Definitions of “master, slave, submissive, dominant” particularly with regards to valid definitions that distinguish between them.

Also seen on Fetlife here

Since it seems to be a popular topic, I’m going to polish my thoughts and put them in a writing so I can just point to it in the future, rather than repeating thisad nauseam

These terms are real and can be useful, but there are no valid definitions of them. That breaks a lot of people’s brains. If we talk about a thing, they reason, it must have a definition.

That’s not the case most of the time. Think about a word like “cool,” or “modern.” Neither word has a strict definition. Depending on context a painting from 1921 might be “modern” in one frame of reference but “a valued antique,” in another. Nobody knows what constitutes “cool,” but most people have had valid conversations with peers in which they discussed what was and was not “cool.” Most of us immediately understand why trying to make a list of factors that constitute “coolness” even for a given area like film, let alone for everything is an exercise in futility.

The point is that we often use terms with an inexact meaning to convey useful information.

Attempts to define “master, slave, submissive, dominant” tend to fall into one of the following categories:

  • Appeal to a nonexistent standard
  • – or a nonexistent general understanding
  • The “Personal Definition” that isn’t personal
  • Dictionary Definitions
  • Fictional or Group Definitions
  • Historical Definitions
  • – or the historical meaning of the word “slave”

Appeal to a nonexistent standard

In many walks of life, and business, there are bodies that set standards. Those standards may not be accepted by everyone, and may even be the point of argument, but they exist. For example someone in another thread suggested that definitions were important, because for example, without them, someone could say a golden retriever was a poodle and nobody could say otherwise.

By way of illustrative example, for “Golden Retriever” that authority is the KC in the UK and the AKC in the US. There’s a breed standard, and even if you don’t adhere to it, how likely you are to be able to describe something as a Golden Retriever without making yourself a laughingstock is intrinsically based on how far it is from that standard.

NIST, IEEE, and many other agencies, groups, boards, committees, and ministries make standards. Other groups set standards that aren’t binding on everyone but adhere to industry norms. For example SFWA sets the length of a Novella as being 17,500-40,000 words, and while other publishing industry or writing authorities might differ slightly that standard comes from discussion with many people in the publishing industry and is probably a good general guideline.

The problem is that there is no valid authority on what constitutes slavery, let alone dominance, submission, etc. Not even a little. There is no body, commission, committee, club, review board or any other organization that has any plausible claim to the right to define what the term means to anyone but its own members.

Maybe a general standard? Guidelines?

But, you say, even if there is no industry committee, we can find some general agreement on what slavery or submission means.

In fact, you only need to point to threads on Fetlife and other discussions on the internet to see, immediately that there is no consensus

I will challenge that there is no one thing that you can put into a major discussion forum and say “this distinguishes slavery but not submission” and not have someone come back and say “I’m not a slave but I do that,” or “I am a slave but I don’t do that.” Nothing. If you found some condition or statement that was valid “only slaves have slave contracts because the term slave is in them” or “only slaves call themselves slaves” it would be so specific and pedantic as to be useless as an actual definition.

Sure you can do a power exchange version of a Jeff Foxworthy routine and say “you may be a master or slave if…” That’s perfectly valid. But that merely makes the point that terms can be useful and valid without a precise definition. Because like Jeff Foxworthy’s routines, the “if” can be infinitely expanded.

The Personal Definition

I understand that many people in the M/s Community try to avoid conflict by saying “this is just my personal definition” and then proceeding to explain some narrow, specific, version of what they think a slave is and a submissive isn’t. A slave knows to scrub the floors a submissive has to be told. A slave has a slave heart, a submissive is merely playing. And so on.

So, sure. You can have your personal definition. I have my personal definition of what constitutes an “ethical person.” But be aware that you are appropriating common use terms, assigning your own meaning to them, then pushing them back on other people in a way that is inherently judgmental.

Imagine for a moment that you told someone you considered yourself to be an “ethical person.” They said. “Well, of course that’s all well and good, but I have a personal definition of what constitutes an ethical person and if you don’t go to Church, confess weekly, and love the Blessed Virgin Mary you are not an ethical person. Moreover if you are gay, or befriend gay people, or have sex with someone with whom you have not been wed before God, you cannot possibly be an ethical person.”

Of course we recognize they are entitled to that opinion. They are after all a free person. Yet we don’t consider them tolerant, and we generally reject their evaluation out of hand. Obviously we occasionally find versions of it that we agree with more than others, yet we recognize that personal ethics are personal and that venting them on others who see things differently is not only nonconstructive, but prejudicial.

It’s possible to express a personal definition in a tolerant way. “This is what I do,” or “this is what slavery, submission, mastery, etc. mean to me” are fine statements. I have a lot of opinions on what mastery means to me. But I try to avoid telling people that they are “not a master” if they do this or that thing. They may, of course, be a master I don’t think much of, but they have as much right to the word as I do.

So, let’s understand that a “personal definition” is just that. When it immediately assumes the form of “you should” rather than “I do” it becomes pejorative.

I recognize that some people in the M/s community pride themselves on their excess of curmudgeonly behavior and iconoclasm. They are happy to be the M/s equivalent of the judgmental churchgoer, inflicting their personal standards on everyone and judging them lacking.

Honestly that’s fine with me. Just say so. There are writers who say “this is my personal standard, and if you don’t measure up to it I think you’re a poser.” They don’t get much traction, and most people ignore them. But don’t candy coat it and try to cleverly play both ends. Either be the difficult iconoclast and risk being ignored, or stop being judgmental. Don’t try to say “this is just my personal opinion but if you put your cock in someone’s ass you’re going to hell” and act offended if people think you are difficult, judgy and self-righteous.

If not consider making your personal opinions…well…actually personal, not glancing judgments of the worth and value of the relationships of others.

In any case, your personal definition is exactly as binding on anyone else as some fiction author’s definition, which is to say, not at all.

Dictonary Definitions

The next wave of efforts at definitions appeals to the dictionary. Obviously there are definitions for these words, right?

Unfortunately that is equally useless, because we use “submissive” and “slave” as jargon, not according to their dictionary definitions.

By way of example, I use the word “enterprise” at work all the time. I use it, correctly, to indicate a variety of machines and servers. I say “that package is not running our our enterprise.” None of my peers has any trouble understanding what I mean. But that matches none of the dictionary definitions, as I don’t use it to mean either a business or an undertaking. It’s jargon. I’m aware that the term descends from the bastardization of “enterprise-wide IT” to a utilization that indicates the IT hardware and software itself, so it has an origin in one of those definitions, but doesn’t match either of them.

Likewise, our use of the words “master, slave, dominant, submissive” are rooted in dictionary definitions, but our usage is jargon, and doesn’t match any of them.

Fictional or Group Definitions

There are fiction books that depict slavery. They have rules and concepts. Some are closely enough defined that you can say “I practice that kind of slavery and you don’t.” That’s all well and good for people who care, though even the adherents of fictional systems often tire of nitpickers who want to judge and define. Obviously your favorite fiction author doesn’t define M/s any more than George R. R. Martin defines medieval warfare.

There are clubs and groups that practiced or practice M/s in a way that has specific rules and concepts. Those rules and concepts apply to that group. They can certainly go into the Jeff Foxworthy pile of “you might be involved in M/s if…” but they don’t constitute definitions binding on anyone else.

Historical or Linguistic Definitions

Finally there is the argument that “slavery is a real thing, practiced by people in the past, so surely we can define it based on that.” Generally dominance and submission don’t get dragged into this, since they don’t happen to share names with historical institutions.

Let’s agree not to get too hung up on the fact that there is a term for the exploitative sexual and economic slavery of the past as it’s practiced in the present and that term is “human trafficking.”

Modern M/s and D/s are things unto themselves. They have historic roots and antecedents, but not in any actual practices of slavery, but rather erotic depictions that borrowed the terms from history, romantic paintings, and hareems. There are no “famtrad” slaves in the M/s community who have maintained M/s relationships going back to the era of the vikings. We made it up based on books, stories, historical writing and movies, and the need to find terms to put on certain human relationships.

I could, and in the future will spend several weeks outlining the evolution of the concept of modern slavery, from roots as diverse as Larry Townsend and Venus in Furs. But that can wait.

Some people do practice M/s as a sort of “recreation,” though usually of 1950s marriage or Victorian Households rather than any actual slavery. Let’s assume that there are people who practice M/s in a way that they try to recreate say, Roman, slavery. That doesn’t make their version of M/s a valid definition for me, it means they are Roman recreationists.

To go a little deeper let’s explore the fact that “slave” doesn’t have any definitive meaning in history. It doesn’t denote a particular institution, but rather a class of institutions. It’s like saying “military” or “religion,” it meant grossly different things to different people at different times.

The Etymology of Slave

If you think that slave must be an ancient word handed down in some form or other from the Greeks, Romans, or earlier people we consider to have had slaves, you’d be wrong. In fact our word slave is medieval slang, and there is no strict classical equivalent.

Historically the lack of a generic term for slave suggests that it is not slavery that was seen as unusual, but the situation of freedom or citizenship. It’s notable how many cultures have a term for “free men,” which suggests the condition was special or unusual, not the base state of humankind. Words to distinguish citizens and nobles were specific and careful while words to describe unfree laborers often amount, etymologically, to “and the rest of those people.”

The Romans called slaves servants or servusand the medieval word serf comes from the Latin, which makes it a little facile to say serfs aren’t slaves, while saying that Roman servants were slaves since they’re both conceptually and contextually identical.

We can get some sense of how the Greeks thought of slaves by the words they used for what we call slavery. There is a specific term for war prisoners, a term which basically translates as “bipedal livestock” and doulos, which more or less means “a worker who is under dominion,” and is used as the opposite of is used in opposition to eleutheros, or “free man.”

So where did slave come from?

We take it for granted that Europe was historically Christian, but northeastern Europe remained pagan into late medieval times. While Richard the Lionheart was crusading for Jerusalem, the Teutonic Knights were crusading by butchering pagan Lithuanians, a Slavic people.

Through most of its history, but especially after the 11th century, the Catholic Church frowned heavily on Christians enslaving other Christians, but was ambivalent about the enslavement of pagans, and the Slavs were accessible targets to abduct into slavery. Sclava became a Medieval Latin word that implied an unfree laborer. Slavs were sold into bondage by their non-Slavic neighbors, and rival Slavs, especially into the wealthy Byzantine Empire.

Eventually the Lithuanian-Polish forces adopted Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410 shut down the Holy Roman Empire, but that didn’t completely change their luck. The collapse of Byzantium at the end of the 15th century meant the rise of Islamic powers which didn’t particularly care if their slaves were Christian. The Crimean Tartars carried out raids from the late 16th to 18th century which may have resulted in the enslavement of about three million people, mostly Ukranians, but also including a number of other Slavic and neighboring peoples, a fact which may shine some light on the strong tensions in that part of the world today.

Medieval Europeans used sclava as slang for “unfree” in the same pejorative way that various words indicating non-white lineage were later used as offensive slang to convey inequality and bondage in the Americas. We get the Middle English slave from sclava through Old French.

As you might guess, the Slavs themselves didn’t take a name that meant captive. In their own language Slav is from a root that means to hear and means roughly “the people who are heard of” in modern terms “the famous people.”

Of course you don’t mean “Eastern European” when you say slave, but it’s an absurdity that makes a point. “Slave” is a slang term that has no particular meaning There is no state of being unfree that is, especially and specifically, slavery. There is no “official threshold” to distinguish being a bondsman of any kind from being a slave. You can delineate specific institutions such as Barbary Coast slavery, or Roman slavery which had over time various specific customs, rules, and laws, but there is no uniformity. In America slavery, without a modifier, is usually understood to mean the enslavement of African-Americans, one of the more appalling and odious occurrences of historical slavery, and, as things historians call slavery go, a fairly radical, cruel, and extreme version.

There is no central historical model for slavery. It’s a catch all classification for a variety of cultures

Often the application of the term “slave” is simply cultural prejudice. Some writers like to use “thrall” when talking about the white people they are most closely descended from, or use “bondsman” or “land tied” to represent relationships in cultures close to them which they’d term “slavery” in cultures that were not their own. “Indentured servitude,” for example, is identical to arrangements we call “slavery” when talking about classical Rome and some Medieval apprenticeships would be considered “slavery” by the UN today.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights forbids “slavery or servitude” in “all their forms.”


“master, slave, submissive, dominant” do not have a valid definition.

There is no standards body that can set a valid definition of what “master, slave, submissive, dominant” mean.

There is no general standard. There is significant disagreement on practically any point that can be raised.

Personal definitions are real, fine and valid, but to express them prejudicially and judgmentally is to be prejudiced and judgmental. There is no basis for saying “I’m not judging you but I apply these standards to judge the validity of your relationship.” You can be judgmental or not, but you can’t use “personal definition” to allow you to play both sides of the coin.

Dictionary definitions don’t apply because we use the terms as jargon, not in their dictionary sense.

Fictional or Group Definitions are only valid for adherents of the fiction or group

Historical or Linguistic Definitions are generally wrong, and rely on the concept there is some historical “norm” that is agreed to constitute slavery. In reality slavery is a “catch all” term that is applied widely and indiscriminately and has little specific meaning.

The term “slave” itself comes from a medieval corruption of ‘slav’ and merely denotes that a lot of slavs were made into unfree laborers.

Summary…there’s no valid definition of what master, slave, submissive, dominant mean but the terms are still useful in a general way. They become useless when we try to define them too closely or use them to show why we are better than others.