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The most publicly visible aspect of the Gorean subculture is the practice of consensual slavery. Goreans are far from unique in the modern world in practicing consensual hierarchical relationships. Tens of thousands of people do so in the United States alone, to varying degrees and with varying bases. The Leather community, the “general kink” community, the Gorean Community, the TPE community, and others all practice a different variant of dominant and submissive relationship dynamics, although there is often a great deal more overlap than most would like to admit, and they have all influenced each other over time, again more than most would like to admit.
What is consensual slavery?
The “s-word” causes quite a bit of consternation for many, and not unjustifiably so. For most of human history, most cultures around the world have included some form of slavery. The details varied widely, from dehumanizing chattel slavery to an unbreakable employer-employee relationship. While most in the western world today when hearing the word “slave” think of early-1800s American racial slavery, it has also included the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire, who while certainly not free were paid a regular salary and were extremely powerful in Ottoman politics for centuries. Despite those cases, most historical slavery has been decidedly unpleasant and exploitative.
Slavery as a legal institution was slowly phased out over the course of many centuries, although it sometimes continued illegally for a time. Europe was the first to push for world-wide ending of the slave trade from the late 1700s onward (despite its heavy involvement in it in the centuries prior). Although now illegal in every country in the world, illegal enslavement (the definition of which is not universally accepted) still exists today.
None of which, however, has any bearing on what those in the D/s community mean by the word “slave.” In Leather, BDSM, or Gorean cultures “slave” is used to refer to the submissive and serving party in a consensual power-exchange relationship. Per Wikipedia
The Master/slave (or owner/property) relationship is entered into on a consensual basis, without the legal force of historical or modern non-consensual slavery, that is forbidden by the laws of most countries.
The historical origin of the use of that term is unclear, although its modern usage seems to have originated with the post-World War II gay leather movement in the United States. Because it is based on consensual and voluntary participation many observers refer to it collectively as a form of role-play, that is, role-playing historical slavery. While for many participants it is a part-time role-play, for others it is an integral part of their intimate emotional relationships. (Long-term Master/slave relationships are often called “lifestyle M/s” to differentiate from temporary role-play or sex-only arrangements.) Although not required by most definitions consensual “slavery” is frequently, and preferably, a deeply emotional and often loving relationship. In the general D/s community people of all genders and sexual orientations can be found in both Master and slave roles, both role-play and lifestyle.
Consensual slavery should also be understood as distinct from imagery often associated with the BDSM community. While there is considerable overlap between those who practice sexual bondage, sadomasochistic activities, and consensual long-term power-exchange relationships (whether M/s or Dominant/submissive), one does not in any way imply another. There are many people, in the Gorean community and otherwise, that practice consensual lifestyle Master/slave relationships but do not engage in any sexual bondage or sadomasochistic play.
The key attribute of “lifestyle M/s” that differentiates it from “modern slavery” is the continued active consent of all involved parties. Claims that a person cannot consent to a relationship in which they are the submissive or servile partner without it being abuse are, quite simply, ignorant bigotry.
All references to slavery on this site should be understood as referring to “consensual slavery,” not to historical, chattel, or illegal slavery unless otherwise explicitly stated.
Gorean slavery vs BDSM slavery
Gorean consensual slavery has a number of key attributes that differentiate it within the context of D/s communities.
- Gorean slavery is strongly gendered. Only women are accepted as slaves in most circles. While a few pockets allow for male slavery, as it did appear in the books, most view it as inappropriate and incompatible with Gor’s openly patriarchal worldview.
- Gorean slavery is not on a sliding scale. In the BDSM community it is common to have a wide range of relationship dynamics that use the terms “Dom and sub” or “Master and slave” (or many other variations like Daddy/girl, Owner/pet, etc.), and there is a wide range of interpretations of the meaning of each of those and the degree of control involved in the relationship. It is so fluid that in practice the terms are often utterly meaningless as a form of communication. Gorean slavery is considerably more uniform (although not entirely by any means), and is an inherently total relationship. If a part of the slave’s life is unregulated by her master (as is frequently the case), it is only because he has not chosen to regulate it, not because he would not have the right to do so should he desire it.
- A Gorean slave’s service is communal. A common refrain in the BDSM community is “I am a slave but not your slave, so piss off.” That is not a Gorean approach. Within the Gorean community, slave is a social status, not just a relationship status. A slave is a slave at all times and in all situations to all people, whether her owner is present or not. That does not mean she owes total and absolute obedience to anyone who pounds his chest and declares himself Gorean, but within a Gorean context she is expected to be pleasing, of service, and deferential to all non-slave people present. That includes addressing all non-slave people as “Master” or “Mistress,” as appropriate, rather than “Sir,” “Mister,” or other such honorifics. It also means that any Free person present may, within reason, correct a slave’s behavior (or misbehavior), although not with the same impunity as her master.
While those from other D/s communities may find some of these attributes off-putting, they are standard behavior for a Gorean setting and visitors should be aware that they will generally be expected to follow Gorean “house rules,” just as Goreans would be expected to stay within cultural expectations elsewhere.
The Gorean word for a female slave in the books is “kajira” (plural, kajirae). Per the books it is simply a translation and carries no other significance. In common usage it is sometimes given extra weight as “special kind of slave” (ie, Gorean), or as if it were a superior rank of slave, but both are perversions of the language. The most accurate understanding of its common usage would be one of (in decreasing order of accuracy):
- A slave of a Gorean
- An unowned slave trained in Gorean practices, culture, and expectations and behaving as such in D/s contexts and with other Goreans (See “unowned slaves” below.)
- A woman who aspires to one of the above and is working to achieve it
Neither statement carries any inherent ranking or statement of superiority (nor inferiority, for that matter) just the added attribute of communal and social obligations.
Slave vs submissive
A common debate within the hierarchical-relationship community generally is the relative meaning of the terms “sub” or “submissive” and “slave.” As noted above, the general kink community has a collective fetish for allowing personal redefinition of words to the point that they no longer have value as a tool of communication, which is generally unhelpful when one is trying to educate or communicate with newer members. (That’s before we even get into the question of using an adjective, “submissive,” as an identity noun, which is linguistically problematic even in a language like English.)
While there is no precise distinction between sub and slave that is universally understood, the best heuristic relates not to the level of control but the nature of the control.
A sub loans some portion of her agency to her Dom, contingent on various factors, either indefinitely or for some fixed period of time.
A slave transfers all of her agency to her Master, who then loans some portion of it back to her, contingent on various factors, either indefinitely or for some period of time.
The amount of personal liberty and agency the sub/slave has in the end may vary extensively from one set of people to another, and it is quite possible, even common, for a specific sub to have more restrictions and fine-grained control placed on her than a specific slave.
The distinction is not in the level of control exercised, but in who has the authority to decide what that level is. Those two models may result in nearly identical end results in practice, as viewed by an outside observer, but the emotional context and understanding for the participants is completely different.
Slavery and Community
As noted, Gorean slavery is a social status, not just a relationship status. A slave relates to all non-slave people as a slave, regardless of whether or not she is owned by him. The degree to which she is accountable to those other than her owner, however, is somewhat fuzzy. The books themselves are somewhat inconsistent on this point. On the one hand, we are presented with quotes such as this, many times:
“The discipline of a slave may be attended to by any Free Person, otherwise she might do much what she wished, provided only her Master did not learn of it. The legal principle is clear, and has been upheld in several courts, in several cities, including Ar.”
Magician of Gor, Page 122
“You cannot punish me!” she cried. “You are not my Masters!” “Any Free Person can punish an errant slave girl,” I said. “Surely you do not think that her behavior fails to be subject to supervision and correction as soon as she is out of her Master’s sight?”
Magician of Gor, Page 225
Yet we also see passages such as this:
“What have we here!” cried a man cheerfully. “Slaves!” cried others. “Hold,” said I. “We are honest men, and are not thieves. Release them.” The man loosed the hair of the girls. Swiftly they knelt, frightened. “These girls,” said I, “belong to Imnak.” “He is a red hunter,” said a man. “He is one with us,” I said. There was an angry cry. I drew my blade. “None may use them without his permission,” I said. “I shall maintain discipline, if need be, my comrades, by the blade.”
Beasts of Gor, Page 387
Clearly then slaves are not “communal property.” Rather, they serve, and are of service to, their master, but maintaining a social structure is the responsibility of all. (Even other slaves, if appropriate.) Gorean slavery is partially a relationship, and partially a social structure. Maintaining that is both a right and a responsibility of all.
But how? In the books, this usually took the form of corporal punishment. The books tend to rely heavily on punishment and fear as a form of discipline, despite the mountain of psychological evidence that it is the worst way to establish or maintain discipline long-term. (Realism is not a priority for the books.) It’s also a generally poor way to maintain what is, ultimately, a consensual relationship and community.
The application of this dichotomy varies somewhat from one community to another. As a common baseline, however, the following recommendations suffice and should provide adequate preparation for those attending a Gorean event for the first time.
As a practical matter, all kajirae are expected to be of “casual service” to any Gorean they are around. That includes providing food and drink, helping to clean an area, light manual tasks, and so forth; all tasks that, if done in public around non-Goreans, would draw little attention in and of themselves. Casual physical contact is also by default permissible. It is an expectation that a kajira will be open to such tasks, and her master will permit them. If, for whatever reason, her master objects to such service that is his choice, but he will also be excluded from even such casual service by others.
More personal and intimate service (essentially anything more than casual touching, hugging, etc.) is entirely at her master’s discretion if, when, and how it will be given. The assumed default is no unless he states otherwise, but it is his decision, not hers.
Similarly, correction from anyone is permitted when appropriate. Correction, however, is not punitive. Correction includes verbal chastisement, instructions to repeat an unsuccessful or unacceptable task, etc. Punishment, if warranted, should be referred back to her master to be carried out at his discretion, based on input and recommendations from others. Again, he may explicitly allow others to take matters into their own hands or not, but assume not.
One way to think about the level of deference a Gorean slave owes others is a “decay curve.” That is, if one were to graph her level of deference and expected obedience, it would be 100% to her master. For his close Gorean friends with whom he shares a Home Stone it would be perhaps 90%; Other known and friendly Goreans 80% or 75%; Gor-friendly non-Gorean friends perhaps 60%; non-Gor-aware but close friends perhaps 40%; and the rest of the world in general maybe 15%, or “be especially kind and helpful within the bounds of social conventions.”
The details and rate of decline will of course vary widely with the people involved, and the numbers here are purely for demonstration and greatly over-simplified, so do not take them as gospel. The main point is to contrast that model with the more typical BDSM convention of “some negotiated number for her master, and absolutely 0 for anyone else, piss off.”
The phrase “unowned slave” is often used in online D/s discussions, Gorean and otherwise. From a Gorean point of view the phrase is an oxymoron; a slave means “one who is owned,” and “unowned owned person” is nonsensical. However, there are still a significant number of women involved in the Gorean community who are not in a relationship, yet desire to be in one as a slave and present themselves publicly as one. What then shall we make of such people?
Although nominally free, it would be disingenuous to demand that such people comport themselves in the manner of a Gorean free person. That would simply not be honest. At the same time, “woman who is free but wishes to not be so acts as if she isn’t as a form of self-advertising” is a mouthful.
In practice, the best way to understand the role such women play in the Gorean community is “self-owned slaves.” That is, their behavior and social interactions are those of a slave, however, as they are not owned by anyone else they are not subject to anyone else’s absolute authority. They are subject to the same authority from others as they would be were they owned by another Gorean.
Those women choosing to present themselves as an “unowned slave” within the Gorean community should expect to be so treated; as a slave, but one owned by “not me.”
To be sure, any form of D/s relationship, even if consensual, carries with it a significant risk of abuse. When that relationship is based on purportedly innate gender dynamics and a totality of control, that risk is higher still, even with the best of intentions. (“Absolute power corrupts absolutely” and all that.) How, then, does Gor view abuse?
The books include various quotes about how a slave is subject to the absolute authority of her master, who may do anything with and to her he wishes. However, nearly all instances we see of a man striking a slave are punitive and controlled, intended to correct rather than abuse or break. In the rare cases we see of a slave being almost disfigured or killed, the act is preempted and avoided, sometimes through the intervention of others.
More telling is this line, from very early in the series:
“Perhaps it should only be added that the Gorean Master, though strict, is seldom cruel. The girl knows, if she pleases him, her lot will be an easy one. She will almost never encountered sadism or wanton cruelty, for the psychological environment that tends to breed these diseases is largely absent from Gor. This does not mean that she will not expect to be beaten if she disobeys, or fails to please her Master.”
Outlaw of Gor, Page 53
The word “sadism” in that excerpt is taken by some to imply that Gor is incompatible with BDSM, which often engages in “sadism and masochism,” which has just been defined as a “disease.” To the literalist, that is a clear-cut prohibition on association with the BDSM community.
However, such a literalist view misses two very important points. Firstly, the complete paragraph in which that quote lives is as follows:
“Perhaps it should only be added that the Gorean Master, though strict, is seldom cruel. The girl knows, if she pleases him, her lot will be an easy one. She will almost never encountered sadism or wanton cruelty, for the psychological environment that tends to breed these diseases is largely absent from Gor. This does not mean that she will not expect to be beaten if she disobeys, or fails to please her Master. On the other hand, it is not too unusual a set of compartments on Gor where the master, in effect, willingly wears the collar, and his lovely slave, by the practice of the delightful wiles of her sex, with scandalous success wheedles her way triumphantly from the satisfaction of one whim to the next.”
Outlaw of Gor, Page 53
If the books are to be taken at literal face value, then Gor must openly embrace “topping from the bottom” and manipulation of the master by the slave! Given the open distaste for such among the Gorean community, and how it undermines the other points made in the series, clearly strict literalism is not a viable option.
Secondly, the word “sadism” has evolved considerably in meaning from the late 1960s. Clinically, at the time, it referred to a malevolent enjoyment in causing suffering in others and an inability to achieve sexual satisfaction without it. That is, it was a form of “wanton cruelty” and rather intrinsically non-consensual. In modern parlance, however, in the BDSM community, it is a much softer word involving consensual extreme nervous system manipulation (e.g., via pain), which is ultimately pleasurable for both parties. Even the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual (DSM) in its current version no longer defines it as a disorder (unless it causes the patient problems in daily life, which is true of almost anything in the DSM). That is, what the BDSM community means when it says “sadist” and what a 1960s psychiatrist (or book series) meant are extremely different.
Rather, the focus should be on “wanton cruelty.” The books argue, rather, that a desire to abuse those weaker than yourself is a sign of a sick mind, one born of a social structure that seeks to demean and tear down its members. When one feels powerless, a sadly common response is to assert power through violence against those who cannot defend themselves. Thus, a society that tears down its members will see its members try to tear down others in turn. In a society that seeks to build up its members, there will be little need to compensate for a feeling of powerlessness through abuse.
Many Earth moralities make people little; the object of Gorean morality, for all its faults, is to make people free and great.
Marauders of Gor, Page 9
One could argue that such an overly simplistic view is naive. One would be right to do so. However, the point made is psychologically valid and supported, if over-simplified to make a point. Cycles of poverty and violence beget poverty and violence, and if you reduce the poverty and violence then it breaks the vicious circle, at least in part.
“The Gorean master seldom, if ever, inflicts gratuitous pain. What would be the point of it? Similarly he would not abuse children, torture small animals, or such. Goreans would simply not understand such things. If they did understand them, they would doubtless account them offenses against honor.”
Prize of Gor, Page 714
We therefore can conclude that abuse, wanton cruelty, and malevolence against one who is weaker (be it a slave, child, or animal) is an “offense against honor,” and against Gorean ideals.