ASK THE THERAPIST
by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.
Copyright © 1993 by William A. Henkin
<Q> What are the benefits and disadvantages to a person who participates in a Master/ slave or Mistress/ slave relationship?
<A> It depends who the participants in this relationship are, and it depends as well on how they define their terms. In The Lesbian S/M Safety Manual, edited by Pat Califia (Boston: Alyson, 1988), Diane Vera observes that "slave" is a word frequently bandied about by, and with regard to, people who are not even especially submissive; and it's been my observation that the corollary holds true for "Master" and "Mistress": that they are much overused terms frequently adopted by or applied to people who are really simply topping, or doing bottoms.
I don't think there's anything wrong with simple topping or bottoming: it's basic SM, and can be lots of fun as well as highly informative. I do think there's a great value in naming what we're doing accurately, however, since that accuracy can help us know ourselves and our partners, and if for no other reason than that we can then communicate more precisely about what we want and need can help us have hotter, more satisfying scenes.
To address the confusions that result from what she thought was the misuse of bottom terms, Vera developed a couple of lists, one called "Nine Degrees of Submission," the other called "Kinds of Masochism and/ or Submission." Her "Nine Degrees" range from "1.The outright non-submissive masochist or kinky sensualist" to "9. Consensual total slave with no limits." Her "Kinds" include two forms of Adversarial masochism/ submission, four of Reverential masochism/ submission, and one version of Macabre-Humor masochism.
Cynthia Slater, founder of the Society of Janus, composed her own list of Four Basic Slave Types: 1. Novice/ Puppy; 2. Smart-Assed Masochist; 3. Trainable slave/ servant; 4. Captive. She intended her list for one-scene fantasy reference only, so the four types are not specifically applicable to long-term Master/ slave or Mistress/ slave relationships; but I find them relevant as a guide to certain kinds of SM-relational styles.
Over time, building on Cynthia's scenarios, I have also developed a little list. My Five Basic Bottom Types are: 1. Fetishist; 2. Masochist; 3. Submissive; 4. Pet; 5. Slave. For me, these five types express a Progression in Limits, from very narrow to nearly unrestricted.
You, too, may have some sort of list, or knowing about these you may be inspired to concoct one. If so, the questions that are likely to matter are, where does the relationship you and your partner(s) enjoy really fall in the spectrum of SM or dominance and submission? And, what do you mean by the labels you adopt?
When I top I want my bottoms to refer to me by some agreed-upon honorific (e.g., "Sir") because it helps to clarify our roles. When I bottom I want to refer to my top in a similarly special way for the same sort of reason. But whether I'm topping or bottoming I regard Master and Mistress as titles of respect individuals earn through their knowledge of themselves, of topping, and of their bottoms. I do not think every top is a Master or Mistress; I do not think every bottom is a slave or a submissive; I do not want to call someone Master, Mistress, or slave who does not have that particular, very special relationship with me; nor do I want to be referred to as slave or Master (or Mistress, but that's another column) by someone from whom I have not earned that singularly deep honor. Since, as far as I can see, it is possible to be a slave in a relationship with a top who is not your Master or Mistress, or to be a Master or Mistress in a relationship with a bottom who is not your slave, all my compulsive specificity need not get in the way of plenty of play, if that's your bent.
Of course, all my considerations about terminology may not even matter to you. No problem. What does matter is that the terms you use in your relationship convey to you and your partner(s) what you intend them to convey. If you know what you get out of SM, and out of topping or bottoming to begin with, you'll have a clearer sense of what benefits and disadvantages you might derive from being a Master, Mistress, or slave in a relationship.
For me, an SM or DS slave is someone who is voluntarily owned: who elects to give up much or all emotional, psychological, and physical control in a relationship (if not in his/her life) to another person who voluntarily takes on the responsibility the first person relinquishes. The slave's behavior is relatively independent of the top's emotional responses, however that is, the slave will continue to perform his/her duties regardless of the Master's or Mistress's kindness, harshness, or even absence because ownership invokes and is invoked by his/her extremely deep commitment to the relationship and to his/her part in it.
What the Master or Mistress gets from this relationship may come down to something as simple as having his or her desires, as well as his or her needs, met on an ongoing basis, by someone whose devotion and loyalty need not be questioned. What the slave gets may be as simple as the comfort, satisfaction, and security of being owned or possessed and, of course, the pleasure of pleasing his/her Master or Mistress whether or not the slave's position is pleasant or comfortable.
As usual, though, for every pro there is a con. The Master or Mistress in such a relationship must be clear, precise, and constantly aware of his/ her own limits as well as the slave's. The slave must be ready to risk not having his/ her needs met, receiving no direct stimulation, and getting far more (or less) than s/he bargained for going into the relationship.
Few people tops or bottoms really want or are emotionally or psychologically ready to undertake the depth of commitment a true Master/ slave or Mistress/ slave relationship demands; but those I've met who have done it successfully say no other kind of relationship they have ever encountered approaches it for intimacy and the possibilities of personal growth.
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