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An SM Vocabulary Lesson
Issue 48, 2001

Human cultures generally develop their own language and customs. Leather-dom is no exception. As I wrote last week, the words we use, appropriated from our common American English, often have a connotation different from that more often found in the general population.

It would be interesting to find out if our non-American kinky friends have developed a vocabulary more precise than ours. I suspect that whether they have or not depends on the general preciseness of their mother tongues.

Last week I wrote about two words that cause much confusion: boy and slave.

In general Leather parlance, boy is a term of affection denoting someone, male or female, in a relationship with someone considered more responsible, namely a Daddy, who may or may not be male, older, or more dominant. I have struggled for years to write more precisely about boys, but suitable words escape me, mostly because that relationship is, by design, quite varied among its practitioners. So you can see that our application of the word is different than that found in our dictionaries.

The word is also used for those who are considered slaves, which, contrary to the supposed meaning of that word, wrongly implies that the person is in a nonconsensual relationship controlled by another, usually called Master, Mistress, Dom or Domme. A more reasonable appellation is "voluntary servitude," since service is the most striking hallmark of the relationship and, as this is Leather, it is always consensual and therefore voluntary.

So you can see that calling a slave "boy" totally deviates from the true definition of his or her relationship. It would be paramount to calling a Master "Daddy," something which I would think many Masters would not condone. Nevertheless, there are times when even the most hard-ass Master calls his slave "boy" without in anyway implying that the slave is anything like a boy in the Daddy-boy sense of the term.

There you have perhaps the best example of how very confusing our misuse of language is and how it can distort the true meaning of our relationships. Most of us understand the various (and many) meanings that the words imply, so for us there is less difficulty. For those not yet attuned to the nuances of our speech the sorting of all this can be quite a task.

Another example is that the Master/slave relationship is often codified by a contract, which has no legal standing but which can give meaning and clarity to the partners. Contracts are usually legally binding so to have a non-binding contract is somewhat of an oxymoron. On the other hand it adds psychological and emotional depth to the relationship, even if our courts don't recognize the reality. This is how a sub-culture has to exist within a larger, and generally non-accepting, culture.

Another loaded word, is protocols, which are ways of acting within our sub-culture. Contrary to popular opinion, most protocols are highly individualistic. In fact the most common of them are not protocols but simply rules of polite behavior and were adopted merely to insure that we all act "nice" in the dungeon.

The more rigid protocols are those enforced in the Master/slave relationship. Because that relationship is generally more intense and certainly more structured than most SM relationships, these protocols have more impact, but only on the two people in the relationship. On the other hand, protocols vary a great deal from Master to Master, as each likes things done his or her way.

The confusion over protocols arises because too many think that protocols are carved in granite, especially the protocols they want enforced. In reality, Leatherfolk are, and should be, too individualistic to ever have one size fits all when it comes to protocols. When it comes to manners, on the other hand, we probably ought to have them and have them all the time.

Two other concepts often confused in our speech are discipline and punishment. For those interested in masochistic activity, spanking, whipping, and flogging provide great attraction. Discipline, then, is the engagement in such activity, for the sake of the activity itself and the eroticism it provides. In that way it deviates substantially from punishment, which often looks the same but in fact feels different in that it lacks eroticism and has correction or atonement, rather than pleasure, as its goal. That being the case one might discipline his lover and punish her slave. Two distinct actions that on their face look the same but differ radically. I doubt one could get away with punishing his or her lover.

There are whole group of words that lie along a continuum between Dominance and Control and their complements Submission and Surrender. Once again, appearances are deceptive. Some activities have the superficial look of dominance, when in fact they are simply a fetish. A person can whip another with neither control nor domination being part of the scenario. After all we are going to assume consensual activity. Hence, simply flogging a person in no way implies whether you or (s)he is generally a top or bottom.

Most players, being versatile, fall into the mid-range of the dominance/submission continuum. That being the case, we could line them up in a bell curve from Dominant, top, pushy bottom, versatile, service top, passive bottom, and slave. Note here the seeming discrepancy in that pushy bottoms fall on the controlling side, while tops whose goals are to make their bottoms feel good fall more on the submissive side. Now you know why we find Leather language so confusing.

Many kinky folk find a great deal of pleasure in either inflicting or receiving pain. Here we need to make the important distinction between pain and injury. We are out to make people feel good, not hurt them. Likewise masochists take no pleasure in non-erotic injuries, such as stubbing one's toe or having a tooth ache.

As Karl Jung points out, there is great value in having a rich fantasy life in as much as fantasy cultivates the imagination, which in turn brings creativity into our minds. Inventions, after all, have to be first thought of before they can be patented. Likewise good scenes take imagination and forethought. There is, though, a not so fine line here in that one needs to distinguish fantasy from reality. Reality is, after all, ever present and a hallmark of healthy living. We might also want to draw a distinction between fantasy and lying. Doing so might go a long way to making the Internet a better place to cruise.

OK, we often assume "scene names" so as to protect our identities. I admit to being Jack Rinella, even if it's not the name given me by my parents when I was born. Here we can understand the need for discretion. I will simply say that my nom-de-plume puts me into the same category (I hope) as Mark Twain.

On the other hand, there is a difference between discretion and falsehood. Just as there are degrees of information that have various levels of publication, so to speak, various people have varying needs and rights to know the truth. Whereas a casual acquaintance or an everyday reader of my column might have no need to know my real name, a person with whom I become more intimate might have good reason for knowing a great deal more truth about me.

There's nothing, per se, wrong with a closet. There is no reason to flaunt every fact and facet of our lives. The challenge is to know when discretion is called for and when it is not. Likewise there is a difference between being careful and being paranoid. In most instances, researching the facts and understanding risks makes the distinctions obvious and the best mode of acting clear.

In all of these cases, learning the vocabulary and appreciating their underlying meanings will make all of us better players and more fulfilled Leatherfolk.

Copyright 2001 by Jack Rinella. This material may not be copied in any manner. For permission to reproduce this essay in any form, contact

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