Social Death

Kink Slavery is a major component of BDSM relationships. The term is so intimately linked to BDSM that ‘slave’ is a common term for any sub; there is an enormous amount of BDSM porn online in which the sub is explicitly labeled as a slave and the dom as a master. In my opinion, this isn’t really Kink Slavery, since it’s limited to the bedroom and doesn’t generally involve the dom having wider control in the form of the sub doing chores, having their grooming controlled, and so on. (Having said that, kinksters get to choose whatever labels they want for their practices, so if you prefer to be called a ‘slave’ even though I’d be inclined to call you a ‘sub’, that’s your right. You don’t have to follow my ideas about how to classify your submission.)

So I thought I’d address a component of real-world slavery that I think sheds some light on Kink Slavery. For the purposes of this post, I’m going talk about ‘Historical Slavery’ and ‘Kink Slavery’ to help us be clear on what practices I’m talking about. And talking about Historical Slavery involves talking about some fairly ugly things, so be warned that I’m going touch on things that may be traumatic or triggering for some people.

What I want to discuss is the concept of Social Death. In 1982, sociologist Orlando Peterson laid out the idea of Social Death as a common characteristic of Historical Slave systems. Social Death was a tool used to keep Historical slaves powerless and isolated within the community with the goal of making it difficult for slaves to resist the power of their owners. It sought to control both how the community thought of the slaves and how the slaves thought of themselves. The core of Social Death, simply put, is that slaves were not ‘people’ and were therefore not accorded the treatment that people normally received in society.

There were several components that were typical of Social Death, although the exact details varied from one historical society to the next. One component is that Historical slaves lacked bodily autonomy. When captured they often had their hair shaved off or were forced to wear a special haircut that marked them out as slaves; among the ancient Sumerians, it was a crime for a barber to cut a slave’s hair without the master’s permission, because it was tantamount to helping them escape since the haircut was a key visual marker of slavery. Graeco-Roman slaves were sometimes ham-strung to keep them from running away. Historical slaves could generally be beaten as a form of discipline; in Ancient Greece it was acceptable to hit another person’s slaves if they got in the way or caused offense, and Antebellum (pre-Civil War American) slaves were infamously whipped to ensure compliance.

The most extreme loss of bodily autonomy is the inability of slaves to refuse their owner’s sexual advances. In most historical societies, female slaves (and less commonly male ones) could become the master’s concubine if he find them attractive; Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and possibly Andrew Jackson all fathered children on slave women they owned (and to be clear, since these women could not refuse or give meaningful consent, this was rape). After the banning of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808, American slave owners often resorted to literally breeding their slaves like livestock, by requiring slaves to have sex with each other; some male slaves were used like stud bulls to impregnate the female slaves. Graeco-Roman slaves were often used to staff brothels.

But Social Death is not simply loss of bodily autonomy. It also often involves renaming the slave, stripping them of their previous identity and imposing a new one. Antebellum slaves were rarely permitted to retain their African names and instead were given names that were either diminutives (such as “Toby” or “Betty”) that emphasized their inferior status because they are not full adult names, or else Classical names (such as Caesar, Hannibal, or Jupiter) that were not names generally used in Western culture at the time. Slaves were also commonly addressed by diminutives such as ‘boy’ or ‘girl’. Graeco-Roman slave owners sometimes spoke of the slave in the third person, calling them things like ‘this body’. Such naming practices emphasized that the slave was someone distinct from the rest of the community.

Social Death also tended to detach the Historical slave from their family. It’s well-known that Antebellum slave owners often broke up the families of slaves, by selling the children or spouse of a slave to another owner, often in a different state. In most slave-owning societies, slaves could not contract legally-valid marriages; Roman slaves lacked the ‘ius connubium’, the ‘right to marry’ and even if they were freed, they could not marry their former owner. Thus Historical slaves existed as a sort of genealogical anomaly. They lacked socially-recognized ancestors, legal spouses, or legal children. Since social honor was often connected to one’s family identity, slaves had no honor, and therefore could not rightfully declare their own dignity or punish an affront to their dignity.

Social Death sought to recruit the general population to support the enslavement of a slave by teaching the population that slaves did not deserve the respect that etiquette expected people to receive. As already noted, it was legal in Ancient Greece to strike another man’s slave if they behaved improperly. Antebellum society commonly referred to Black slaves with a variety of derogatory terms, most infamously the N-word. Minstrel shows, an Antebellum form of entertainment, involved white people in blackface caricaturing Blackness in ways that emphasized the slave’s supposed stupidity, fondness for slavery, and general ineptitude, thereby conditioning White audiences to view slaves and Black people in general as inferior.

It’s not hard to see how Social Death continues to be a feature of racist elements of American society today. Racists routinely use derogatory terms for Black people; literally dehumanize them by describing them as ‘animals’, ‘monkeys’ and ‘coons’; mock them as savages who carry spears and wear bones through their noses; and talk about them reproducing ‘like rabbits’ and having the morals of ‘wild animals.’ Police officers still widely enjoy the privilege of killing Black people without being legally prosecuted for it, denying Black people one of the most basic legal rights of people.

Such then is the ugly historical reality of being a slave. How does this shed light on modern Kink Slavery, which is obviously drastically different from legal slavery? Kink Slavery is fully-consensual (or ought to be–if what you’re doing isn’t consensual, it’s abuse, not kink) and BDSM masters generally harbor deep feelings of connection to their Kink Slaves. So is this idea of Social Death useful in Kink Slavery, given the ugly realities of it?

I think it is. Kink Slavery often seeks to model itself on Historical Slavery. There are modern kinksters who practice ‘Graeco-Roman’ slavery. Those willing to explore the racial dimensions of power exchange often resort to tropes of Antebellum slavery (or sometimes invert them by having the master be Black and the slave be white). So while we need to avoid the truly ugly elements of Historical Slavery (most of which revolve around its non-consensual nature), there are ways in which Social Death can shape how we explore Kink Slavery.

It’s accepted that Kink Slaves will experience a lack of bodily autonomy. They may have their grooming and public dress dictated by their masters (head-shaving has been a popular element in gay kink for a while now). The very common requirement that slaves should serve either naked or wearing a very revealing outfit emphasizes the sexual nature of Kink Slavery and mirrors the semi-fictitious idea that Graeco-Roman slaves were usually naked. Control of a slave’s body for sexual purposes directly reflects the use of Historical Slaves as concubines and prostitutes. Impact play is often framed as ‘punishment for disobedience (although personally I think this is unwise).In the gay community, slaves are often addressed as ‘boy’ or ‘faggot’, mirroring the use of labels to restructure the slave’s identity.

Many slaves crave some degree of public humiliation and some masters enjoy inflicting humiliation in public. I think this desire is to a considerable extent an attempt to achieve Social Death. For many masters and slaves, it is not enough to simply engage in power exchanges they want to be seen as engaging in power exchange because it validates the master’s superior position in regard to the slave’s inferior one. To be seen to be a slave is for many boys an extremely intense experience. The urge to gather in leather bars, to attend events like Folsom and IML, to chat on sites like Fetlife or OwnedFags are all in their way an attempt to find community validation for the power imbalance between master and slave, although obviously there are other reasons to do this as well: seeking partners for power exchange and sex, finding guidance and mentoring, and establishing social support for those who are isolated.

One element of Social Death that I encourage people to explore is re-naming. Changing a slave’s name is a very powerful gesture that demonstrates deep authority over the slave. This can be done on multiple levels: simply as a nick-name to use in private, as a tool to help a slave enter proper headspace, to mark a shift in the slave’s dynamic with their master, or even as a legal name change to show permanent ownership. I’ve talked about Alex on this blog. That’s not his birth name; it’s a name I gave him. I gave it to him in part so I could talk about on him online without exposing him, but more importantly I gave it to him because he was struggling with the weight of his past. I framed his new name as a chance to put the trauma of the past several years behind him. I offered him the re-naming as a reward for succeeding at something he was struggling with, and when he succeeded, I told him, “from now on, you’re not [birth name], you’re Alex.” He loved his new name because it made him feel like he was becoming someone new, someone under my total authority.

Historical Slavery was ugly and brutal and is best left behind in the garbage dump of history. But it remains a powerful model for what we as kinksters often hope to achieve in our power exchange. I encourage you to consider what elements of Social Death you can work into your existing dynamic to deepen them.

2 thoughts on “Social Death

  1. Hi Hadrian,

    A long time ago, when i met my Master Todd, he took me under his wing. That lasted for a bit. At one point, He also gave me my new name. He knew things about me that i never had to voice to Him ever. And when AIDS hit, i needed focus. And Todd’s renaming me did the trick, along with other cues, my status in social settings, and the weight of responsibility He gave me within the workplace.

    Master used a series of exercises with me, to keep me out of my head and my feet firmly on the ground. The renaming was one. The other miraculous effort was that he taught me how to partition my brain. To keep me from focusing on myself or my imminent death from AIDS, the partition, worked as such.

    i had a life outside the bar we worked in, where i spent almost all of my time. When i crossed the threshold into the building, i had to leave whatever was out there, out there, and not bring it inside the building for however long i was in there. All i had to think about on any given day, were my chores and job duties, and only that. i did not have to ponder dying, although everyone else in the bar WAS dying, terribly horrible deaths.

    In essence, the partition still works. Where ever i am today, in whatever building, site or location, i can now use the partition to focus my brain in the moment, and not on everything else going on in my head. It saves a lot of mental and emotional energy.

    Funny, all those tools Master used, kept me alive and still alive almost 30 years later. Todd knew what to do, and on a short leash, i obeyed His every word and command, without question.

    When everyone else abandoned me, Todd stuck firm by my side. My second name was a trigger, He knew that i needed to hear it often. Until a certain point. When things got really bad, and I went downhill, when all seemed lost, i would face a certain challenge, whether that be internally or externally, and if i succeeded at it, then He would kneel me down with Him and he would open with, “well done, Little One.” It was so cathartic that i would sob in his arms.

    So yes, these kinds of efforts to change, and thereby control are useful if used correctly, mind you. Todd never abused me or His or my station. Only twice did i ever see Him get angry at me, for obvious reasons, my stubbornness. He saved my life, by changing every aspect of who i was, to who i am right now, today.

    Thanks for this.
    Little One.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What a wonderful story, boy! Renaming is truly a powerful practice—that’s why it’s so common among slave-owning cultures. It demonstrates power and ownership in a very visceral way

      Liked by 1 person

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