This Is A Conversation About Duties: On M/s Language

Sinclair’s note: rife & I have been gathering and publishing anonymous statements about the impact of using the words “master” and “slave” in a kink context. This one is longer than most others, and elaborate, and I wanted to ensure we all get enough time with it, so I am putting it in its own post.

Thank you to the person who wrote it, who wishes to remain anonymous.

This is not a conversation about rights. It is a conversation about duties.

This whole conversation hurts my heart so deeply because I don’t think it is a conversation about the validity or value of M/s relationships, and yet we seem to have turned it into one. I have been engaged in M/s dynamics since I came out in the public scene in 2006. Before then, I didn’t have language for what I was doing. So much of who we are and what we do is wrapped up in this dynamic and I, for one, am not willing to give up such an inherent piece of myself and my identity. I am and intend to fully continue living, loving and thriving within the depths of the power exchange dynamics that have become the bread and butter of my daily life. However, this conversation has nothing to do with my dynamics. This conversation has to do with the feeling that I, and my brothers and sisters, get every time a white person introduces themselves to me, or expects me to address them, as Master. For me, this is where things get difficult. You are not my Master and I am not yours. So why is this even a part of our interaction?

As a historian, I have understood that the honorific “Master” in the community used to be an earned one. That is how I reconciled the expectation that I would use this very triggering word with the gut wrench it evoked when I was first expected to use it. “This is about the mastery of a craft,” I told myself. Sort of like the master classes I had seen in school. I certainly didn’t feel the same gut wrench when the word was employed to describe a Master Chef or a Master Painter. I rationalized the word this way and went about my Leather life in deluded bliss.

Then I met a Black boy who wished to be my slave. Even as a Black person myself, I knew that it wasn’t the same, so I set about speaking with my fellow people of color to ask for their aid in teaching me what it would mean to own a Black slave in America. I worked hard and listened to so many voices. Everyone had different opinions that spoke to their kinks and life experiences. Some of the most interesting conversations came from my fellow M/s lifestylers who deeply crave and enjoy the M/s life 24/7 but have had to struggle with how to reconcile that with the awful history of this country and the very real, very raw feelings that that history evokes. Not one person on this journey ever questioned our desires to relate to one another this way, nor to build a 24/7 dynamic surrounding those desires. The only things that emerged remained true, across all conversations, were: 1) “I should not be expected to address anyone (but *my* Master) as Master” and 2) “I would prefer not to have to be triggered constantly by the casual use of the word Master in my company”. These held the ring of truth for me and felt like easy fixes. I began to look into other words and other languages spoken by my people. (I am a native French speaker, while one of my boys is a native Spanish speaker.) I found Maîtresse, Maîtriser, Dominate, Domina, Lady, Lord, Liege and Sovereign that worked for me. I even considered using the phonetics of M/s to create the word Emess to describe my dynamics. Words are flexible and I want to be able to employ that flexibility to fully express myself without the side effect of causing harm.

I will not change the way I relate to my partners, practice my kinks or devote myself to my dynamics and I don’t believe that anyone is asking me to. No one is asking that the practices of our life long love in power exchange change. Members of our Community, our brothers, sisters and siblings, are simply telling us that the use of A WORD is harming them.

Why am I getting the feeling that we don’t seem to care? That the pain and suffering that the word evokes is not enough for us to do something about it? We have been harmed by words before. Words like faggot, dyke and freak have harmed many within our Community. When these times came, we gathered ourselves together and we forced change. We reclaimed these words and made them our own. The problem with this situation is that white people cannot reclaim the word Master in America because they aren’t the ones that it hurts. We need to find a different way to do this this time.

I will admit that the task of changing our verbiage can appear to be a daunting one. It is not, however, impossible. An NPR Article entitled “The Journey From ‘Colored’ to ‘Minorities’ To ‘People of Color’” put it well: “Language is and always will be an essential element in the struggle for understanding among peoples. Changes in the words and phrases we use to describe each other reflect whatever progress we make on the path toward a world where everyone feels respected and included.” We have to ask ourselves, how important is it to us that every member of our Community feels respected and included?

I accept that words cause harm and know that words can be changed. We, as a Community, have the power to make that change. The only thing anyone is asking here is that we care enough about the impact of our word choices on our members to enact that change. For that to happen, however, we need to find a place of agreement that we can start from. Can we find such a place?

American history will not take away my right to experience and express my deepest kink and Leather desires in the ways that work for me. I will not allow it to take more from me and my people than it already has. I will not stop engaging in M/s dynamics. But again, I recognize that no one is asking me to do that. Not one person has attempted to take away my right to have my relationships the way I desire to have them. This is not what this conversation is about, and so, I am struggling deeply because I am continuously seeing this conversation reduced to that. Asking for semantic change does nothing to effect my self or my dynamics. The power I wield is not somehow lessened if I am called Domina instead of Master. My identity will not change or be reduced because I introduce myself as Maîtress. My rights to love, fuck and play in the ways that feel right to me are not being called into question.

This is not a conversation about rights. It is a conversation about duties. Of course we have a right to define our dynamic as we please and use monikers that work for us and turn us on. Of course we have the right to express our leather and kink as we wish. However, if we want to be inclusive, if we want to be a safe space for the next generation, if we want to grow and adapt to the needs of our marginalized family members and if we want to pledge ourselves to making the community better, then we have a duty to engage this conversation from a different lens. We have a duty to shed our need to defensively protect a word that is causing harm and take on instead a need to find a way to enjoy the dynamic that word represents without causing harm. Leather has always been a step ahead in subverting the norms and there is no reason that we cannot do that again here. Let us set the example by taking down our defense walls and trying to really listen to and get to the heart of the pain of our fellow Leather people. Let us really work hard to allow the voices of our hurting members to sink in and truly be heard. Let us try our very best to remember that this isn’t personal, it is institutional… Together we can find the answer, but not until every member at the table feels heard without judgement. The right answer will preserve our sacred kinks, identities and dynamics at the same time as making our spaces more inclusive and safe.

Ask Mr. Sexsmith: I struggle with my feminist beliefs and my bedroom preferences … help!

Dear Mr. Sexsmith,

I am a strong, opinionated, sometimes bossy, lesbian. I have a huge passion for the empowerment, education and advocacy of women. I volunteer as a sexual assault advocate and have been involved as a Planned Parenthood educator. I am very vocal about breaking the cycle of female oppression in our culture.

I feel a personal conflict, as I also identify as femme and am very much a bottom in the bedroom. I like to be dominated and controlled in sexual play and I very much get off on fantasies that boarder on roughness and non-consent. I guess my struggle lies in the dichotomy between my feminist beliefs and my bedroom preferences. I do not consider myself to be a weak or oppressed female, but in the bedroom I love to be controlled, punished and made to serve. Is there a way for the two to be harmonious? I fight for women to have power and to stand up for themselves. Can you help me sort this out?

Tara

I hear you.

I too have come up within the lesbian feminist movements (and in their wakes) with a strong passion for smashing the patriarchy and a vehement dedication to working on less pain for the various gender minorities in the world. And I too like to do dirty, “perverted,” un-politically correct things in my erotic life. I struggle with reconciling my own feminist beliefs with my desire for sadism and wanting to physically cause “pain,” and with my masculinity and dominance and the ways that both masculinity and dominance are seen as corrupted ways of having power in some feminist’s views. I was asked just this morning about my consumption of porn, and my candid talk about how porn is fun and can be useful and good and valuable, and how I reconcile that with feminism. And, oh yeah, I forget that’s a part of that feminist reconciliation process too.

And all of these took a long time, and were long processes.

I have had lots of judgment about sadism, masculinity, dominance, and porn in the past. Some of it was a reaction formation, at least in a minor way, I think. I had reactions and judgment both about other people’s visible execution of these things, and the tendencies in myself—my own desires. I struggled to reconcile those tendencies and how they went with my feminist commitments to gender liberation and my sensitivities to surviving abuse and being in a rape culture.

I think it absolutely is possible to reconcile, to sort this out.

Here’s some of the ideas that I kicked around—for years and years, with trusted friends, at kink conferences, with lovers. It was not an immediate process. It required adopting a new kind of feminism, I think—a BDSM- and kink-friendly feminism that is rooted in agency and consent, and that understands the difference between play and abuse.

Consider these things:

1. Bottoming, service, and surrendering control, comes from a place of great strength and power.

[Bottoming] is absolutely making yourself vulnerable. But vulnerability is not about weakness—it comes from a place of great strength.

People have the idea in their heads that bottoming is weak, but I think that is not true at all. Bottoming is incredibly powerful. Being able to know where your own boundaries are, hold yourself safe, be able to speak up for your own needs, ask for what you want, and negotiate trust with a person who is going to assist your body and self on a journey takes a lot of skill and sovereignty. People who do it well have an extensive amount of intelligence, self-worth, and self-knowledge.

It absolutely is making yourself vulnerable. But vulnerability is not about weakness—again, it comes from a place of great strength.

The notion that bottoming, receiving sensation, and submitting to someone else’s desires is weak comes from a twisted version of what those things really are, versions that show only the completely non-consensual and abusive sides of these experiences. But when done consensually, the gift that is bottoming to another is precious and strong. It’s amazing to serve someone else; we serve community, family, friends, and other valuable relationships all the time. We give our power or authority, or cede our control, away intentionally in order to empower others in a variety of contexts, and we can get great pleasure from doing so. And when we find someone worthy of our trust such that we will put our body into their hands for intense sensation, cathartic release, and the deep pleasure of being in the present moment with whatever is happening … how does that not come from a place of power?

The difference, in my opinion, between it coming from power and strength or from oppression comes down to some simple traditional feminist concepts.

2. Consent makes all the difference. All of it.

When done within a framework of consent, I believe it is possible for just about anything to be empowering.

I would guess that you do not have a fetish for a scenario where you are forced to serve against your will, when you were thrown around aggressively and had your body played with when you didn’t want it. Fuck no! But what you do want is within a safe, negotiated relationship, to be “forced” to serve, to play with giving over your will entirely.

Consent changes experiences completely. In the activist cultures around female oppression, we often talk about consent in a “no means no” way, and stress the value of enthusiastic consent and the “just because they didn’t say no doesn’t mean there was consent!”

But I think an incredibly important piece of examining the feminist concept of consent is also that YES MEANS YES, and that the consent itself is what makes the act possible or okay.

Let me give you an example: I like playing with Daddy/girl and Daddy/boy role play in my sex life. I know that is something kind of extreme to some people, and many people misinterpret it as incest fantasies, which it is and it isn’t (more on that another time). Sometimes I hear people say things like, “But what if you/I/someone crosses the line with an actual young person!”

But for me, that would not happen.

I do not have a fetish for sleeping with and playing roughly with people under eighteen. I have a fetish for sleeping with and playing roughly with adults who adopt a younger persona (usually temporarily) with enthusiastic consent. It’s not about actual incest or actual under-18 youths. No no no no no. It’s about adults tapping in to other parts of ourselves, to open up new experiences.

The consent is actually an essential part of that fetish.

And likewise, I would guess that for you, Tara, you do not have a fetish for a scenario where you are forced to serve against your will, when you were thrown around aggressively and had your body played with when you didn’t want it. Fuck no! But what you do want is within a safe, negotiated relationship, to be “forced” to serve, to play with giving over your will entirely, to be punished for doing something “wrong,” to be used for someone else’s pleasure.

There is a huge, huge difference between the actual thing and some sort of play consensual version of the thing.

3. BDSM—and being punished, controlled, and made to serve—are completely different from abuse and oppression.

And consent is a key piece of that, yes, but there are a lot of other specific, clear, and measurable differences, too.

Read the “BDSM is Not Abuse” list released by the Lesbian Sex Mafia, one of the oldest women’s BDSM groups in the country, based in New York City. I think it articulates things very well:

This is box title
The Difference Between BDSM and Abuse

SM: An SM scene is a controlled situation.
ABUSE: Abuse is an out-of-control situation.

SM: Negotiation occurs before an SM scene to determine what will and will not happen in that scene.
ABUSE: One person determines what will happen.

SM: Knowledgeable consent is given to the scene by all parties.
ABUSE: No consent is asked for or given.

SM: The “bottom” has a safeword that allows them to stop the scene at any time should they need to for physical or emotional reasons.
ABUSE: The person being abused cannot stop what is happening.

SM: Everyone involved in an SM scene is concerned about the needs, desires and limits of others.
ABUSE: No concern is given to the needs, desires and limits of the abused person.

SM: The people in an SM scene are careful to be sure that they are not impaired by alcohol or drug use during the scene.
ABUSE: Alcohol or drugs are often used before an episode of abuse.

SM: After an SM scene, the people involved feel good.
ABUSE: After an episode of abuse, the people involved feel bad.

Souce: lesbiansexmafia.org

Because they are so different, I sometimes think the hyper-articulation of different language is important. It’s one of the reasons that people sometimes use the phrase “consensual non-consent” instead of “rape play,” for example.

The difference between BDSM and abuse goes back to consent, yes; but it goes back to all sorts of other things, too. Like trust, and skill, and agency.

4. Trust in your own agency. Trust in your own experience.

If you negotiate with a lover to get what you want, have an experience, and then everybody feels good after … as long as the experience is “doing no harm” in the world, then I say FUCKING GO FOR IT.

Have some play. Have some ecstasy. Have some screaming release. Have a big bold messy weird experience that maybe other people would judge but it just felt so goddamn good for your body and your mind and your emotions and everything sings a little brighter the next day.

You get to say what happens to your body. You get to have your own experience, and then decide if that was pleasurable or not, enjoyable or not, and whether you’d want to do it again, with this person or with a different person or in a new way or not at all. You get to have your experience of a non-ordinary thing and then, if you feel like fuck yes that was amazing! More more more please! then you can trust that that is real and true. Agency is trusting the answer that you come up with, authentically, when you ask yourself: Does it feel good or bad? Am I left with icky residue or release and joy? Do I feel closer to my play partner, or farther away?

Of course, not every BDSM scene is that easy to evaluate—but some of them just are. Start there. Start with the ones that are easy to tell. Start with trusting your own consent, and agency, and your own deepest experience of what you like or don’t like.

If it matters to you that other people do sometimes see these things you want as contradictory, seek out feminist kink communities. They do exist! This was a topic that came up in the Submissive Playground ecourse quite frequently, actually, and we had a lot of lively discussions about the feminist reconciliation process.

I actually have a dozen more notes about things to say around this process of reconciliation, but this is already more than 2,000 words, so I’m going to call it good for now. Feel free to ask more about specific things in the comments and I’ll do my best to reply!

I hope that gives you lots of places to start. If you’re still stuck, remember, I do one-on-one coaching sessions, and I would be very happy to help you with resources, experiments, ideas, support, or just talking in depth through this reconciliation process. Contact me for more information and pricing.

Got a question for Mr. Sexsmith? Ask it here!

Comment Zen …

Readers, do you relate to Tara’s question?

If you do, would you share your own story about your relationship to feminism and kink? Did you reconcile the two? What was the process like? Slow, fast, hard, simple? What kind of resources helped you on your journey? Books? Anything to recommend for others who are going through this? Do you have any recommendations for feminist kink Fetlife groups?

Leave your story anonymously if you like; your email address will not be published, and if you don’t want your usual “gravitar” picture of you to show up, just type “+sugarbutch” in your email address (like [email protected]) and I’ll know you want to be anonymous.