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.

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Introducing View From The Top: My BDSM Journey

I’m so excited to have started writing a column over on Autostraddle called “View From The Top,” detailing my BDSM journey from being a bottom (before coming out) to being a master (and monogamish and partnered with a boy/boi and happier than I’ve ever been).

Over on the first column, which just came out and is called “I Started as a Bottom,” I kind of came out as a master. I mean, I know I’ve written about it here sometimes, but mostly kind of buried in posts and I haven’t written about it too too directly (yet). It’s scary! It’s a big word, a very loaded word to use and claim, and I hesitate to use it without a whooooole lot of back story to explain where I’m coming from, that I’m part of a community that uses those terms, etc.

So of course, in the comments of the article, there were questions about the use of the terms master and slave, particularly by someone white. I want to highlight my comment and rife’s, too, because I think this is a really interesting issue of semantics, language, and social justice, and I don’t feel 100% good about it, though it’s the best I have right now.

I wrote:

As the author of the post, to be honest, I’m completely uncomfortable with it. It’s something that I struggle with, precisely for the reasons you stated—primarily because I’m a white person and we have a particular, very very recent history of slavery in the US, where I live, the effects of which still benefit white people and me, specifically, and contribute to systemic racism.

There are quite a few folks who use pairings like Owner/property or Dom/sub instead of Master/slave, precisely because of their discomfort with those particular terms.

I’m about 5 years in to this exploration of what it means to be master and slave, and what it means to be part of that community, and it has been incredibly valuable to learn these skills and actually take part in that community. (Maybe I’ll go into this in a future column? Short version: This set of skills is something I’ve done in relationships unconsciously for a while, which was bad; and now that I’m doing it consciously, things are way better.) I resisted the particular words for a while, but after being part of the M/s world for longer and longer, I’ve grown more comfortable with it because of the difference in definition and usage.

I don’t see a lot of consciousness about this issue in the M/s world, which is predominantly white, though. Which I don’t like and am very uncomfortable with, and try to bring up and point out racist language and microagressions when I can (as I do in pretty much all communities I’m in, but I push myself to speak up a little more in this one).

For now, because it’s the most accurate words I have, I’m choosing to use them … but I’m not entirely unconflicted about that.

As a word lover, I think words can grow and change and morph definitions over time. While I do absolutely recognize the particular history that directly affects me, I also know that the words and concepts of master and slave are not a new invention in human history. The enslavement of African folks is just one of myriad examples throughout history. So I think that is one of the main arguments I hear about it—that the experience of ‘slavery’ is not so unique to that one part of history.

I use these words is because these are the most accurate words we have right now. I’m still new to this community and seeking to recognize others and find more friends who know about this stuff, so I’m using the words that are recognized by others so that we can find each other.

Identity words are complicated—some of them just *fit* better or differently than others. And these particular words fit what my boy and I are doing, particularly within the parts of the kink communities that practice them.

Also, if you ever have the chance to hear sex/BDSM educator Mollena do her workshop on taboos, which includes some of her philosophies about M/s languaging, I highly recommend it.

I think pursuing M/s is very complicated … There are many folks who don’t have an objection to those words based on race, but rather on the fact that enslavement is wrong. It’s complex to start unravelling fetishes that are on one hand, ‘morally wrong,’ but on the other hand, totally get you off and satisfy your life in a way that other things never have and in a bone-deep way you feel you need. I think in the RACK——”risk aware consensual kink”—camps, I understand that when things are done with full enthusiastic consent and taking responsibility for what happens, then it’s okay to fantasize and play. Personally, I want it to be done with a lot of consciousness and in a way that aligns with my values, but I also have to balance that with what sustains me, too.

rife wrote:

As a (white, American) who is identified as a slave, I initially struggled with the word, a lot.

What finally brought me around to it (I mean, other than my obvious erotic orientation to that kind of structured ownership fetish) was the realization that slavery has a long, long history. It has been around almost as long as humans. In some iterations, it was even consensual/contractual, like with certain Roman dynamics.

What I do has nothing to do with race play (although there isn’t anything *inherently* wrong with that). And honestly, if a black person told me they found my use of the word disrespectful, I would probably switch back to the more generic “property” descriptor. But here’s the thing: They haven’t, and I’ve had many soul-searching discussions with black friends, many of whom identify this way as well.

Let’s be clear: unconsensual slavery is abhorrent. Consensual slavery is fine. The two are very, very different. Just like rape is awful and consensual sex (even playing with faux-assault) is fine.

Here’s the other thing: it’s the best word for the job, despite its loaded cultural connotations. What else do you call a human who is owned? If we had another word for that, which wasn’t loaded with the unconsensual cultural history, maybe I would use that. But, we don’t. So I’ve made my peace with it.

I hear that it’s not a relationship structure you’d like to be in, fair enough! But be careful not to judge a relationship’s morals by how much you don’t want to be in it. :)

Though I’ve been stewing on this series for a while, and have already written 4 of the columns, I’m surprised and pleased at the impact it’s had so far and I think it’s bigger and more revealing than I expected. I kind of feel like I’m taking on the task of encapsulating my BDSM journey over the last, oh, 15-20 years, and trying to put it into ten or twelve columns to make a story. Feels a bit daunting, and very exciting. The folks at Autostraddle have been super supportive and the editing has been excellent, I so love working with good editors.

I really appreciate all the comments over there, and I’ve been replying to quite a few. (I miss that kind of comment conversation, where folks check back and actually reply—it’s been quite a few years since that’s happened on Sugarbutch, but I have some guesses as to why.)

If you have any particular questions or ideas of what you’d love to see me write about as I keep writing through this journey, I’d love to know. Questions or comments or ideas welcome.

Weight. Mouth. Rough Sex.

Content Warning: Force, coercion, descriptions of rough sex. Also dominance and submission, and depictions of ownership.

Sometimes I just think of the simplest of things.

Your mouth.

That look on your face, that look, when you’re giving over even more, just a little deeper, giving in to the sensation, giving in to wherever I’m moving your body, however I’m touching you.

Your skin.

The way your hands feel in mine. The way my fingers close around your wrist or throat or earlobe. The back of your head in my palm.

I think of these little flashes of your body, of us.

Other times, a more elaborate story.

What happens when I pick you up and drive you somewhere deserted and quiet, an empty kind of creepy parking lot where no one is around, no other cars, and lock the doors before I force your head into my lap. You struggle against me, but you know I will have my way, no matter what you do. You know it’s better to go easy, but not too easy, because then I’ll beat you for liking it.

I don’t really need an excuse to take you, or to hurt you, or to use you. It is so comforting, so deeply validating, to be able to have you in this way. To know that if you are in arm’s reach, I can use you for anything I may need, from fetching me a glass of water to your hands as an ashtray to your holes for my cock or fingers or tongue or whatever I might want to do with them.

Lately, I think a lot about rough sex. Pressure and strain and resistance and using my weight against gravity to hold you down. I think about going too far, pushing too hard, making you gag, spit, sputter, making you cry out and bleed, bruises under my fingers holding you so tight, making you beg and cry, making you take it anyway. There’s something about the release on that level that is different—deeper?—than most other releases for me … knowing I can just pour into someone else and they can hold it, they have to. I love how you do this for me.

You release me in so many other ways, too, though. Moments of energetic intensity come to mind, times we’ve been outside with your hand in me in some way, the earth underneath shooting up and connecting me with … everything. I miss being somewhere with places to fuck outside.

I think about what it’s like to force you, use you, disregard what you’re feeling in your body or your mind. Why is that such a fetish, such a kink of mine, when I am so obsessed with consent and permission and pleasure and connection? Maybe I’ve just answered my own question. And knowing that we are both guided by a deep craving here—me, the craving to play with taking and owning and destruction, and you, the craving of being used and coerced and owned—is what makes the play possible, of course. Without that deep craving underneath the play, it would be completely different, and unappealing.

Fuck, I am so grateful for how our wounds/gifts are attuned.

Lately, I think a lot about your sucking mouth. Maybe that is the equal and opposite of thinking about pounding into your open holes: instead, having this sweet suckling softness draw it all out of me. I think of you sucking your thumb or sucking my toes or nipples or cock, even the uncut packing cock, my current favorite. I get hard with just the thoughts. The way you can nestle in and cuddle up to my thighs, sigh, and relax.

Somehow, when I’m deep inside you, when you’re slowly drawing me hard and all of the things pent-up inside start drizzling out, that’s when I can best let go, feel the tightness in my shoulders unravel, and relax, too.

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