Feature image via shutterstock
I often feel like I’m searching for the right words to express myself. No matter how my vocabulary changes and grows, I still find myself grasping for straws trying to find the perfect word to describe how I feel or what I mean — a uniquely challenging experience in my BDSM journey.
Take the words master and slave, for instance. Lots of submissives identify as slaves. But for me, “slave” is rooted in my ancestors’ forced removal from their home countries and hundreds of years of forced labor and surrogacy. America was built by enslaved people, and the institution of slavery was used to justify denying humanity to millions of Black people. Enslaved people were sold at will, women were raped by their “owners” and abused by their owners’ wives when they bore mixed race children. The life of a slave was terrible. It wasn’t a choice. It was a title thrust upon them by people who wanted to remind them that in their eyes, they were no better than dirt.
But what about when the word means something else? What about folks who don’t have the same history with it, or who choose to approach that history in a different way? Should my hold ups mean that no one else can use it? Especially if it makes them feel whole in some sort of way? What do you do when something goes beyond what words can communicate? How do you move forward?
The first time I had to confront my feelings about the words master and slave in a BDSM context was when I met DJ. She was funny, tall, sweet, ten years older than me (the perfect age), and more experienced than I. She’d spent a lot of time learning how to be a good dominant and she wanted me to have opportunities to learn how to be a better submissive. Every time we chatted online she’d give me a new resource about BDSM, and every time we hung out we talked about them together. I learned a lot from her about BDSM and about myself.
We were casual for a while, but then she wanted more. I dodged her for a while, but it soon became unfair. She wanted something serious, and she wanted me to want something serious, too. So one day when she started to ask the “what are we?” questions again, instead of just telling her I wanted something casual and shutting the conversation down, I asked her what she wanted.
“If we were to do this, what would it look like?” I wasn’t against being in a relationship with her. I really did like her, but entering a serious relationship isn’t something I take lightly. It felt unfair to keep her hanging, as if my needs were more important than hers in whatever relationship we already had going. If we felt or wanted completely different things, it was time for me to let her have the space to explore those feelings with someone else who felt similarly.
Turns out, we were on completely different wavelengths.
“I’d want a 24/7 consensual non-consent relationship where you’re my slave and you refer to me as master.”
I laughed at her, and then felt bad when I realized she was being serious and vulnerable.
If she had been white, I would’ve walked away. Immediately. But she wasn’t and I was intrigued as to how someone I thought I’d had so much in common with could disagree with me on something so fundamental. “But… you’re Black,” I said. “You know the history of that word. I could never be a slave.”
Apparently, though, she’d engaged in that dynamic before and it was what she wanted. In one of the more profound moments in my life, I really understood how difficult it can be for words to express what we want and how we feel.
I hope to one day give someone my service and submission in a way that looks like what DJ wanted from me. I cannot wait to have a partner with whom I can explore consensual non-consent in a 24/7 lifestyle. But to be called a slave? In America? Where I still feel the very real effects of chattel slavery on my everyday life? It’s too much.
The thing about words, though, is that they are just signifiers. They don’t mean anything until we assign them meaning. Sometimes we’re able to take words — like queer or dyke, for example — and reclaim them from something ugly and turn them into something beautiful. But not always. Many folks still feel uncomfortable being called queer or dyke, and rightfully so. And I can’t imagine a world where I reclaim the title of slave.
What’s hard is when it’s literally just a word standing in the way. If DJ had said, “I want a 24/7 consensual non-consent relationship where you’re my cucumber and I’m your salad dressing,” I would’ve thought that’s kinda weird but I wouldn’t have immediately thrown it out the window. I would’ve been more willing to have a discussion. Slave and master though — I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
She couldn’t either. She had trouble understanding how I could let the word stand in the way if I wanted everything the word stood for. It all came down to my ability to name myself. When we met, I was still working through the ways that I moved through the world as a submissive person and a nonbinary person. I didn’t then have the vocabulary to talk about why it was so important to me to be able to name myself as something other than a slave, but I think I do now.
Just like I name myself when people insist on seeing me as a woman and calling me ma’am, or using she/her pronouns, I insist that they see me as the submissive person I want to be. And that person is not a slave. For me, slave isn’t a title someone can choose; it’s a title one person thrusts onto another from which they can’t release themselves. I don’t want those implications in the back of my mind when I’m in a consensual BDSM relationship. I cannot and will not be called a slave because of the traumatic history associated with that word, which makes me feel physically sick when I think about it. Words are never enough to talk about what we feel and how we feel, and that is truly one of the hardest things of being human. But just because words aren’t enough doesn’t mean we should try and squeeze ourselves into words that don’t fit. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying being called a slave, but it’s just not who I want to be. I’ve made a lot of submissive friends who call themselves slaves, and that’s totally awesome because they were able to find the right word to describe themselves and feel affirmed. But I know that for me, there’s got to be a different word that works.
Finding a name that fits is like, to paraphrase a friend, putting on new clothes and realizing you’ve been wearing the wrong size your whole life. It feels like relief, freedom and calm. I love submission and I love my agency and autonomy. The three don’t have to be in conflict with one another.
DJ taught me a lot in our time together. She taught me to ask for what I want (still working on that), she taught me about specificity, and she taught me how important it is to call yourself whatever the hell you want and to have others do the same. She called herself Master because it made her feel good, and she didn’t call me her slave because it didn’t make me feel good. I appreciate her and that lesson immensely.
If you ask me today what I call myself, I’d say Alaina. I’d say I am submissive, but I’m not quite sure I’m a submissive. I’m a bottom. I’m queer. I’m Black. I’m non-binary. Language is complicated, and makes naming yourself complicated. But we’ve got to try. We’ve got to be bold and vulnerable and open and say, “This is who I want to be,” and see how it fits. It’s never simple, and it sometimes feels like way too much work, but when it works, something changes and all of a sudden, everything seems clearer.
So, name yourself. Don’t let anyone else choose it. Even if that name is “cucumber.” We get to decide what our names signify and what our words mean to us.