Consent and Master/slave relationships

This article covers the definition of consent and how consent is handled in Master/slave (M/s) relationships. Specifically, this article discusses consent in the context of a relationship not a single act (footnote, we will include a link to the consent in kink acts when it becomes available until then please see the NCSF site for a discussion on that topic –link). And more specifically consent in a relationship with a power or authority dynamic which may appear to inhibit consent. This article asserts that M/s relationships can be among the most consensual relationships of all types if they follow certain best practices.

Consent: the definition

Consent is defined by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom as:

Consent is the explicit indication, by written or oral statement, by one person that he/she is willing to have something done to him/her by one or more other persons, or to perform some sort of act at the request or order of one or more other persons.  In terms of sexual consent, consent may be withdrawn at any point, regardless of what has been previously negotiated orally or in writing. (Source: https://ncsfreedom.org/key-programs/consent-counts/consent-counts-faq.html, downloaded 17 Nov 2012, for other traditional definitions of consent see this article: consent definitions.)

The above definition is not very helpful to the M/s community or indeed to any relationship. It is good for a discrete sex acts but not helpful to a relationship.  It is neither operational nor even realistic to consider these as working definitions for someone in a relationship whether kinky or not. If this transactional view of consent were a reality, then every sex act in a relationship would have to be documented or at least negotiated in advance. It is this attitude that makes consent seem like a wet blanket by confusing advance permissions with consenting humans engaging in a spontaneous and unpredictable life.

Consent in Good Faith

If one accepts transactional consent as neither practical nor realistic for relationships then what is? We still want relationships that are consensual. We need the consent to stand even if there is an occasional non-consensual act due to an honest mistake or the unpredictability of life. This is true of both vanilla and kink partners. A much better model, developed by Paul Silverman, MSW, is called Consent in Good Faith.

By Consent in Good Faith there is a discussion/discovery among parties about what they like and do not like. This discussion is done on a level of granularity that is appropriate for the couple. The level of granularity will depend on the couple’s tolerance for risk. For example, if partners want to leave nothing to chance, some will get down to the nitty gritty details: “Spank me for 10 minutes to pain level 6, etc .” Others with a higher tolerance might rely on a more general framework with a safeword. Or maybe the create a list of do’s or don’t and expectations, leaving what not listed for exploration at the partner’s tolerance level for risk. These adults then engage in sexual, play or service activities as they have agreed and understand it. When something unexpected comes up, it can result in a non-consensual act. What happened is then dealt with after the fact, depending on the urgency as defined by the partner. Together they review what happened and discuss in a manner that honors their dynamic. Some new understanding evolves to adjust the do’s and don’t and expectations. Then the relationship carries on its merry way until the next unexpected event comes up. The Good Faith Consent model works not just for Master/slave but also for others as well.

Consent in Master/slave relationships

The Master/slave relationship is a living engagement, a lifestyle which the participants rarely take lightly.  Those who do take M/s lightly are at higher risk to either fail or not last very long. Longer term M/s relationships have a set of expectations evolved before they enter into the formal Master/slave. Master and slave can first get to know each other as friends or occasional play partners. This allows them to learn from each other what what to expect. They learn from a combination of observation, experience and negotiations.

When partners are comfortable enough with each other to go into the lifestyle they will often codify their preferences and expectations. These expectations can express itself in an actual contract (written or verbal). These agreements can cover how the Master and slave will behave and act. Contractual arrangements usually give a level of control to the Master and a level of obligation on the slave. It is important to note that the slave will comply even if it is something the slave does not want or desire. In other words the slave gives up their own desire for the desires of another. The M/s relationship, therefore will often separate desire from consent.

This consent to giving up desire has lead many people to the mistaken conclusion that Master/ slave relationships are not consensual. As you will see below this is far from reality. In fact, Masters and slaves will have many features in their relationship that assure consent.  These features are what I call the consent mechanics. <Footnote: This model was arrived at through research which included interviews, workshops and literature survey for details on this please see this connected background article.>

Consent Mechanics: The model

Some people think that consent and M/s are a contradiction in terms. If you ask some M/s practitioners if they have a mutually consensual relationship they may give you a forceful  negative expletive. But as our model shows, for many M/s relationships consent is the facet of their relationship that dare not speak its name.

So how does the relationship continue to be consensual if not by using the c-word? The model below shows a summary of the different mechanics in a M/s relationship that assures a consensual relationship. As stated above M/s is built on the cornerstone of the consensual obedience of the slave. The M/s mechanics are designed to help reinforce that consent. The mechanics are best summed up as Foundations and Facets. Foundations are basic elements in most M/s dynamics (see the bottom of the model below). Facets are how the M/s relationship responds to certain challenges (see the supporting columns in the model below).

Foundations

These foundations cover daily, weekly, even hourly or by the minute affirmations of consent as seen in many M/s relationships. One Master said in our interviews, “Disobeying a Master is the easiest thing in the world to do: just stop doing it. The real challenge is to obey even when you don’t feel like it or others tell you to do something else. I have no control over my slaves above what they give me.” In other words obedience is enforced not with force but with free will consent. The foundations allow the slave to reaffirm their consent and commitment to the relationship. Protocols, Daily Rituals, Contracts and Frameworks are the foundational best practices.

Protocols

Masters set protocols as every day living conventions the slave will abide by. For example, a a Master may require a slave to walk one step behind him. Or another example, the Master may require the slave not to eat until Master has take n the first bite. To an outsider protocols look like little more than formalities. In the dynamic protocols are a reaffirmation of consent. When asked, all M/s pairs interviewed agreed that there would have to be “something to be talked about” if a slave suddenly stopped following their protocols.

Daily rituals

Many M/s relationships have a daily ritual, some weekly and others over other periods. What all of these rituals have in common is that they are often repeated formulaic ways of affirming the slave’s consent to the relationship (even though the word consent is often replaced by such words as free will, honor and loyalty).

Here is one example of a daily ritual a slave and Master perform every evening before they go to sleep:

Master: “Who is this?”

slave: “I am your slave.”

Master: “Are you my property?”

slave: “Yes i am, Sir, and i am ready to obey.”

Master: “Good slave, you can now go to sleep.”

M/s couples with a ritual report that any time a ritual was skipped or did not go as agreed would trigger a discussion. This discussion usually uncovers something unexpected had happened that needs clarification or repair. The result would be an adjustment in the relationship to account for the unexpected event. That is followed by a renewal of consent (usually a successful performance of the ritual).

Contracts

Contracts (oral and verbal) are present in many M/s relationship. These contracts will usually get revisited periodically to take into account the unexpected developmnts the dynamic takes of the course of the agreed period. During these periodic reviews the couple look at what is working and what is not. These reviews help the relationship stay on track and affirm consent.

Frameworks

Some relationships call themselves by names. Master/slave, Daddy Sir/boy, Total Power Exchange, Edge Living, etc. These names imply rules. Both parties equally agree to the type and also give a consent and agreement to the power dynamics that come with that type of relationship. The framework gives a general consent to the type of relationship and its norms for certain behavior.

Facets

Facets outline the challenges of consent such as: needs, desires, weaknesses, differing abilities, etc. And how various challenge are met in the internal workings of the relationship.  Some Masters remarked how the slave must obey the Master but both must obey the dynamic.  The dynamic, this Master refers to is the established interplay between Master and slave. The dynamic is expressed informally through the facets mentioned above in the model. Here is one example: Differing needs and desires:

[Footnote: If after reading this example and studying the model, if this is not clear see this article outlining some examples from the model. Of course not all M/s relationships follow these concepts. The ones we studied were in the Leather Community, and M/s pairs who actively engaged in learning how to make their relationships sustainable. For more information on that and our research methods see this background piece: the research processes informing this article.’]

Facet: Needs/Desires

Dynamics: Negotiations – setting and/or understanding limits

Transparency – No hidden agenda’s

Master – honor limits

Slave – willingness to expand their limits, conditionless obedience

Honor limits vs No limits

Needs and desires are, among other things, the sexual desires and emotional needs of the Master and slave. Since rarely do two people have identical desires, there is a tension between what the Master likes and what the slave likes. Both Masters and slaves have things they do not want and this is usually expressed in the terms of limits.

Here there is a natural tension built into the relationship: Master will honor limits and slave will strive to expand the limits.  Master’s will honor limits, even if they claim they have no-limit slaves. The limits are there but they are often unspoken. For example, one Master said in a recent leather event that he just did whatever he wants regardless of what the slave wants. The slave was not allowed to object or withdraw consent. I asked this master, “in a scene do you care about protecting your property?’ The answer was very telling, “Of course, i would never harm my slave. But I don’t need a safe-word from my slave to know when she is about to be harmed or damaged.”

“You don’t?” i asked.

He added, “I can read her body. I know her movements. I know the sound of a good scream from a bad one.” he replied.

In other words there is a safe word here but it is a non-verbal safe-word. The main difference between a verbal or non-verbal safeword has to do with the acceptable level of risk not the level of consent. (See, Human Sexuality: Diversity in Contemporary America, p 308).

No conditions

Moreover, most Master/slave relationships which have no limits or no conditions are usually due to very high degree of synchronized desires. Meaning the Master naturally observe’s the slaves limits. Not because the Master is obliged to  observe them, but because they share largely the same desires, tastes and  ethics (See Part II of Slavecraft, Guy Baldwin).

Transparency and negotiations

So how does the Master really know if the dynamic is consensual, if they cannot count on a slave’s stated desires?  First and foremost is transparency, especially of the slave to the Master. For example, my obligation to my Master is quite common in other M/s relationships: total transparency. I am obliged to tell Master everything on my mind that may effect the quality of the relationship. This obliges me also to divulge any thing that might begin to chip away at Master’s authority and my consent to the relationship.

Secondly, there are negotiations (usually initiated and controlled by the Master). Even though the word consent is never used, Master and slave use negotiations to refine their dynamic and to reinforce consent.

See also

Where does one learn these M/s foundations and facets? Among other places one can attend a conferences like:

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