Submission, Worship, and Slavery

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December 1996

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1996 by William A. Henkin

<Q> I'm new to the community, and I feel confused by some terms I hear a lot. Can you tell me what the differences are among submission, worship, and slavery?

<A> To submit to someone is to do as that person says whether you want to or not, although in consensual sadomasochism a bottom who submits will ordinarily have negotiated his or her condition, including the limits beyond which she or he will not go. That way, however much a trial the submission may sometimes be, it is unlikely to violate the bottom's real or necessary boundaries.

To worship someone (or something) is to venerate him, her, or it – not necessarily as you would revere a deity, but at least with extreme devotion, love, or admiration.

To be enslaved is to be owned as property by another. Slavery is illegal under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, of course, although I think I could make a philosophical case for the idea that most people are emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, or psychologically enslaved throughout their lives to some person, idea, feeling state, belief system, or practice.

In an SM context – which in this case is really more about dominance and submission (DS) – "slavery" may have different meanings for different people, or for the same people at different times, which is one reason communication and negotiation become important when discussing such a condition. What is called "slavery," for instance, often seems to me to be a form of submission, which might be negotiated for an hour or a play session, for a day or a weekend, or for any sort of time period the participants agree upon. Many professional dominants call some or all of their clients slaves, and many of their clients call themselves slaves as well, but I suggest that most of this nomenclature is inaccurate because it seems to me that DS slavery implies something much more thoroughly considered, and much less readily terminated: long term, deeply committed voluntary servitude.

In a brief essay Pat Califia included in The Lesbian SM Safety Manual (Boston: Alyson), Diane Vera describes "Nine Degrees of Submission." They include:

  1. the "outright non-submissive masochist or kinky sensualist,"
  2. the "Pseudo-submissive non-slave,"
  3. the "Pseudo-submissive PLAY slave,"
  4. the "True submissive non-slave,"
  5. the "True submissive PLAY slave,"
  6. the "Uncommitted short-term but more-than-play semi-slave,"
  7. the "Part-time consensual-but-REAL slave,"
  8. the "Full-time live-in consensual slave," and
  9. the "Consensual total slave with no limits."

As she observes, "in the SM subculture, the majority of ‘submissives' seek scenes in categories 1 through 3, whereas most of the dominants I know … seek slaves in categories 6 and 7." Category nine, she says, is a "common fantasy ideal which probably doesn't exist in real life." Technically, of course, even a signed, sealed, and delivered slave under contract to a Master or Mistress can break the bondage any time simply because it has no legal status. But in practice, as the bondage of SM bonding can run very deep and feel very compelling, so the different forms and levels of SM slavery can be both challenging and profoundly fulfilling for some people who never have a wish to invoke any legal concerns.

Non-consensual slavery as humans have practiced it throughout history generally has included submission, but has rarely entailed worship. Worship of all sorts – think of church, for example – is likely to include submission, but not necessarily slavery (except, perhaps, of the philosophical sort). Submission does not necessarily entail either worship or slavery, as many people have learned going to jobs they didn't like. In SM, too, submission also does not necessarily entail either worship or slavery, and worship is very likely to include submission; but unlike nonconsensual historical precedents, consensual DS almost certainly includes submission, and may well include some forms of worship as well.

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