I have a friend who has an arrangement with a submissive man who has a cleaning fetish. My friend only need give him a few stern orders when he arrives, look over his work, approve or disapprove, and thereby get her house and garage cleaned for free. The man wants to be referred to as a “slave,” which my friend finds objectionable, for obvious reasons. Should she put her own feelings aside? Or should she discuss the matter with the, shall we say, “servant,” and insist on different, less offensive terminology?
Anonymous / Boston
I’m going to assume that neither your friend nor Cinderfella have slavery-related trauma in their personal or family histories, because otherwise I would be stratospherically out of my league. You’d need some kind of psychotherapist-yogini-historian-personal injury lawyer to address a situation like that. This here, this is just some conscientious kinksters living la vida Portlandia. Right? Right.
Does your friend — we’ll call her Iron Ma’am — feel viscerally disturbed by calling Cinderfella a slave, or does she only feel that she ought to be? We can’t control our reactions to words. There are words I know intellectually are offensive, but they don’t carry an emotional impact, because they weren’t taboo growing up or else they were so taboo I didn’t learn them until I was too old to latch on with a strong emotional response. If Iron Ma’am feels bad because she doesn’t feel worse, she may as well chuck her compunctions. Cinderfella clearly has a deep-grooved neural response to the word “slave.” She doesn’t: He wins. She can always donate the cost of an equivalent session with Merry Maids to an organization that combats modern-day slavery to assuage her conscience.
But what if the same word that gives Cinderfella a feeling of oh so right makes Iron Ma’am feel oh so wrong? Then they should negotiate. This could be a deal breaker, but any two people with the imagination to create this arrangement in the first place, with the entire gorgeous English lexicon between them, ought to be able to figure something out.
(Cinderfella might find it easier to do this negotiation over the phone or in some venue that makes it clear that he and Iron Ma’am aren’t playing their roles, they are two adults talking as equals. Iron Ma’am should offer this before he asks.)
How about calling Cinderfella “slave” in a mocking way? Or using air quotes? Or only writing it on a list of instructions (“Dear Slave”) and never saying it aloud? And of course there are synonyms: Besides “servant,” my thesaurus offers bootlicker, captive, doormat, drudge, flunky, helot, menial, peon, plebe, prole, scrub, scullion, serf, skivvy, stooge, toady, vassal. Needless to say, nearly all these words are also associated with literal human-rights violations that ought never be trivialized. Iron Ma’am may be looking for clean money in a dirty market, linguistically speaking. “Slave” is at least the most generic of these terms, the one most used in metaphorical contexts from romance to information technology. I find it almost impossible to envision what harm could be engendered by the private use of such a term between two adults of normal moral functioning.
If Iron Ma’am oils her joints a bit, maybe she can give Cinderfella what he wants or engineer a clever workaround. But if she can’t, well, better to be a slave to one’s conscience than to one’s tidy garage.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.