identity politics, journal entries

On Stepping Away From M/s Language

Content: Discussion of the uses of the words master and slave in a consensual kink context, the politics of using them in community, and the harm they cause.

A few weeks ago, I put this note out on social media:

“Hi everyone; some of you may know that with my boy we are the International Master/slave 2020 and Northwest Master/slave 2019 titleholders in the leather community. We have been planning a conversation about the impact of the words master and slave for a long time, and we want to dive into it more now. We understand that when used by non-Black people, these words cause harm. Personally, we are stepping away from using the words. I’m sorry for the harm they’ve caused, and I’m sorry it’s taken us so long. I’ll detail more about what we’re going to do in a full statement forthcoming; I’m taking some time to consult with community and figure out the way forward. We will have a full statement out within the next week.”

rife and I then published this note on the Facebook page for our leather title:

Running for and winning this title has been an incredible journey, and this is not the title year anyone expected. We’re heartbroken to see our events being cancelled or, at best, moving online. We miss you all and wish we could be having this conversation with you in person.

The changes we are making with our relationship titles reflect our personal journey; our relationship structure itself hasn’t changed. We still want to talk with you about all the nerdy power theory stuff. We’ve just decided that for us, as white folks living in the racist United States, we aren’t going to use the terms “Master” and “slave” any more.

This was a hard choice to make because it has been so valuable to find community around these words, and to be part of a lineage of people exploring conscious, consensual power exchange.

We recognize and affirm that Black leatherfolk have many different views on consensual ownership dynamics, and we honor Black leadership in the M/s community. There are Black people who have done the hard, beautiful work of reclaiming these words and as queers we understand the power behind that. We cannot and will never tell a Black person what to do — many Black folks have chosen to use these words for themselves. These are their words to reclaim. Everyone has a different journey with these words. There are many white folks in M/s community who are aware of the potential impact of these words and use them with care.

We are not judging others’ choices about their use of the words Master and slave. We affirm that your words are your choice. Total power exchange dynamics are psychological edgeplay, and everyone gets to decide for themselves what their comfort level is.

The words Master and slave helped us find this community — our people — where we are validated and seen. At the same time, there have been multiple Black people in our lives – dear friends and leather family- who have told us they are harmed by these terms. We can’t and would never speak for Black people, but we know some Black folks experience our use of those words as violent and triggering. Because they have told us so.

We apologize to the Black people we have harmed in the use of these terms. Whether it was intentional or not, it caused harm and we’re sorry. We know finding new language for our relationship will not solve racism, but it’s a small thing (among many others) that we can do to reduce harm.

In the past, we have been careful with usage when not at M/s events, because we want those around us to consent and opt into hearing M/s language. Just like I wouldn’t highlight my Daddy/boy fetish if I knew someone around me was a survivor of child abuse, our intention was to be respectful and cause less harm to those around us. We would try to cover our back patches when walking through hotel lobbies, and include content warnings on published essays. We didn’t do this perfectly.

Currently, we are:

1. Stepping away from using those words for ourselves and considering other options.
2. Apologizing for the harm we have caused in the past.
3. Creating more conversations about this, and researching and listening to better understand the changes that Black folks are calling for.
4. Supporting Black liberation movements in concrete ways, including financial donations, political action, and volunteer work.

We have many thoughts about using M/s language as white people — currently we have a 17 page document full of notes, and have had countless conversations about it. We want to talk about the intersection of power exchange and anti-racist work, and we want to find more folks who want to do that, too. If you want to be in this conversation with us, please like this post and let us know.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we had an M/s community that everyone felt they could belong to? What would it be like if we knew that nobody was being left behind because of unintentional impacts of our words?

Most importantly, how can we, as white folks committed to both the M/s community and to racial justice, reconcile the awful history of these words with the beautiful relationships we have? We don’t have the answers, but I hope through conversation we can start to puzzle this together.

It’s not about the relationship structure; we love this way of building relationships and will fiercely defend our heart-soul calling towards it. We are Owner and owned with a total authority transfer dynamic, just like we have been. It’s not about the M/s community; finding y’all has been life changing for us and we love you dearly like the family we always needed. We are not trying to police anyone else’s language or tell you how you should identify. We just want to make sure our words are not harming the Black folks in our leather family (and beyond).

We are invested in the health and longevity of this community. We want to see our spaces thrive and grow for years to come, and will be here producing online events, workshops, and discussion groups for those committed to the path of structured relationships.

With love & in leather,
the Rooks

There is now elaborate conversation happening both on Facebook and where rife published the statement on his personal Fetlife.

If you want to talk to me or both of us about this, I am open to discussion and available. You can contact us both at [email protected] or me at [email protected]

I would love to talk to people who are particularly at the intersection of 24/7 authority exchange and anti-racist work, who are interested in engaging with ideas for supporting the M/s community and leather community in general to work to be a more accessible space for Black folks specifically and POC folks in general. If you’d like to collaborate and discuss, please reach out and let me know.

We are also now collecting other statements and quotes from folks discussing the impact of the words master and slave for them, and publishing them on our Facebook page here. They can be anonymous, with your name, or with a pseudonym. Send them to us at [email protected], or get in touch if you have questions about them.

What about here on Sugarbutch?

Here on Sugarbutch, I’ve taken down posts that use master/slave language. Some of them I’ll be editing and putting back up, but some will stay down because they were primarily about M/s and wouldn’t be the same to edit. I won’t be using M/s language in erotica or in posts about my relationship going forward.

I am however interested in writing about the many, many things which are coming up in response to this statement — things about reclaiming language, about what level of comfort different people have with using them, about other issues of racism in the M/s and leather communities, and more. I haven’t figured out if I can/should post that here, or if I will publish that on Medium or somewhere else — but either way, I will be putting content notes at the beginning of the pieces so people can opt in or out to what they are reading if they wish. Feel free to let me know your preference in the comments, and I will take that into account.

Last, but not least

It has taken me some time to come to not using these words.

We both had reservations about using those words when we started finding the M/s community, but the M/s community has many explanations for why those words are used and has done a lot of work reconciling their history. There are many Black leaders in the M/s community, and I have learned much from them. I hope it’s clear within the statement above, but we are not trying to make commentary of any kind about what it means for Black folks to use these words — only for US, personally, as white folks.

I needed the teachings about authority exchange relationships that the M/s community presents, and they have completely changed my life for the better. I would not have as strong and healthy of a relationship with rife as I do if it were not for that community. I’m incredibly grateful, and I do want to see that community thrive, grow, and continue. I also hope to have a conversation about the use of these words, who it leaves out, and the harm they cause — which is already happening.

I have many other things to share about this process, and I’m slowly gathering my resources to write more about it. I am talking to Black and non-Black leaders in the leather and M/s communities about next steps, following the guidance of what Black folks want. We’ve been having dozens of hours of conversations. I’m doing my best to listen.

I welcome folks to join me and rife in visioning, as we said in our statement, a leather community that is truly inclusive, where all feel safe to show up as their full authentic selves. If you’d like to join the conversation that is already happening, check out on the Facebook page for our title years and the statement on rife’s Fetlife (which has many more comments).

Published by Sinclair Sexsmith

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is "the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queer women" (AfterEllen), who "is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places" (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. They identify as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor, and an introvert.

4 thoughts on “On Stepping Away From M/s Language”

  1. Amy B. says:

    As always, I so appreciate the thoughtfulness and care evidenced in your words. As a white person, it’s sometimes uncomfortable and confusing for me to sit with these charged words and how to respond to their impact, especially when it involves the erotic/relational realm, a place at once so precious and vulnerable. Thank you for pushing this conversation forward, encouraging us all find new ways together.

  2. rebeccaeblanton says:

    Thank you for the posts letting others follow your journey around this issue. I have struggled for a long time with the language.It has been heightened for me since several of my Dominant partners have been Black men. It is a difficult but necessary discussion. I have yet to have an answer as to new language. Its just nice to know I am not battling this alone anymore. (I put out my first blog post on this issue 4 yrs ago and it got no traction until 3 months ago. Finally, ppl are taking!)

    1. Sinclair Sexsmith says:

      thank you. this is the post you’re referring to, right? I hadn’t seen it but just looked it up. I don’t have an answer for new language either … I think if there was an obvious other choice, more of us would be gravitating there. I’m definitely hoping to be involved in that conversation going forward. if you ever want to chat about it, I’d love that.

  3. a says:

    This is such a timely and thoughtful statement. I’ve been trying to educate myself on racial issues recently, but I hadn’t even considered this topic until now–and I’m glad I did. I would be equally happy to read your future thoughts here or on Medium. Thank you for sharing this.

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