“There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who believe there are two kinds of people in this world and those who are smart enough to know better.”
—Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker
If you ever want to start a fruitless argument among any group of power exchange enthusiasts, just ask them “What’s the difference between a submissive and a slave?”
I’ve been involved in power exchange communities for over twenty years, and across all those years I’ve seen this same question asked, answered and argued over and over again, with no sign of progress toward a broad consensus. It is one of the Great Intractables of kink, destined to spur endless disagreement until end of the world, or at least the end of the Internet.
A big part of the reason why it is intractable is that different people have different reasons for wanting to draw the distinction in different ways. So instead of trying to give you a single definitive answer, I’m going to give you a question: why do you want to know?
I’m looking for a partner, and I want to know whether I should say that what I am (or what I’m seeking) is a submissive or a slave.
Great reason! Being able to clearly describe what we’re looking for in the big, crazy world of kink is super helpful for actually finding it.
The trick is that there aren’t actually just two kinds of follower-type people. The kinky desires of all us kinky folk vary in tons of highly individual ways. We can use labels like “submissive” or “slave” (or “masochist” or “romantic” or “edge player,” etc) to try and roughly sketch out what we seek and what we have to offer, but those categories are always subject to different interpretations by different people, and the more precisely we try to define them the harder they are to agree on.
So, broadly, if we say “slave” most people will think that means things like a greater commitment to power exchange, having power exchange suffuse more of our life, and having a longer term power exchange. It’s associated with ideas like “24/7” (power exchange that is constantly in effect), “Total Power Exchange,” collaring and “no limits.” And it’s also associated with long term, live-in, deeply committed relationships.
If you advertise yourself as being (or looking for) a slave, the majority of people in our communities are going to think you mean something along those lines. They may disagree about the details, but that’s the general impression you’re conveying.
“Submissive” has much broader connotations. To most people in our communities it just means that someone desires to cede control or power or authority in some kind of way: might mean 24/7 long term Total Power Exchange, or might mean only surrendering control of the details of a sexual encounter.
If you advertise with the word “submissive,” most people are going to take it very generally, and need further description in order to form an impression of how submissive and in what ways. Some people, who think of submissives and slaves as being disjoint sets, will assume that since you didn’t say “slave” you mean something on the lighter end of submission. You could counter that impression, if you desire, by including more specifics like “long term,” “full time,” “no limits,” etc.
If you’re unsatisfied with all my talk about “general impressions” and what things “might mean,” and want to be able to indicate precisely what you are and have everyone understand precisely what you mean… I’m sorry. It doesn’t work that way. Human desire is a gloriously complicated, finicky mess, and impossible to put into tidy boxes. Thoughtful use of labels can narrow down your search, but to find out whether a potential partner is really a good fit for your vision of power exchange, you’re going to have to talk to them—and probably go on a few dates and actually try out creating a power exchange with them, to find out how it really flows.
I’m looking for books, resources or community, and I want to know which ones are for me.
The same answers about the broad connotations of “submissive” and “slave” in partner seeking apply to seeking friends, groups, books, classes, online forums and any other kind of resource.
The difference is that with a partner we have to take the whole partner, and so we’re looking for someone who is a close fit for our vision of power exchange in all the ways that are important to us. With books and groups and classes, we can much more easily take the parts that work for us and leave the rest. And once we stop focusing on the differences and look for the similarities, there’s usually a lot that we have in common across different styles of power exchange.
Regardless of whether you more closely identify with the label “submissive” or the label “slave,” you can probably find something of value in resources that have the other one on the cover. Just look for the parts that speak to you and don’t get hung up on the parts that don’t. Talk with people who call themselves slaves and people who call themselves submissives; hear their stories and their wisdom for surrendering control, pleasing their partners, communicating their needs and maintaining their boundaries. Much of it will be valuable no matter what they call themselves.
If a community designates themselves as being only for slaves and not submissives (I have yet to encounter a group that accepted submissives and excluded slaves), find out what they mean by that label and decide whether or not their meaning includes you. If it doesn’t, then you’re probably better off looking elsewhere for community. Trying to change our desires to fit someone else’s definitions tends to take us farther from fulfillment in power exchange, not bring us closer.
Being a slave seems more desirable than being a submissive, and I want to know what I have to do in order to count as a slave.
One of the biggest, and least often admitted, reasons why the slave vs. submissive debate is so intractable is the role of status. In many of our communities “slave” is a higher status label than “submissive.”
People are quick with disclaimers like “there’s nothing wrong with just being a submissive,” but notice where the “just” is placed. In all my years in kinky communities, I have never seen someone get accused of being just a slave who’s making an invalid claim to be a submissive. It is always the other way around.
Of course, some of us associate the word “slave” with its horrific nonconsensual meaning and want nothing to do with it. But to those of us who are worried about the distinction between slaves and submissives, the word has generally positive, romantic, impressive associations. “Slave” was the title used in the battered copy of Story of O that we kept under our mattress when we were teenagers, and the word that echoed in our deepest and hottest fantasies. By most people’s definitions, slaves sound like they’re somehow more than submissives. More devoted, more serious, more intense, more real. Who wouldn’t want to be more real?
So when we hear that, for one example, a slave must have no limits, it’s tempting to decide that we must have no limits—not because that feels right for us but because it’s what a slave would do.
This is a mistake.
The deepest, most stable and most fulfilling power exchange available to us comes from connecting with our genuine, personal desire to follow (serve, submit, obey, whatever word works best for you). When we’re in tune with what really feeds us, power exchange flows. Trying to fit other people’s definitions tends to disconnect us from the power of our desire. Power exchange gets harder, has to be forced, dries up.
If you want to be a slave, look for someone who is happy to take you and call you “slave.” Don’t look for a universal definition of slave and try to make yourself into that.
Someone else is calling themselves a slave, and I think they’re wrong.
Mind your own business. Seriously. You’ll be a happier person if you do.