy, because who in their right mind would want to be a slave?

Yada yada yada. This is about the point where the fistfights and hair-pulling begin, and someone eventually is provoked to lob the ultimate holy hand-grenade of judgment: “You’re not a real submissive/slave!”

All of the above definitions are something I’ve actually heard people say, or read in various books or websites. Some of them are things I’ve subscribed to at one time or another. Some of them are completely true for the way a particular person lives and functions and perceives themselves as either a slave or a submissive. Some of them are pure bullshit. But this gets me no closer to a final answer.

Maybe we might get further asking what a submissive and a slave have in common. Both have a deep need/desire to submit/surrender/give up at least some part of their will/control/power to a Dominant. They most often “need” this because pleasing and/or offering service to a Dominant who has earned their trust, their respect and (generally) their love, is an integral part of a submissive/slave’s fulfillment and satisfaction.

[Note: upon the first posting of this article, someone has already disagreed with this paragraph, on the grounds that they desire being controlled purely for the love of being controlled, not because they wish to please and/or serve.... so here i now add the caveat of saying, Okay a slave or submissive both need to give up some part of their control/power to a Dominant for whatever reason that motivates them. Fair enough? I think the ultimate point of this essay is that I am most assuredly not trying to limit or define or anyone in a negative way.]

So if we follow this “common ground” to its natural conclusion, then a submissive and a slave are really the same except for the extent to which they submit. A slave submits more of themselves (all of themselves?) to their owner.

Ah, but, what is “more”? “More” than who’s less? Just like that, we’re back in sticky territory once more because everyone wants to quantify and measure the degrees of submission (and even of mastery).

I visualize all of us on this great big sliding scale:  Dominants on one end, submissives on the other. On the far end of the dominant side are the masters and mistresses, whose personalities and needs to control compel them to take on the added responsibilities that come with “owning” either a slave or a submissive; further, their experience has earned them the right to that title.

On the other end would be those with submissive personalities, needs and desires. (I differentiate between “desire” and “need.” Desire, to me, is a luxurious word, a word of craving, as in a “desire for chocolate.” I’ve never heard anyone say that they desire food, but always they need food. A “need” is reserved for something you cannot do without. The more a submissive needs to submit (as opposed to merely desiring it), the further out on the slide they go. The more control they need to surrender, the closer they come to slavery.

I chose the phrasing of that last sentence quite deliberately: “the closer they come to slavery.” True slavery does not exist, and cannot exist in this country.

Even if an individual agrees in every imaginable way to “be” a slave, there is no court in the United States that recognizes slavery, consensual or otherwise, as a valid status. If that slave decides to stop being a slave, there is no legal means to force them to return to that state, even if they signed a dozen notarized documents and have their owner’s name branded on their ass. If leaving is an option, then is it really “slavery?” What we call slavery in the Lifestyle is a carefully crafted and maintained fantasy, even if it is fuelled and compelled by very real needs, and lived 24/7 in very extreme states of control and obedience.

[Sigh. And if you think i'm being overly sensitive or exaggerating the extent to which people will always -- and i mean ALWAYS -- find something to disagree with/argue about in any statement you make, no matter how broad and inclusive you try to make it, then let me also point out that already someone else has taken issue with the previous paragraph as well. Why? Because I said that slavery does not and cannot exist in this country. They sent me links to various articles about illegal immigrants who are kept in "slavery" for illegal wages, in illegal conditions under the threats of blackmail, violence and other criminal acts of fraud and deceit. I respectfully point out that while such things do exist, they are still illegal, and not sanctioned by the laws or government of this country. Jesus, talk about not seeing the forest for the fuckin' trees.... ]

The sliding scale theory works until you start trying to make marks to represent the “measure” of submission or dominance in an objective, rather than subjective, way. A yardstick works because somewhere, someone, once upon a time, decided that a certain amount of linear space is called an “inch” and everyone else agreed to adopt this objective unit of measure. But there is no comparable measure for our lifestyle – there is no inch, centimeter, foot or yard.

I once helped Sir work up a presentation for college class of social workers, trying to educate them on the basics of SM and kink, so that hopefully if they encountered it in the field, they would not freak and take someone’s children away from them. We tried using a linear scale to represent the “broad spectrum” of sexual expression.

On the Power Point slide, I used a sweet little picture of nun on one end marked “absolute celibacy.” On the other end, I placed a photo of a studly dude decked out in full leather and chains, brandishing a riding crop. Then, we began laying out the behaviors in between the two. After the nun, I put “masturbation,” followed by “heavy petting” and “oral sex,” then  “heterosexual-missionary-position-sex-with-the-lights-out.”

“But not everybody would put oral sex before typical intercourse,” Sir remarked. “Why did you put it there?”

“Bill Clinton,” I remarked dryly, thinking myself very witty. “I read somewhere that most teenagers today don’t even think a blow job is having sex.”

And it kept getting more and more problematic with every sexual activity or proclivity we added. Anal sex? Do you put that before or after “exploration of the entire Kama Sutra”?

I know some women into SM that can take being beaten bloody, but they WILL NOT do anal even with their husbands. And if you consider gay and lesbian orientations, then the placement of anal sex, oral sex, fisting and the use of dildos are going to be different than where a “normal” heterosexual might rank it. You can’t put “swinging” before SM — or vice versa — without either group howling in outrage if you imply either behavior is more “extreme” or “far out” than the other. (Many swingers think SMers are sick and twisted, while many in the Leather Lifestyle still hold monogamy as a gold standard for “decency.”)

In the end, we admitted that a linear chart of sexual behaviors couldn’t be anything but the broadest generalization, not to be taken literally, because the placement of each activity is potentially different for every single person in the world. What is “kinky” to one person is “normal” to another. It’s the same problem with my attempts (and everyone else’s) to make a scale for dominants and submissives.

You can generalize the end points of the scale, but there is no way to measure the degrees in between because every single person in the Lifestyle is measuring according to their own yardstick. One person’s inch is another person’s mile.

One submissive may find being naked in front of strangers is a huge amount of control to give up – for her. But another who considers himself slave may feel the nudity isn’t a big deal at all. Another “slave” may consider breath control a hard limit – no way, they will not do it! — while another “submissive” enjoys breath play and does it regularly. And while I personally can enjoy very brutal anal sex (without preparation or lube) even when I am only “bottoming,” another “slave” or “submissive” cannot and will not participate in that activity.

When I was a slave to my master – and that is what I considered myself and what he considered me, placing all my limits at his discretion — I accept polyamory and swinging, which some others who considered themselves slaves could not condone in their own relationships. And while I allowed him to control how I dressed, who I fucked, what toys he would use, even whether I would breathe or not, there was always one area that he never attempted to control, and I would have been really uncomfortable and unwilling to give up — that of my personal finances. Yet many slaves believe that you cannot be a “real” slave if you cannot give over complete control of all areas of your life, including your money.

But even in my vanilla relationships, including an eleven-year relationship where we owned a home together, we never even discussed a joint bank account. If you consider this one area of my life, there are a million married vanilla women who are more “slaves” than I have even been, or will ever be.

I mention these specifics to demonstrate how many variations and levels there are, not just in the Leather Lifestyle, but in life period. Every role in the SM community is eventually tailored, like a fine suit, to fit the individual as they grow, evolve, discover themselves and what works for them.

The identity of your partner will further tailor your particular suit. While your “suit” may look a lot like someone else’s, it will never fit anyone else in quite the same way. So why do we keep trying to pull roles “off the rack” for other people, sometimes even ourselves?

The minute you start trying to define what makes one person this and another that, you start comparing. When you compare two things that are not exactly same, you will always find one or the other lacking in some way.

But that “lack” only has meaning in the comparison to that other object. Every other thing in the world will be less or more, depending on what you compare it to. Apples and oranges, my friend — apples and oranges! You may like one better than the other, but that doesn’t make an orange any less “real” or valid a choice than the apple.

If you continually compare your life —your mind, your heart, your soul — with someone else’s, there will always be something that makes you feel less or more, somehow “lacking” or superior—  and in both cases, you are paying more attention to what someone is or isn’t, even yourself, than rejoicing in what you are.

With comparison comes judgment, which can only be based on a personal viewpoint. You cannot unplug yourself from what you know and feel and experience. Judgment is the first step towards prejudice, stereotypes and intolerance. All of which are antithecal to a lifestyle that is based on the need for personal expression and rejects being forced to conform to society’s view of “normality.” We all came here to be who and what we are, not what anyone else told us we should be.

In my journey, I was a “slave” because that was what I needed and wanted to be. That is what my master needed and wanted me to be. It was an ideal we were both striving for, not a definitive “thing” we would ever be able to achieve. Submission did not seem a strong enough word for us to contain all the needs and fantasies we both brought to our relationship. So we chose other words — Master and slave — that seemed to convey our goals more clearly.

Whether those words meant the same thing to anyone else was ultimately beside the point. Who should really care whether I, as “slave,” sat on the furniture or not? Kneeling or standing, my heart was the same. We were tailoring our leather skins to fit us, not anybody else. And why should we? Those skins were ours, and we would never ask anyone else to wear them.

In the end, my personal conclusion is simple. Submission is a personal journey, always fluid. Slavery, while “generally” the more extreme end of submission’s sliding scale, is more useful as an ideal some strive for. And it doesn’t really matter in the end. What is submission to you may not be submission for me. What is slavery for me may not be slavery to you. The only definitions that really matter in your life are your own, and the person(s) you serve.

We are, ultimately, the only ones who can decide who and what we are. I began this path to find me, not someone else. I departed from the vanilla norms because those skins did not fit me, not merely to find another set of standards to conform to.

So don’t worry about the difference between submissive and slave. It’s purely up to you and the One you submit to to decide. Stop poking about other people’s wardrobes and concentrate on constructing your own.

Choose the material that most appeals to you, the pattern that fits you best… then alter it, take a snip here and tuck there… let out a seam if it binds…embellish it with all the spangles and ribbons and colors of your fantasies.

And wear it with pride. It’s a one of a kind.

1 comment

  • Vampyresse

    Thank you so much for this writeup! :) I know definitions never please everyone but I think yours are well explained and align with how I think (not that I’m necessarily right). I like how you were trying to put together a linear PowerPoint and it doesn’t work. I see us as a beautiful mess, like a constellation of stars, but maybe some sort of circular representation if we ever needed one =)

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