This is a guest post by Mistress Steel. It was part of her Steel’s Chamber Scrolls which is now defunct. Shared with Permission.
This distinction appears muddled, misunderstood and generalized by a great number of the people who I converse with. First I would like to make a point. Language at it's best shifts from area to area. Within this one continent, we have many variations or dialects of usage. This can be seen in terms like sweeper meaning vacuum cleaner etc. So, many words used within a community can mean different things to different people based on the 'age' of the person, their background and the common usage of the area they live in.
The submissive is a volunteer.
The slave is not a volunteer.
This is the core and substantial difference between the two terms. Within the BDSM community, this can be interpreted in this way. The submissive individual may be lightly, moderately or heavily submissive. The submissive has a desire to submit to the direction of another person which in this community we call the Dominant or Top. Their submission may be quite limited in range, for example, they may only want and desire to release their submission in a limited fashion, for short amounts of time and within tightly confined arenas. This type of submissive will generally carry a long list of rules, boundaries, limits, requirements etc. which they require the Dominant to agree to prior to engaging their submissive aspect within the relationship. Other submissives will have a more moderate (this is the largest group) approach, a stronger desire to submit for longer periods of time with fewer restrictions, limitations and requirements. A small percentage of submissives will be heavily submissive. They desire and look for a full-time partner to live with on a full-time basis. Their nature is to seek to express their submission as often as possible with the fewest restrictions upon their chosen Dominant as possible. Generally, their list of limitations, rules, and requirements may be verbal, short and flexible.
Additionally, there is the person that calls themselves submissive who prefers to seek out only casual contacts. This person is willing to submit only so far as to address their personal needs. Their orientation toward 'serving' the other person is almost nonexistent. They will have a list of personal needs and requirements and in large part do not care who fills them. These persons tend to be called the "DO ME" subs. In my opinion, they are not submissives at all, not having the basic criteria of a 'desire to serve for the pleasure of another' that is the fundamental trait I identify as submissive and Dominant. For me personally, the 'do me sub' in my eyes is a vanilla person with a kink fetish desire.
There is one other category that needs to be mentioned here. This is the terminology of bottom and masochist. In general terms, a bottom is not necessarily submissive but a person who enjoys scening from the bottom position. This bottom may or may not consider themselves to be a submissive, many consider themselves to be neither submissive nor Dominant but more accurately a switch. You will note that I do not consider a bottom to be a 'do me sub', their attitude, orientation, and motivation are distinctly different. In my opinion, they are usually very open and honest about the submissive aspect and by virtue of that fall into their own category. I have scened with many bottoms and found them to be excellent for demo's, workshops and to help out or assist where multiple persons are useful for the fulfillment of a scene. The masochist also plays in here, a masochist is a person that enjoys pain being inflicted upon them. They do not need to be submissive at all, (similar to a bottom). However, many submissives are strongly masochistic. The masochist also is sometimes called a 'pain slut', they generally are most similar to a bottom in clarifying their distinctions from the label or identification of submissive. This form of honesty is what in my opinion makes both of these choices valid.
The SLAVE ~
The slave is beyond the last level of the submissive. The slave vacates limits. To be a slave is to offer of self fully and without reservation. From my perspective, very few individuals fall into this category. Those that do, that I know personally are generally with their Dominant for a very long period of time. Trust has been long ago established, limits and range discovered and a relationship of personal strength has emerged which allows the submissive to transcend to this level. This is a level without safewords, without limits. The slave lives with their Dominant on a full-time basis and may or may not have a life external of serving their mate. The slave generally selects a Dominant with parallel limits. By this, I mean that the final action of trust is the vacating of set limits. In order to do this, the individual must fundamentally know that their partner shares the same 'natural' or 'inviolate' limits as they do. A Dominant has limits just like a submissive. That which falls within their natural range and desire is their arena.
Many people use the term 'slave' interchangeably with submissive. I myself enjoy calling my sub's 'slaves' because it thrills them. However, I know in truth that they are not slaves, they fall within the field of the submissive. A submissive without choice (limit's - safewords) becomes a slave. They have passed that final threshold of personal trust.
One final thing to really confuse things. I have a category which I call the 'Authentic Submissive', I also call these persons 'full out or true Submissives'. This is the submissive who is auto responsive. When in top space they can and may appear to be at any level of the submissive listed above. Upon entering sub-space they lose the ability to do anything but obey. This is an automatic response. They are unable to control the response. It has been my lifelong opinion that these submissives are the 'natural slaves', they have a capacity and range far exceeding the non-auto-responsive submissive. By the way, when I find one of these quite rare authentic submissives, I am instinctively very protective of them. They are the most vulnerable members of this community.
Ok, to address a few more misconceptions. There is sometimes rampant discussion on the "who is real" question. Any person who states that they are submissive, switch or Dominant should be taken at their word until through action, word or deed they demonstrate otherwise. Respect is not given by virtue of having any aspect but is earned or inspired by consistent action, word or deed. The amount, number, placement, design of brandings, piercings, tattoos etc. can but do not necessarily identify any individual by virtue of in community status. These ornamentations are used across the entirety of the community and can be seen upon any individual regardless of Dominant or submissive status.
The easiest way to discover a person's placement within the community, be it through gender, sexual orientation, top, bottom, sideways etc... is to politely ask them. You can simply say, "What way would you prefer to be addressed?" This offers the individual the choice to tell you what they prefer so that you will not appear discourteous. By the way...courtesy is the key. You are not required to respect any unknown person. You are required to use common courtesy. Additionally, there is no right or wrong to being or believing yourself to be anything. It is not better to be one thing or the other and people should not be discriminated against for those choices they make. I offer common respect to all persons until and unless they take an action that I find disrespectful. At that point, I generally elect to have no further converse with them.
One final note. There is what is loosely called a 'submissive network'. This network is a system which has existed probably since the origination of the SSC credo (safe, sane and consensual), wherein submissives within a community share information. This becomes important if you are a new person. A Dominant is only as good as the reputation they maintain within their local community. There are persons within this community who use the label Dominant, Top and even Sadist to cover their activities of non-consensual abuse. If you encounter someone who is abusive or breaks the SSC credo. Identify them in their local community. This is in real life. If you are a Dominant and you encounter a submissive who is unbalanced (mentally), by this I mean erratic, violent, abusive...share this information as neutrally as possible with the other Dominant's in your locale who may encounter this submissive. There are some persons who call themselves submissive who will turn after a scene and accuse the Dominant of abuse. Generally, they have not dealt with prior, long-term or life-long experiences with abuse. You are not required to medically diagnose, just be open and honest. Submissives also live by their local reputation. When encountering or beginning a new relationship be honest about any occurrences which may reflect poorly on your reputation. Establishment of trust requires this. A Dominant may be accused of abuse and a submissive accused of being cracked or insane without substantiation. Input the information and take the time to get to know the individual before making a judgment!
Written by F.R.R. Mallory – also known as Mistress Steel. This article may be excerpted from Extreme Space, The Domination and Submission Handbook, Safe, Sane and Consensual, Dangerous Choices or other books by F.R.R. Mallory and shared here with her permission. Please click on the book title for information on how you can order a copy of these books and others by F.R.R. Mallory.