Bottoms Up: Nope That Word Is Not For Me

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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.

Alaina is a 20-something working on a PhD in Performance as Public Practice. They are a mom to three cats, they listen to a lot of NPR and musicals, and they spend a lot of time on Pinterest lusting over studio apartments. They are actively trying to build A Brand on twitter @alainamonts. One day, they will be First Lady of the United States.

Al(aina) has written 267 articles for us.

40 Comments

  1. “I really understood how difficult it can be for words to express what we want and how we feel.”
    YES THIS.
    I’m interested in exploring words we could use for these (SUPER HOT) relationships, since I also don’t feel comfortable with M/s terminology. Any ideas? Although Salad Dressing/cucumber is pretty perfect tbh.

  2. I’m not comfortable with slave either. It’s such a negative word to me and it immediately triggers a sense of anger and realization of human suffering. Being Jewish, my own people were enslaved and forced into labor before their executions. Human trafficking still exists and slavery is very real. Even in the United States. I’m not going to fault people who use the term, but it’s too traumatic for me and I worry it takes away from the ongoing modern issues surrounding slavery.

    I was really struck by your words about being submissive, “I’d say I am submissive, but I’m not quite sure I’m a submissive”. That’s very precise and I feel an immediate connection and sense of “rightness” to those words. It’s something I might have to explore more myself.

    I remember the other article where the writer was black and she had an experience with a white Dom. Her told her that her safeword was eggplant. The moment he asked for her to call him “master” she said the safeword. Yet, I couldn’t help but notice (though I didn’t comment on this) that “eggplant” is actually a slur used against black attorneys in the United States. Not only was he inconsiderate of race, but he unwittingly used a racist slur as a word of safety.

    My fiance actually got into an argument with me once about what my ethnicity was. Our relationship came very close to immediately ending. Thankfully, through a long and tearful discussion about anti-Semitism, he started to come to an understanding.

    Point being that language is very important. Even among careful, considerate Doms who are precise and progressive, they can fail at their language. Words are very powerful… and Alaina… I’m not calling myself a phallic vegetable. 😛

    • 100% agree with almost all of this!! The bit I don’t is being lax when other people use it–as you said, in addition to the historical context, people are still fucking enslaved around the world! In actual sex slavery where they’re actually raped, not the ‘play pretend because it makes me hot’ sense!
      Anyone else feel especially uncomfortable when they hear a male dom refer to his female ‘slave’?

      • so like, tbh men saying anything makes me uncomfortable #misandry

        but seriously, I’m not here to yuck anyone’s yum. Words can be taken out of their historical/present context and that’s totally fine and i don’t ever want to tell anyone they can’t do that. like…if i, a sexual assault survivor, wanted do some forced sex play, and my partner was into it, why shouldn’t we? like the thing about kink that’s awesome/weird/hard/cool is that we can explore some risque/dangerous stuff in super safe environments and that’s awesome!

        • Well said, Alaina. I have no business telling off two (or more) consenting adults about their bedroom (or elsewhere) play. I only know what makes me uncomfortable and I know we all need to remember our venues. Every place is not the place to talk about kink.

          Mollz, a lot of kink isn’t just about sex or turn-ons either. It can be very therapeutic. There’s a lot of security in it for me. I’m also a survivor of sexual assault. Even when I sub, it’s a very empowering, safe feeling.

  3. Alaina, this is so fucking good. Thank you so much for writing this

    “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.”

    this is perfect, i love you so much

    • Ooh, I like that! I’ve always gone with mistress and pet personally, but that really doesn’t describe the dynamic a lot of people look for. Thumbs up on the terminology!

    • I was in a relationship once where my girlfriend liked to compare us to a queen and her knight. The knight is totally submissive (but only to her lady), dedicated to serving and protecting, but wasn’t at all a slave. A warrior in her lady’s service.

      I’ve also liked to tease a different lover that she’s a goddess and I’m her priestess/oracle. Empowering figures who could rule the world together, but with a clear power dynamic.

      I love mythological/story dynamics. I find them romantic and epic and delightfully human. I love how royalty and deity can get across the all-consuming desire to be submissive without attempting to steal the sub’s power or invalidate them as less than human. A knight is fierce as hell, but at the end of the day she’s still on her knees before her queen because she desperately wants to be in service. Doesn’t mean she doesn’t hold her own against the rest of the world or has her own life/personality/passions.

      *shrug* but maybe that’s just the fantasy writer in me. LOL!

      • @launa i am OBSESSED with this idea!!!

        “I love how royalty and deity can get across the all-consuming desire to be submissive without attempting to steal the sub’s power or invalidate them as less than human. A knight is fierce as hell, but at the end of the day she’s still on her knees before her queen because she desperately wants to be in service.”

        (also desperately wanting to get on my knees now)

        • Right? It was sexy af when she said it. And she said she felt so cool and empowered in her butchness imagining not only serving me/caring for me/protecting me, but in imagining defending my honor with a sword. Or even just bringing me little tributes like flowers and candies because they made me happy. (She may have had a Lancelot fantasy, LOL!) I’m a solid switch, and this dynamic made my domme side so happy since I don’t identify as the kind of domme who enjoys totally controlling a submissive. I want her to want to submit because she likes it and it helps her/is cathartic for her while she maintains who she is.

          And for goddess play, with that partner I was very submissive but we had a fraught artistic relationship and I just freaking adored the idea of painting her and writing for her and basically telling the entire world how perfect she was while also wanting her to possess every inch of my body and soul. Maybe it was more of a mystical muse/artist situation. But there’s something delightfully witchy femme about imagining myself as some greek-style high priestess.

      • That’s just… amazing. I love it. All of it. I was always drawn to the concept of wolves, where there’s absolute submission to the alpha, but as the beta I don’t have to submit to anyone else and I’m still a powerful force that’s vital to the alpha’s position.

    • When I met my ex-boyfriend, I was recovering for an abusive relationship and I was like “I’m a princess, I’m fabulous, I don’t deserve crap like that in my life!” I discovered kink with him and he started to call me “Princess” pretty early in our relationship because it was empowering for me and it made me smile. Maybe because I read too much fantasy novels, I suggested “subject” for him and our kinky dynamic grew from that.

      I’ve been through a lot of bad things in my life, I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression since years, and “Princess” makes me feel, I don’t know, entitled? Not in an abusive way but in a “I have the right to be who I am, want what I want and make decisions without worrying constantly because I’m a fucking princess” way.

      In my mind, a queen is too cold and serious (I blame Disney movies and their evil queens for that!). “Princess” seems more playful to me and very femme. Also it suggests I’m not always in the highest hierarchical position. As a switch, I like this idea.

      I relate with what Launa says : “I want her to want to submit because she likes it and it helps her/is cathartic for her while she maintains who she is.” This is exactly why I love “knight”, “priestess” and “subject”. I’m not that much into degradation, I want my partner to feel honored and worthy while submitting. I think it’s the reason why I find Downton Abbey so inspiring: Carson doesn’t sacrifice his dignity being the butler of the Crawley family, for him *being a butler is by itself honorable*. (I dream of a butch butler by the way!)

      [Sorry for my grammar and syntax, I’m not exactly fluent]

  4. Alaina you blow me away every time with your writing. This article touches on so many important topics and I am so thankful for you for sharing it with the world. You (and your writing and specifically this column) are amazing. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  5. I’m so glad I’m not alone in feeling this way! Even as a kid that Britney Spears song “I’m a Slave 4 U” made me very uncomfortable. The most acceptable terms for me are Mistress and Pet

  6. Thank you, Alaina! I also feel so uncomfortable with “slave” as a term used in any sexual or erotic context. It’s too loaded to be sexy to me and it makes me especially uncomfortable when I see yt folks using it, though I understand the context in the BDSM communities. I just don’t think it’s yt people’s word to “reclaim.” Thanks for expressing your thoughts so perfectly. I <3 you.

  7. i have a hard time with this. this may not be an apt comparison, but what popped into my head was the idea of use of the confederate flag. no one is like oh don’t yuck the yum of people who want to fly the flag because it means good things to them even if it doesn’t to me. i feel like some things should just be abandoned. and i don’t feel like you can really reclaim the word slave in light of the unavoidable historical and present day context of it as well as the fact that the people “reclaiming” it are usually relatively privileged people who, despite what are, i’m sure, their best intentions, have no personal experience with the burden the word can carry.

    i dunno, y’all.

    • i think what’s key for me is who’s reclaiming it. like yt ppl can’t and shouldn’t i don’t think, but who am i to tell a black person not to? the piece i linked abt mollena williams discusses race play and those issues really well i think!

      • i think to me, that’s where present context is important in addition to historical context. it was hugely, hugely impactful here, but at the same time, it’s not just a thing that happened to african americans in the united states–it’s a thing that’s presently happening to a fuck-ton of people around the world. that feels really important to me where the idea of reclamation comes into play. (tho i do agree, absolutely, that it’s different when white people are doing it, i just struggle with the idea of anyone using that phrasing).

        plus, i guess, it seems different to me than the idea of race play in that, as it was discussed in the article you linked, it’s not like people are going around in public using the N word or something because it’s part of their kink. (maybe they are. i have no idea. i wouldn’t be cool with that either tho obv it’s different based on who exactly is doing it.) master/slave seems a little more in the public eye. like, in sinclair sexsmith’s articles, “slave” is just a matter of course word to explain who a person is. that not to say that it’s a word the use of which was reached uncritically, but the average reader doesn’t see any complicated nuance that might exist, they see the word “slave” presented as a positive, sexy thing.

        please know, tho, that i’m not trying to come at this from a place of judgment, and i’m happy to listen to what anyone has to say. i’m just talkin’ out my thoughts & feelings.

        • I think that people who want to read about BDSM have an obligation to understand and learn more before passing judgment. The burden of proof, as it were, is not on the BDSM community. No one is asking outsiders to come pass judgment or shame us. People just naturally seem to volunteer their right to bully and cast aspersions.

          That’s something that bothers me about a lot of responses to articles here. People who aren’t part of the BDSM community latch onto one or two things and run with it, shaming and bullying their fellow queers, rather than bothering to listen and learn.

          It’s not our obligation to educate everyone who comes to our space and go off half-cocked on some moral dispute that doesn’t even have a grounded basis or understanding. The obligation is on the outsiders, people who don’t understand, to listen and learn; to be respectful and polite, ask questions and engage in a dialogue. Thus, the “average reader” isn’t being targeted in these articles. Although I can say they have been invaluable to me as I entered the BDSM community in the last year with a genuinely open mind, ready to learn.

          • i agree that people have an obligation to seek to learn about what they don’t understand, but i don’t think that invalidates concern over how things are presented. while the target audience for bdsm related things may be people already involved in the community, these articles in particular are presented on a general queer audience website, and people involved in master/slave relationships exist in the real world, not just their own communities. and, ya know, words have meaning and power. maybe i err toward caution too much where words are concerned.

            anyway. i hope you were not implying that i’ve had any part in shaming or bullying. i couldn’t really tell how targeted your comment was intended to be.

          • No, cb, I wasn’t including you in the negative behaviors. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… every article does not need to be all things for all people. If people who aren’t in the BDSM community have issues about BDSM they need to unpack, they don’t need to burden the rest of us like sometimes happens.

            An article about something bi does not need to accommodate for something gay (nor vice versa). A trans article does not need to make cis people feel comfortable. Ad infinitum.

            There seems to be a tendency by some AS readers to demand personal space for themselves in spaces where they don’t belong.

            So no… I don’t think these articles need to overly cater to people who are not in the BDSM community. AS is many things to many people, but not every article is meant for everyone.

          • i don’t think i meant to imply that articles should be all things to all people, but i think i’m probably a little more on the side of things like trigger warnings and disclaimers than perhaps you are. plus i just legit take issue with the terms master/slave lol. there’s no point arguing it, though. some people like those terms. it is what it is, i guess.

          • No worries, cb. I know we’re on opposite sides of AS trigger warnings. They’re clearly marked as “sex and relationships”, you can clearly see what Alaina is writing about, and the picture involves manacles and a reach for freedom. I’m definitely on Autostraddle’s side regarding awareness of the content we read and I believe they are perfectly reasonable in their current policy.

          • ya, the range of stuff listed under “sex and relationships” is pretty broad, though, not that i think that it’s unclear what’s being talked about. and, i don’t think autostraddle’s policy is unreasonable by any means even if it isn’t necessarily what i would choose personally. i know they’ve put a lot of thought into their choices & i respect that. honestly i got kinda off topic ’cause i didn’t intend to talk about trigger warnings at all. i just meant to use sexsmith’s articles as an example of the broader reach of terms like master & slave, ’cause to me that broad reach is what i think should give people pause in using that terminology. i think what i’m trying to get at is that the personal is political, lol.

  8. That’s so interesting and relevant, thank you for sharing it!
    I was really challenged by the whole 24/7 lifestyle thing and “I love submission and I love my agency and autonomy” really speaks to me. I hope you’ll write some more about what it means and how it can coexist.

  9. I have mixed feelings about the slave/master dynamic. I would rather be called mistress than master and servant, bitch, slut, or anything else other than slave. Sometimes I will call my fiancee master whenever she is aggressive because I know it is what she wants to hear, but the word is empty to me. I feel like she just needs to hear it so that she feels like she is the most important thing in the world to me. Slave, however…. I do not like it. She called me that once and I just laughed it off but it made me very uncomfortable. I get the guilt in the pit of my stomach when the word is used. As Latinas, we understand that slavery is in our blood just as much as the slave master is part of our DNA. But it feels like I betray my forgotten ancestors whenever that word is used. Honestly, I would rather be called a wetback because it is something I can control. It is a name that is supposed to be negative, but it shows defiance towards power. At least for me it does.

  10. The only scene I’d consent to is pretend mass-murdering all the local dommes and switches. Their kink persona is dead and they have to go back to the vanilla world forever. Then when the subs that didn’t appreciate what I did come trying to pretend-murder me, I’ll say, nope, not my kink, sorry.

    I dunno. I’d get off a lot.

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