The First Word on the Subject: Introduction to Our Lives, Our History

by Peter Tupper

“What special value would there be in owning a slave where everyone owns slaves. What I want is to have a slave, I alone,
here in our civilized sober, Philistine world, and a slave who submits helplessly to my power solely on account of my beauty and personality,
not because of law, of property rights, or compulsions. This attracts me.”
— Wanda in Venus in Furs, novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, 1870; translated by Fernanda Savage (Project Gutenberg)

Contemporary consensual Master/slave (M/s) relationships occupy an awkward position in the general BDSM subculture today. Both outsiders and newcomers to the erotic practices of bondage and discipline (BD), dominance and submission (D/s), and sadomasochism (SM) can generally understand a consensual power exchange for the course of a “scene” (a specific negotiated encounter), but a long-term authority-based relationship is often more difficult to grasp. Master/slave interactions that are more than transitory role-playing represent the deep end of the unconventional-relationship pool. Some mythologize an M/s relationship as the ideal form of D/s, while others see it as entirely separate from the common forms of D/s or SM.

This book is not intended to settle these disputes over definitions, nor to explain how the reader can develop or maintain a consensual Master/slave relationship. Instead, as an anthology drawing on the talents and expertise of many individuals, it is a first attempt to place contemporary M/s relationships into historical context.

We begin with several essays on forms of slavery in ancient and premodern times, pointing out both how they differed from consensual M/s today and how modern relationships have adapted elements of these historical models. Most societies in history have practiced nonconsensual slavery at some time, and we can examine only a few such systems here.

The heart of the book is a roughly chronological series of essays about how the consensual Master/slave subculture of the early 21st century evolved, in terms of both practices and institutions, from roots in the 18th to 20th centuries. For practical reasons, we focused on the English-speaking world, and especially England and the U.S.

The book concludes with essays on narrower topics in contemporary M/s examined from a historical perspective. Even as today’s primarily male-dominant/female-submissive M/s subculture evolved, a variety of alternative M/s styles and protocols also emerged: gay, lesbian, female-dominant/male-submissive, neo-Pagan, African-American, and more. Each of these diverse sub-subcultures provides a unique perspective on authority-based relationships, and we asked representatives of some of them to tell their stories.

To be clear, this book is not an apology or justification for coercive slavery, whether legal or otherwise. The consensual Master/slave relationships discussed here have as much to do with involuntary servitude in the past or present as the athleticism and artistry of Olympic fencing have to do with thrusting a piece of sharpened steel through the vital organs of a fellow human being in a duel to the death. There is a connection between the two, but it’s neither obvious nor direct.

To trace the history of consensual Mastery and slavery, that connection must be acknowledged, which raises the question of defining slavery and distinguishing it from serfdom, apprenticeship, and other forms of servitude. For modern North Americans, “slave” usually brings to mind above all the “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery in the United States before the Civil War, generally regarded as a great evil and a stain on American history. That was not the only form of slavery in history, however.

While antebellum slavery was primarily a source of cheap unskilled labor, throughout history slaves have performed every kind of work, including that of the most learned professions, and have held the highest governmental and military positions. What made slaves so useful was that they could be used however the owner wanted. Therefore, we cannot define slavery in terms of “slave labor,” meaning work of the lowest and least pleasant kind, and even “a person treated as property” is not enough, as ideas of “property” have also changed over history. How can we define slavery historically, and how does that relate to consensual M/s relationships today?

Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982) is a far-reaching survey of slavery in many different human societies. He argues that slavery is not simply a matter of treating a person as property but is a particular type of relationship in which one person has the power to treat another as property. He proposes a three-part definition of this coercive master-slave relation based on violence, social death, and dishonor.

First, involuntary slavery requires violence (Patterson 1982, page 3), meaning a literal or symbolic application of force both to make a person a slave and to keep that person enslaved. Whether the slave is an outsider who has been partly assimilated into the slave-holding society through capture, or a former member who has been partly expelled from the society as punishment, enslavement is a drastic change of personal status. A slave society is necessarily a martial society because it must continue performing the same kind of violence, both to acquire new slaves and to prevent or put down slave revolts. Furthermore, the continuing violence of slavery is not seen just in punishment for slaves’ “misbehavior.” Punishment becomes a ritual that reminds everybody (punisher, punished, and witness) where they stand in the social order — literally, which end of the whip they are on.

Second, involuntary slaves are “natally alienated” (page 5):

“. . . the definition of a slave, however recruited, [is] as a socially dead person. Alienated from all ‘rights’ or claims of birth, he ceased to belong in his own right to any legitimate social order. All slaves experienced, at the very least, a secular excommunication.”

A slave could claim ties to a parent, child, spouse, or sibling, and those might be respected by other slaves, but they had no force in a slave-holding society. A slave’s only recognized link to the rest of society was his or her master. In ancient Egypt, the word for captive literally meant “living dead” (page 42).

Third, involuntary slaves are without honor, intrinsically unclean or profane (page 11):

”The slave . . . could have no honor because he had no power and no independent social existence, hence no public worth. He had no name of his own to defend. He could only defend his master’s worth and his master’s name. That the dishonor was a general condition must be emphasized, since the free and honorable person, ever alive to slights and insults, occasionally experiences specific acts of dishonor to which, of course, he or she responds by taking appropriate action. The slave . . . usually stood outside the game of honor.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the basic elements of Patterson’s three-part definition of involuntary or coercive slavery also appear in consensual slavery as it is practiced in the M/s subculture today:

1) Power and violence. Violence is exciting and sexy even when it is attenuated into a game, ritual, or performance. The power relation of slavery occurs on a very physical, personal level, and many if not all consensual Masters and slaves are fascinated by the physical means historically used to enforce that power, such as whipping, forced nakedness, cages, and shackles.

2) Natal alienation. Consensual Master/slave relationships are replete with ritual protocols, such as contracts and house rules, and symbolic objects, like collars. These take the slave and the Master out of their everyday life and into “liminal” (borderland or threshold) time, creating an intimate bond between them in a society of two.

3) Dishonor. For both men and woman, their honor, or more generally their social worth, is based very much on their sexual behavior, though in very different ways. A person without honor is outside the restrictions of sexual propriety. Our fantasies of slavery typically occur in a space where sexual transgression — whether polygamy, homosexuality, or just sexual excess — becomes permissible. Like a monk, a nun, or a soldier, a consensual slave steps outside of everyday life and enters a new social state with different rules and expectations. Any slave, whether consensual or coercive, is a liminal figure: partly “us” and partly “them,” both person and property, within the household but not related by blood or marriage. In this social space, pleasures and intimacies are possible that cannot be had in any other way.

Consensual Master/slave relationships can also be seen as a kind of customized kinship, filling particular emotional and social needs, and coexisting with established forms of kinship such as marriage and the nuclear family. All three of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) were founded in societies in which slavery was ubiquitous, and all three of them specified laws to regulate the practice without condemning it, just as they dictated laws for marriage and the family. (For example, see Exodus 21:2-11 and Deuteronomy 15:12-18 in the Bible or 4:25 and 24:32-33 in the Qur’an.)

In preindustrial societies, slaves occupied an unstable border between the family, linked by blood and marriage, and the outside world. Masters and slaves would address each other in terms of “father” and “son,” but the different rules of punishment belied those affectionate terms. In particular, marriage and slave concubinage coexisted in uneasy tension, with each institution influencing the other in a dialectic. These ideas and tensions reach into the present day: some couples still promise to “love, honor, and obey” in their marriage ceremonies.

Of course, consensual slavery is not enforced by law or custom, and such kinship is only recognized by the people involved. Severin and Wanda’s contract in Venus in Furs had no legal force, and Sacher-Masoch, who went to law school, would have known that. It is instead an approximation of a real-world social relation as seen through several layers of historical and social distortion, decontextualized and appropriated into another setting, much like yoga in the West was removed from its religious context in India and used primarily as physical exercise. Historical slavery provides a set of roles and props to play out consensual dramas of initiation, devotion, and abjectness.

The intent of this anthology is to document a subculture that has never been examined historically before. As the M/s subculture moves along a trajectory similar to that of LGBT people, it is vitally important to develop a collective cultural narrative to help those involved know where they have come from. Hopefully, Our Lives, Our History will accomplish some of what the Leatherfolk anthology (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1991) did for the gay leather subculture and the earlier Coming to Power anthology (Palo Alto: Up Press, 1981) did for that of leather women.

Those who examine the Contents pages may notice the lack of a essay specifically covering Master/slave relationships between women. Going into this project, lesbian M/s was one of the many topics we intended to cover. However, as the work progressed, we could not find a qualified person who was willing and able to write on the subject, nor could we find anything published in the academic literature or elsewhere that we could reprint. When the project had already taken much longer than expected, the sponsor, publisher, and myself as editor all agreed to go ahead with publication despite that notable absence. We acknowledge that this is a flaw, and we hope that in the future someone will step forward and document this particular segment of the M/s subculture.

All of the contributors here are involved to some degree in that subculture. Some are professional academics and writers working from historical research, while others are recounting personal experiences, which is all we can have when there are few or no primary sources. We are trying to understand a way of life that tends to be highly personal and private, and thus often leaves no documentary evidence for future historians. For instance, we know of Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick’s secret Master/slave relationship in the 19th century (described in my essay “The Peculiar Institution: Slavery and eros before the 20th century”) only because Munby decided to leave his papers to posterity instead of destroying them, as he had considered doing. We have no way of knowing how many other people in the past had similar relationships in secret but left no record. To connect the few and scattered data points we have, we are sometimes forced to draw lines based on educated inference.

Fortunately, much of the modern Master/slave subculture developed recently, and many of the principal actors are still with us and able to give interviews or write memoirs. And we can also study the evolution of ideas around consensual authority-based relationships through the publications, organizations, and events dedicated to forming and spreading those ideas.

We hope the essays included here will inspire others to tell their own stories and do new research that can be published in future books. This is not the last word on the subject. It is only the first.


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