This started out as a response to a question on Fetlife, but it’s also my most compact, succinct and concise writing on the subject of modern power exchange to date, and I liked it enough I thought I’d repost it…
The idea of a “true” or “fake” slave has always been a terrible idea. It’s also been often addressed, but I’ve been clarifying my thinking on it in the past few months.
You can take it all the way back to the word “slave.” It’s a widely applied term in English for “unfree” but it’s a medieval pejorative applied to unfree people generically because many unfree laborers were Slavic. In its day it had the same connotation as the casual use of “nigra” in the 19th century for unfree and free laborers of African descent.
Arguments about the “true” meaning of the word are little less than idiotic. We apply it to Roman slaves, though they used the word “servus” which is our “servant.” Norse slaves, antebellum American slaves, and Barbary slaves have little in common. Which is the “true” source of slavery.
Does “true” slavery emanate from books published in the 1870s, from Weimar German culture of the 1920s (where the term was widely used for sex slavery…usually male submissive/female Mistress), from the culture of Gay Bikers returning from WWII (who may have been emulating Weimar culture to some extent), from a fantasy series made up by John Norman.
On the face of it the idea that there’s any valid determiner of what constitutes “real” slavery is ridiculous. There’s no litmus test of “slaves can’t do x” because at many times slaves could do X. Slaves ran the greater part of the Byzantine Empire at times.
I tend to prefer to use the term “Power Exchange” in public writing, because it takes the ludicrous historical question of the word “slave” (which for most Americans is still most familiar from African-American Slavery in the 17th-19th century) out of the picture and puts the focus on the relationship.
A power exchange is a NEGOTIATED agreement between two people. It differs from some relationships in that the two parties do not end up with theoretically equal authority in the relationship. Typically one party gives up some degree of autonomy in return for getting other needs met (commonly safety, security, structure, self-control, or excitement). The underlying principle of modern Power Exchange is that we can CHOOSE how we want our relationships to be.
Most traditional relationships relegated some degree of control to either partner. The broad terms were set by culture or law (the Man controls the money, in many cases), and the details were set by individual negotiation or local tradition (the woman is the boss in the kitchen.) Often individuals negotiated exceptions or changes, but breaking the local “pattern” was often grounds for suspicion, and traditionally tended to disadvantage the female partner. Often this pattern was practical. It may not have been best for everyone, but in a subsistence agrarian society it was a formula that “worked” and tampering with it was dangerous. A month of lost productivity could place a Colonial farmstead at the brink of disaster.
Throughout the 20th century as Western society grew more affluent, the danger of experimenting and breaking from traditional relationships eroded, as did those models. There was no compelling reason not to experiment. So people did. And culturally because the previous models were often so apparently unfair to women, the push was to create equal responsibility. At the same time, relationships that were not between one man and one woman were becoming more common and acceptable, and it was often hard to apply the traditional norms to them.
The result was that by the time my parents were married it was considered a given that a woman would have equal control over household finances, and work outside the home, though often it was still seen as the norm she’d do more housework because she owned a lower wage. A move towards a “two career” family was well underway. A woman who wanted to be a homemaker was suspect. A man who wanted to do the same was also suspect despite the occasional “heartwarming” and saccharine movie or TV show. And because there was no actual cultural agreement on who controlled the finances, the popular formula was “Congratulations, you’re married. You’re both Captain of the ship, have a nice time fighting it out with no guidelines.”
In short, there was no new formula to replace the old formula, just a vacuum. Since the 1970s many things have begun to fill this vacuum. In some places a return to a “traditional community” pushed by superchurches, where the arbitrary standards of the past century are applied with more zeal than they were in my parents day. Other counselors have written long and involved works on how to work out relationship dynamics.
Power exchange presents the novel idea that it’s fine to have a relationship in which the partners do not have equal authority or responsibility PROVIDED THEY AGREE TO THAT. To engage in it requires a good bit of “knowing thyself” to know what you really do want, and to be a successful control partner (Master, Mistress, etc.) requires being able to evaluate the needs of others, know what you want, and work out a fit between those two that does not create resentment and unhappiness.
Complicating this is the fact that the fetish world is full of people with what I’ve termed “counter-intuitive needs.” The need to be hurt in order to feel loved, the need to feel dominated or even abused in order to feel safe. Often these are legacies of dysfunctional households or systems, but we can’t simply handwave and say “oh well your entire psyche and sexuality is wrong so you don’t get to be happy and have to be miserable in a relationship that doesn’t meet your needs because they aren’t the needs you should have.”
Primitive understandings of Power Exchange tend to revolve around meeting counter-intuitive needs. Often the core is built around discipline (Master provides discipline which the slave needs) while transparently masking a desire on the part of the Master to be sadistic, or the slave to be masochistic, with the resulting contradiction (punishment meets a need) swept under the carpet, or addressed in confusing tautologies that don’t stand up to analysis.
Unfortunately, especially online, you’re still going to meet a lot of people whose model of Power Exchange came out of a book, a movie, or a blog. They confuse the fantasy element of people getting what they need, with a rigid formula that should be applied to “all slaves” or “all Masters.”
Power exchange is about getting what you need (even if it is not entirely what you want…for many people it’s not), without the application of arbitrary rules or standards…from the church, from the previous era, from your parents, or from any self-appointed Master or Mistress who believes that “all slaves should be X.”