These days, most people only hear the words “master” and “slave” in a history classroom or documentary. But the two words also make an appearance in certain BDSM communities. Here, “Master” and “slave” name a specific set of relational roles.
Have questions? Read on for an explainer on Master-slave relationships—including insights on why most BDSM-practitioners opt out of these words and use something else instead.
What Is A Master/Slave Relationship, Exactly?
Master/slave relationships are a kind of BDSM relationship in which there is a consensual exchange of power. And not justany exchange of power, but theultimate exchange of power.
“The terms Master and slave are used to signify that a couple is in full-time power,” says clinical sexologist, Dr. Valerie Poppel, which explores the challenges and influences of the "Jezebel" myth, its slavery roots and impact on Black female swingers, and BDSM. Master/slave relationships include one partner who is dominant (Master) and one partner who is submissive (slave). A type of BDSM relationship known as a 24/7 relationship or Lifestyle relationship, Master/slave relationships do not simply exchanging power during sex. Instead, this power dynamic dictates anything and everything from who cooks and cleans, and who makes the money and manages the social calendar.
The type-case used in ‘Master/slave’ is used to highlight the power differential. Master is capitalized to signify power, while slave is not capitalized to nod to lack of power.
The Controversy of Master/slave Relationships
Ultimately, how people feel about the use of the terms “Master/slave” will depend on who you ask, as well as the races of the people participating in the dynamic. But most people in the BDSM community are against this linguistic choice, claiming the terms are at best appropriative and at worst perpetuate racism.
Poppel typically advises couples to carefully interrogate and (hopefully) re-examine their interest in those nomenclatures when a white person is the Master, and a person of color is the slave. Known as antebellum play, “the play between interracial couples, where the White Dominant is the master and the Black individual is the slave, be extremely psychologically damaging toward the minority submissive (slave),” she says.
Fortunately, in recent years the kink community has become increasingly aware of the interracial complexities surrounding the term slave/master. “And the terms are on their way to be obsolete in the kink community,” she says. In their space, people are using terms like Dominant/submissive, Daddy/daughter, Mommy/son, Top/bottom, and more.
Why Someone Might Want To Enter This Kind of Relationship
There are a number of reasons someone might choose to enter a relationship with a 24/7 power dynamic. “An ongoing BDSM relationship can foster open communication, build trust, support growth, and encourage acceptance,” says Poppel. And of course, it also encourages fun sexual exploration, she says.
Taylor Sparks, erotic educator and founder of Organic Loven, the largest BIPOC-owned online intimacy shop notes that for people who get extreme pleasure out of serving other people, being in this kind of power dynamic can bring about extreme pleasure out of serving others. “For these people, being a ‘servant’ genuinely makes them happy,” she says. “In return, the more submissive partner gets structure, care, love, support, and growth in certain areas.”
On the flip side, people who take pleasure in control, schedules, structure, and regimes may take pleasure in being in a more dominant role, she says.
How To Safely Explore A Power Dynamic
First off: If the dynamic you’re specifically interested in exploring is a Master/slave relationship, do some research on the history of Master/slave relationships. And ask yourself if there is another power dynamic that would allow you to achieve a similar benefit.
Next, get educated on the types of sex and kink acts you’re interested in exploring. For this, Poppel says that attending local and virtual kink and BDSM parties, as well as educational workshops is invaluable. “Before you give any of the acts a try in real life or implement any lasting dynamics, reach an agreement with your partner about what exactly it will look like,” she says.
As the relationship evolves, Sparks says it’s important to have continuous check-ins. This ensures that the more submissive partner never loses their ability to express themselves. “If the more submissive partner has trouble communicating, it falls on the owner to lead the conversation and relationship in a way to discover what works for them both,” she says.