Sep 092012

The word “slave” is an emotionally charged one.

I began my BDSM career in the early ’90s with an email slave relationship with a woman on the other side of the continent. It lasted over a year, with a contract, daily reports, exchanged gifts by mail, and so on. I had the notion that this is just what you did. (I eventually met her in person, and we still stay in touch. She currently lives with two men, her husband and her slave.)

When I signed on to Fetlife for the first time, I chose “bottom” as my role,  not “submissive” or “slave”. I carefully chose a name, “Liegeman”, that connoted the feudal relationship of mutual obligation (or at least the idealized version of that), rather than the kind of terminology associated with the institution of slavery. I’m just not comfortable with that language, especially after I started researching American slavery.

For me, and I imagine a lot of people, the word “slave” denotes American antebellum slavery: an unskilled labourer in a hereditary state of chattel bondage, justified by the worst combination of Calvinism and Darwinism.

Obviously, lots of people in the greater BDSM scene use the terminology of master-slave, but the meaning they apply to it is quite different. The relationship is paramount, with aspects of marriage, apprenticeship, and military discipline. While Masters talk about “owning” slaves, it isn’t ownership in the sense of property, but more like noblesse oblige or feudal obligation.

As I asked in my presentation, how did we get from one definition to the other?

I attended a panel at the Master-slave Conference called “Once Were Slaves”, about African Americans in the master-slave subculture. It was about 85 per cent African Americans, with me being one of the minority of white people. They talked about the particular issues of African Americans in kink: “hiding behind keyboards”, dealing with harassment from other black people (e.g. “Don’t you have no pride?”), being the one Person of Colour in the munch or the play party, etc.

Vi Johnson, who was on the panel, identifies as an “odalisque” (a word which brings with it a host of colonial and Oriental connotations), which she defines as “female slave”. (Literally, it’s a French version of a Turkish word, meaning “chambermaid.”) She said that American slaveholders selectively used biblical justification for slavery, and didn’t use the biblical commands to about freeing slaves or making them a part of the owners family.

Johnson cited Deuteronomy 15:12-18, regarding Hebrew debt slaves:

12 If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. 13 And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. 14 Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.

16 But if your servant says to you, “I do not want to leave you,” because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, 17 then take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your female servant.

18 Do not consider it a hardship to set your servant free, because their service to you these six years has been worth twice as much as that of a hired hand. And the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do.

She also cited a similar passage, Exodus 21:2-11:

“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.

“But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges.He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.

“If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself,[b] he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. 10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.

This may be a case of race trumping religion, as slaveholders would use biblical justifications for slavery, but would not take Africans into their families (even as slave women cooked their meals, cleaned their homes and raised their children, as de facto concubines.)

(I should mention that I’m not a very religious person, and I need to remember that for many people, the Bible is a source of authority on political, social and personal issues.)

Early in the panel, a black woman in the audience said, “Don’t look at the terms. Look at the relationship.” That got me thinking: why is this kind of relationship use the language of chattel slavery when there is little resemblance between the two institutions? I can understand the eroticization of slavery from the sensibility/masochism angle, but where did the service/teaching angle come in? The Munby-Cullwick relationship was largely about service, and not sadomasochistic in the usual sense. I.e. Munby did not flagellate Cullwick. Cullwick’s intense labour could be seen as masochistic, though not in the usual sense of pain. See my earlier post on Munby’s comparison between Cullwick and women doing religious labour. And in Lee Harrington’s book Sacred Kink, he distinguishes between a submissive as someone who submits, and a slave as someone who serves.

If it was called something else, would master-slave be more acceptable to people? Or would it lose its appeal to its practitioners?

And how does sex tie into this? Right now, I’m reading a collection of essays on women, religion and slavery, called Beyond Slavery: Overcoming Its Religious and Sexual Legacies, Bernadette J. Brooten, Ed. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. The three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) all contain a deep rooted paradox: they do not outright condemn slavery (and make various accommodations to it), and they put a value on chastity and continence. Those two factors create a “moral hazard” situation, in which there is built into family structures certain people who are sexually available at no social cost. But that’s a very gendered, heterosexual thing. It doesn’t directly map on to same-gender relations. Obviously, male-male and female-female coercive sex is a constant possibility in a true master-slave relationship, it just isn’t talked about.

(Also heard at this panel: “Never get between a woman and her Hitachi.”)

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