Balance Your Needs

By on September 29, 2009

Patrick califiaDear Patrick,
I am having trouble with a slave who seems to have a conflict about the sort of relationship we are in, even though she signed a contract which explicitly handed over extensive rights to me. Things go smoothly enough when we are having sex, but she balks at doing the tasks around the house that I have ordered her to do. We recently had a discussion (no such thing is supposed to take place; she is only supposed to say “Yes Sir” and get on with it) about whether she could go back to school. I told her that was a privilege she could earn by three months of excellent service. If I believe she is doing all of her service, and yet seems to have some time and energy left over, then I could consider schooling as a way to improve my property.
She got sulky and let me know in her typical, passive-aggressive way that she isn’t ready to obey me fully and without question. I care for this slave very much. The time we spend playing is just really good. But having an angry girl banging pots around the kitchen and making a mess of my boots is not my idea of 24/7. Do I punish her, demote her from 24/7, or send her away with a warning that she can’t return unless she changes her attitude?
You will probably think I am a pathetic excuse for a master by asking another top about how to handle my slave, but you’ll really be amused by this: escalating our relationship to 24/7 master/slave was HER idea.
The Putative God of Her Destiny

Dear Putative God,
Oh, dear. I don’t think you are pathetic, but I do think you are getting pushed around. There are too many supposedly 24/7 BDSM relationships in which a strong-willed bottom insisted on the arrangement with a top who isn’t necessarily wired that way but goes along with it to preserve the connection. Such a bottom is rarely capable of the deep level of surrender that a “slave” offers, and will always be dissatisfied. Their “owner” is always either too strong-willed and stepping out of line by insisting on things they don’t want to do, or not strong enough to keep things going. This is a double bind situation in which the top can never, ever win.

The fantasy of a 24/7 BDSM relationship is a very popular one, and I understand why. When I am in the midst of a session, I often wish I could stay in that altered state forever. But like many fantasies, it can be surprisingly difficult to translate into reality, partly because you cannot conduct a whole relationship in an altered state. A real “slave” has to be able to keep a submissive head space during times when the “master” is distracted, at work, doing something else, sick, or baffled by a life problem they don’t know how to solve. Being a “slave” is not a 24/7 session. It is a graceful way of maneuvering through your “owner’s” life, shadowing him or her, doing everything you can to make their life easier, even if it is not sexy. You have to understand that you will not be the primary focus of your “master’s” life. They will be focused on making themselves happy. You are welcome and useful only insomuch as you become an accessory to that goal.

It also means allowing somebody else to shape the direction of your life, even the structure of your personality, and giving them the right to punish you when you get lippy, sulk, deliberately fuck up, or disappoint them in any way. How many people would you trust with that much control? I would take such a relationship structure very seriously. I would not embark upon it merely because a submissive thought it was what he or she needed. The 24/7 relationship has to be what BOTH parties need, and for the top, it is an ENORMOUS amount of work. But it is not about “my master loving me enough to provide for my needs and make sure I have what I want.” It’s the other way around, love.

I do recommend that owners periodically order the slave to make an honest report about the state of their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. For example, if a slave is becoming depressed, I would want to know. It’s an important problem, like becoming overweight, going through a crisis of faith, being angry with me, or feeling lonely. But I take a great deal of interest in the interior experience of my property. Other tops are not so psychologically oriented. As Guy Baldwin says, “In this situation, the glove has to slip onto the hand with great ease.” If being a slave makes you feel unhappy or angry, maybe it’s not the right place for you.

I realize that some people in the scene, some very competent people who I respect, will disagree with some of what I have said. Do some reading and talk to others in the scene before you make up your mind about how the ideal S/M relationship would look to you. I believe every top needs colleagues. As one top to another, I will warn you that S/M on the ground does not always work the way one is led to believe by educational literature and demonstrations at conferences. It’s not a simple matter of negotiating, playing, and feeling great.

Many bottoms are ambivalent about going under. They may know that they need a big push to get there, but they may also resent you for being capable of taking them to the point of surrender. Doing that must make you a villain, a bad guy or a dangerous woman. Oddly enough, if you give them what they want and need, they will come to mistrust and resent you. If this is what has happened to your girlfriend, you may not be able to do anything to save the relationship. But she may need to do some work on herself to understand that this is a toxic thing to do to a person who cares for her and wants to make her happy.

There is no “best” way to do BDSM. The 24/7 relationship is not superior to, hotter than, or more Old Guard than other forms. This scene offers you a lot of freedom to explore, experiment, and create exactly what you want.

So. The two of you are in a standoff. What to do? You feel that she is not living up to her end of the contract and she doesn’t want to be kept from her educational goals. If you can find a kink-aware couples counselor, they might be able to do you some good. But I would also consider de-escalating the relationship. Get rid of the contract. Go back to basics and reconnect with one another, re-experience the things that brought you together in the first place. Try to make the relationship rewarding on a scene-by-scene basis.

In the future, if you do want to try 24/7 again, and you’ve found a submissive who also desires this, set up a gradual training process. The first time you give her an order, she isn’t going to want to obey, it should be something small and manageable. Talk about it afterward. See if she can eroticize becoming a being who yields, someone who thrives on service, who wants something just because you do. If so, you may have a candidate on your hands. But never take it to the next level just because there’s some imaginary status that you’ll gain. And don’t do it because she wants it. Consult your own libido first.

Patrick Califia is a therapist in private practice in Northern California. His practice includes internet consultations as well as face-to-face psychotherapy. He is a prolific author who has published widely about BDSM and sexual politics. Patrick’s books include Macho Sluts, Sensuous Magic, and Public Sex: The Politics of Radical Sex.

This column is not intended to offer medical or legal advice. It is for educational and entertainment purposes only. If you need medical or legal advice, see a doctor or lawyer!

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