And the reviewing madness continues.
Next up in Peggy Kleinplatz and Charles Moser’s Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures is a study by Peter L. Dancer and the two book editors themselves, entitled simply “24/7 SM Slavery.”
The most amazing thing about this article is not that it’s well-written, lucid and un-pathologizing, but that the study was carried out at all. I mean, 24/7 relationships are the “worst of the worst” in the public’s eye – apart from maybe extreme body modification and gratuitous physical abuse. They’re even suspect within the SM world in many cases; lots of kinksters can handle the idea of dominance and submission within a scene, or even between two individuals on some sort of ongoing basis, but 24/7 is the dark horse of the bunch: tantalizing to some, desperately dreamed of by others, scary to more, and simply wrong in the view of many.
So reading the work of three PhDs who got together and carried out an in-depth study of 146 self-identified 24/7 slaves – and please note the emphasis on hearing the voices of the people whom, if you were concerned about victimhood, would be classically understood as being in the “victim” position – and seeing that they analyzed the data all nice and calm-like, rather than trying to paint these people into a picture of spousal abuse, self-delusion or simple stark raving madness… well, I’m waaay impressed. Of course I’m unsurprised at the clear-headed nature of the work, given who the authors are, but still impressed that they actually did it, and that it’s now out there for public consumption. Anyone who ever wondered about the health of 24/7 relationships, well, now you’ve got some numbers to work with.
The respondents were 53% female and 47% male; they ranged in age from 18 to 72. Wow. The summary provides the study’s basic findings:
“We explored the depth of their relationships, how well they approximated “slavery,” and how their relationships were structured to maintain distinct roles. Data showed that in long-term SM slave relationships, a power differential exists which extends beyond time-limited SM or sexual interactions. Owners and slaves often use common, daily life experiences or situations, such as the completion of household chores, money management, and morning or evening routines, to distinguish and maintain their respective roles. In addition, contrary to the perception of total submission, results revealed that slaves exercise free will when it is in their best interests to do so. These relationships were long-lasting and satisfying to the respondents.”
Herein lies both the beauty and the misunderstanding of SM slavery. “Slavery” in the classic sense is a horrendous thing with historical roots in various cultures all over the world. As a result, the terminology is always a hot-button topic among SMers, some insisting that it’s inappropriate to use the word “slave” for any kind of consensual relationship because it’s disrespectful to the heritage of those who have suffered the real thing, others insisting that they’ll describe their relationships with the terms that feel best to them and nobody’s got the right to take that away from them.
I don’t usually weigh in on the terminology question, personally; I may be a language geek but I recognize that loaded terms like this are always touchy, and there is rarely a single “right” answer. But politics aside, I don’t find the term “slavery” to be all that accurate when applied in an SM context, but then again, I think a lot of the terms we bandy around aren’t exactly right.
Take “TPE” for example – “Total Power Exchange.” I mean, what a load of hooey. The word “total” means everything, all, no exceptions. Does anyone ever give over all their power to someone else? And if they did, what would that make them but an automaton, a completely empty husk with no person inside at all? And who the hell wants to be that, or have a person like that in their world? Besides, outside of perhaps a handful of independently wealthy people with utterly empty schedules and absolutely massive appetites for controlling others (the latter two being practically mutually exclusive), who the heck could even accomplish such a thing? Nobody ever has total power over another. Extreme maybe, but let’s be serious here.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Of course 24/7 SM slaves exercise their free will. Otherwise they wouldn’t be 24/7 SM slaves, they’d be abused partners. And that’s not just a terminology distinction – the whole point of SM, the very nexus of what distinguishes it from assault and battery, is that it’s consensual. Okay, and we dress way better and are way more creative than your average street thug. But seriously. The study says,
“Although these relationships are reportedly without limit, the process of deciding to enter into the relationship is such, that the submissive partner rarely finds the dominant’s desires incompatible with his or her own.”
(Don’t ask me what that comma’s doing there, I’m just quoting verbatim.)
In other words, if you’re looking to have someone to be in control of certain aspects of your behaviour and your decisions, then it goes without saying that they may make decisions that you won’t like; and it is presumed, if you’re seeking out a 24/7 arrangement, that you desire their control more than you desire whatever it is that they’re forbidding you to do, or more than you desire to not do whatever it is they’re telling you you must do.
If the submissive doesn’t like the control and take pleasure in handing over that authority, regardless of the specifics of whether or not they enjoy the consequences of that hand-over, they wouldn’t be in a 24/7 relationship. Trust me – 24/7 partners don’t come along every day. Sometimes it takes years, decades, for people to find an appropriate match, and once you have, it takes work to sustain it.
Much like people hire personal trainers to whip them into shape – the whole point is that they desire the motivation and push of another person’s will that will help them get to a state they wish to attain and cannot, or don’t want to, attain alone. They desire the flat belly and the discipline of training more than they desire to sleep in and eat cheeseburgers, so they hire someone to hold that authority even when they don’t like it and grumble about it. But it’s one helluva lot easier to find a decent personal trainer than to find the master or mistress of your dreams… or the submissive of your dreams for that matter. There are quite literally thousands of people out there clamouring for 24/7 relationships who clearly aren’t in them. Check any BDSM personals site – there’s really no shortage. Anyway, my point: yes, 24/7 is consensual. Next topic.
Let’s see… other interesting tidbits in the article… just little things that made me spin off on happy little brain tangents…
“The data revealed that the vast majority (99%) of all respondents had rules. These rules involved limitations or obligations applicable to the slave that are in place at all times and in all situations. Among respondents, 85% reported that they participate regularly in established rituals.”
Rules would seem to go hand-in-hand with the whole idea of slavery; rituals clearly don’t, even if they’re in place a large percentage of the time. Intriguing. I wonder what the non-ritual 15% do!
“All the relationships were sexual.”
Fascinating, that one. I wonder how common a non-sexual 24/7 dynamic might be.
70 of the 146 respondents had engaged in 24/7 relationships previous to their current ones;
“The respondents indicated that they initiated their release in 69% of the instances, while termination was initiated by the owners in 24%. In the remaining 7% of cases, termination was mutual or no data were reported.”
The authors make the point that this clearly indicates the use of free will and the lack of force used on the part of the owners to oblige the slaves to stay. One more check mark in the “consensual” column.
“A large majority of respondents (88%) indicated that they were satisfied or completely satisfied with their current relationships. Additionally, almost 71% of the sample indicated the relationship was more satisfying or significantly more satisfying now than when it began.”
I wonder if the numbers would be the same for your average marriage, or even your average serious couple? How fascinating that satisfaction is so high among 24/7 slaves.
The authors also put forth four major characteristics of 24/7 relationships, as follows:
“(1) The relationship reinforces the slave mind-set. (2) The participants must often fulfill the slavery aspects of the relationship surreptitiously. (3) The relationship is structured to safeguard the slave. (4) The relationship contract parallels conventional relationship arrangements.”
In Laura Antoniou’s Marketplace series, a well-known fictional series depicting the lives of certain people within a worldwide consensual slave market, there is actually an idea mentioned at one point – a single line in a single book – suggesting that the entire Marketplace structure exists not to provide willing slaves for owners, but to provide owners and training as a service to would-be slaves. Certainly it is fictional, but there’s definitely something to the concept…
It’s also interesting that in a couple of instances, the authors put forth comparisons between a slave orientation and a queer one. Not because they resemble one another in principle, but because both are outside the norm of traditional ways of relating intimately to others, and as such society treats those people differently. For example:
“The second element involves the need to modify the overt representation of one’s slavery when in public as another means by which the slavery can be maintained 24/7, outside of the traditionally viewed scene or sexual encounter. Within the confines and structure of one’s home, the owner and slave roles can be embraced with relative ease. Most people, however, will have to interact with and join the outside world at some point. This is similar to the issues that homosexual-identified individuals report when having to be ‘in the closet.'”
And later, in their suggestions for further research:
“Also, several respondents indicated that their slavery is simply who they are, whether they are in a slave relationship at the time or not. Further research should examine whether or not for some participants slavery or submission is akin to a distinct orientation and the extent to which such a belief affects the need for more firmly identified boundaries and parameters.”
There’s little to go on here, but it certainly echoes the discourse I’ve heard on international BDSM lists, at conferences and so forth. It feels to me like a whole other topic of discussion – but wouldn’t it make sense, given how most human beings engage in relationship patterns of one sort or another, that some people might have a strong inclination towards power-exchange-based relationships… strong enough that it feels like a sexual orientation does in the classic sense? In other words, too compelling (and hot) to be ignored?
Really, this whole study served to leave me feeling enormously intrigued. It is satisfying to see some preliminary results, especially since they’re concordant with what I’ve observed in the BDSM world and don’t feel like some weirdly biased outsiders’ perspective as many such studies do. But this feels like an appetizer, and I very much want the full meal!