What Is a Slave Collar

Q: I saw one of my friends wearing what looked like a dog collar and when I asked her about it she told me it was a slave collar. I couldn’t believe it. Does she need to see a shrink? Why on earth would she wear a collar? - Leah, Pueblo, Colorado

A: Dear Leah,

BDSM slave collarComparing a slave collar to a dog collar is like comparing a wedding dress to a horse blanket. One is a symbol of commitment; the other is a symbol of, well… horses, I guess.

The reason your friend was wearing a slave collar is because she is probably involved in the BDSM lifestyle (bondage, discipline, submission, and domination, or sadomasochism). I won’t delve into the particulars of the lifestyle because A) I can’t do it justice here, and 2) there’s a whole World Wide Web that just can’t wait to educate you. Instead, let’s look at the meaning behind the collar.

Most people involved in the BDSM lifestyle will tell you that the collar your friend was wearing is much more than a decoration. “Collaring” is viewed as a solemn commitment in the BDSM community. In a committed slave/Master relationship the slave promises, of his or her own free will, to obey the Master or Mistress in matters ranging from the physical to the spiritual, depending on what the two (or more) have negotiated.

The Master or Mistress, in turn, offers physical and emotional security, and he or she promises not to become sadistic. Wait. Scratch that. The Master promises that he or she will become sadistic, but in a loving way. Hang on. Let me rephrase. The Master promises to be sadistic, but in an agreed upon manner and only to the extent that the slave is willing to tolerate, which as you can see, is not sadism entirely but more of a mutually agreed upon discomfiture, which is difficult to consider maltreatment in the truest sense of the word.

Oy. You can see the difficulty these folks have in explaining themselves.

For a little help on the subject I turned to Tom Davis, the owner of Daycollar.com. An expert on the BDSM lifestyle, Tom says, “the collar is really a symbol of devotion to one whom you have agreed to partner with. The exchange of power between a Dominant and submissive is a mutually agreed upon unbalancing of control. It is a akin to the traditional wedding ring in non-BDSM or ‘vanilla’ relationships, except a lot sexier.” Easy there, cowboy. Sexy is subjective.

Tom is well aware that not everyone is on board with the lifestyle – particularly those in the psychology industry. One scholarly article warns that “this development [of BDSM] into an established subculture and community has the potential to become dangerous, not only because it normalizes the behaviors that the sadomasochistic community participates in but it also has the potential to devalue life, women, sex, and the human body” (Paclebar, Furtado, & McDonald-Witt, 2006).

Bully for you if you can figure out what that means. Paclebar and Company don’t offer much evidence to support their sweeping assertions. However, they are not alone in their estimation of the BDSM lifestyle. In the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, sadism and masochism are still considered to be mental disorders right up there with pedophilia, exhibitionism, and frotteurism (rubbing against unconsenting others for sexual gratification).*

There are some important differences between BDSM and the other behaviors it’s lumped in with – not the least of which is consent. In activities such as pedophilia, exhibitionism, and frotteurims there is no consent. That’s what makes them criminal acts. In the BDSM community, however, the most common mantra you will hear is, “Safe, Sane, and Consensual.” I’m not the first to point out that many of my colleagues ignore the distinction. Kolms (2003) noted that psychologists tend to treat BDSMers as a “stigmatized sexual minority” and she has the data to back it up. She suggests that us shrinks could use some education on the subject before we go a’judgin’ folks.

Who are these masked man-handlers?

So who are these deviants, these sickos, these ne’er-do-wells who devalue all that is valuable?

The data aren’t exactly pouring in, but we do have a bit to work with. In an extensive query of Finnish BDSM devotees (hey, we gotta start somewhere), two related studies noted the following:

  • Forty-three percent of the respondents reported being mainly heterosexual, 5.4% bisexual, and 51.6% mainly homosexual.
  • 27% identified themselves as mainly sadistic (Masters or Dominants), 22.7 % as both sadistic and masochistic, and 50.2% as mainly masochistic (slaves or submissives).
  • Their level of social functioning (ability to maintain jobs, friends, etc.) is no more impaired than any other segment of the population.
  • They tend to make more money and be more highly educated than the general population.
  • More women in the lifestyle were abused as children than in the general population.
  • Of the women who were abused as children, most tended toward masochism; of the men who were abused as children, most tended toward sadism. (Nordling, Sandnabba, & Santtila. 2000; Sandnabba, Santtila, Alison, & Nordling, 2002)

As to why people are drawn to the lifestyle, the reasons are as individual as any other life choice. If you are looking for a common theme, Baumeister’s (1997) thoughts serve as well as any other: “Masochism fosters an escape from the stressful awareness of one’s ordinary identity. The special and stressful nature of modern Western selfhood is burdensome, and masochistic sex play is one way people seek to relieve that stress by accomplishing a temporary escape from their normal identity.” Indeed, it is not uncommon in BDSM circles to hear of a man or woman who is a powerful decision maker by day and a submissive servant by night. Sort of a superhero in reverse.

Other theories suggest that masochistic tendencies (in women) and sadistic tendencies (in men) are related to childhood sexual trauma. The thinking is that women end up reliving the abusive relationships forced upon them as children. Men, on the other hand, seek to place themselves in a position of sexual power so that they never experience powerlessness again. These are probably useful explanations for some people, but even in the BDSM lifestyle those who experienced childhood sexual abuse are a small minority.

Let’s talk about power, baby

Before you get too concerned about your friend’s sanity, Leah, consider this. You don’t have to look far to find a couple in which one partner dominates over the other with an iron fist, even though the two have not overtly negotiated the balance of power in their relationship. What they are usually left with is an endless power struggle in which one tries to enforce unspoken rules and the other tries to circumvent them.

Contrast that against a Dominant/submissive relationship in which one partner wears the collar proudly and voluntarily while the other carries the burden of responsibility. In this relationship, the rules have been negotiated and agreed upon. By definition, and by mutual consent, there are no power struggles. All other things being equal, which is the healthier arrangement?


* Professionals who support the classification of sadism and masochism as mental disorders will want to proudly notify me that “the diagnosis is made if the person has acted on these urges with a nonconsenting person or the urges, sexual fantasies, or behaviors cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty” (APA, p. 566). To this I respond: do not antagonize the Iron Shrink. If the act is carried out on a nonconsenting person then it is a crime, not a mental disorder. And if “marked distress or interpersonal difficulty” are the criteria for a mental disorder then overeating should figure prominently in the DSM. (It’s barely mentioned.) Let’s be forthright. The reason these activities are said to stem from mental disorders is because enough people in our profession find them to be distasteful. For a group of professionals who preach incessantly about tolerance and diversity, we psychologists are awfully particular about who we choose to tolerate.

American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2000.

Baumeister, R. F. (1997). The enigmatic appeal of sexual masochism: Why people desire pain, bondage, and humiliation in sex. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 16(2), 133-150.

Kolmes, K. L. (2003). BDSM consumers of mental health services: The need for culturally sensitive care. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences & Engineering, 64(5-B), 2392.

Nordling, N., Sandnabba, N. K., & Santtila, P. (2000). The prevalence and effects of self-reported childhood sexual abuse among sadomasochistically oriented males and females. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 9(1), 53-63.

Paclebar, A. M., Furtado, C., & McDonald-Witt, M. (2006). Sadomasochism: practices, behaviors, and culture in American society. In H. W. Hickey (Ed.), Sex Crimes and Paraphilia (pp. 215-227). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Sandnabba, N. K., Santtila, P., Alison, L., & Nordling, N. (2002). Demographics, sexual behaviour, family background and abuse experiences of practitioners of sadomasochistic sex: A review of recent research. Sexual and Relationships Therapy, 17(1), 39-55.

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  • MCA

    Great article. Thank you for being so objective, open minded and informative.

  • EssEm

    Well done. A fellow shrink here. Part of my patient population engages in various forms of BDSM. As in so many things, what the subjective experience of the participants is varies greatly from how it is perceived by outsiders. The ego-relief factor for high status males is especially noticeable.

  • Eryka

    This article is wonderful. You have managed to sum things up well, and your last bit, “Let’s talk about power, baby”, pretty much hit the nail on the head. I have tried to explain this very concept to people in the past, and some occasions have been more successful than others. It’s so nice to find someone in your line of work who is willing to consider that maybe those of us in this lifestyle are not totally deranged and in need of reeducation and/or strong medication. Thank you again.

    • Roxy

      Yes I agree, im a Domme and am glad to see someone break it down without tainting the name of bdsm and marking us all insane sadist with childhood issues.

  • Sirkufs

    Great article. As someone who has had the tendancies all his life for this style of “play”, I’ve often wondered why I thought like this. I have a great family, (I’m currently 49 years old) and have had no sexual trama to speak of. I boil it down to the question, “why do you like vanilla and I like chocolate”? The answer? “I don’t know why, we just do”. I am a “switch”. I like it both ways depending on how stressful my day was. It is true that is is not for everyone, but what is?! Just thought I’d add my 2 cents. Thanks!

  • Mr L

    Did I miss the part where is also is stated that the salve/submissive will/want to wear the collar with pride?

  • Mr L

    Sorry.. over read it

  • Northern Mom

    This is a pretty good article I think, as someone who has always been submissive when it comes to sexual situations. I am not some unbalanced physco, I am a normal functioning single mother.
    I have always seeked for my partners to make the 1st move to engaged sexualy, as well as control a good portion of the activities during. I have also always been interested in “playing” the innocent little girl with her Daddy or the “rape victim” & I have never been sexually abused or raped in my childhood. I have always asked for my partners to also choke me, but most people simply not comfortable with this, or they would agree but barely even appy pressure, just have their hand on my neck.
    I have recently began a puely sexual relationship that has rocked my world…now tonight I was even asked about wearing a “slave” or “dog” collar and I know I will.
    This partner has gone as far as beating me well enough to leave me sore and bruised for days after, and I find the harder he goes in attempts to mske me cry the more it turns me on.

    • Shawn

      Hi Northern mom – I hope you’re having fun, but I also hope you are studying up on the BDSM lifestyle. There are physical and psychological risks, and all parties need to be skilled at avoiding them.

      • Sandy

        Safe word is a must!

  • http://www.creativegrotto.blogspot.com SWN

    Hi there, thought i would add my two cents in as well. I read this and thought it was very interesting and that some shrinks actually consider this as a lifestyle and not us being crazy. I am in the lifestyle, always been a slave/submissive all my life. I was abused, sexual, mental, and physical but this isnt what put me into the lifestyle. I have went through all that, but it has always been my nature to be a slave/submissive and at times thought i was crazy for that.

    As you stated that not all people who have been abused will get into this lifestyle and or why they get into it. It is just our nature to be in it, and is a life choice. Anyways,was a very good article about a bit of the lifestyle.

    • Shawn

      Thanks SWN. This is a pretty old article and I’m amazed at the amount of traffic it continues to get. I’m glad it’s useful.

  • LadyAzriel

    I love this article, it is open and fair to the BDSM lifestyle while so many other condemn it. I am going to have to show this to a few friends of Mine who call Me a freak.

  • lucky

    “Comparing a slave collar to a dog collar is like comparing a wedding dress to a horse blanket. One is a symbol of commitment; the other is a symbol of, well… horses, I guess.” i don’t agree with what you said as im a pet to my owner a dog collar is like a wedding ring calling it a horse blanket to me is rude to us pups… sorry horses idk what to say :/ i mean you no offence though :3

  • Bambi

    This is not a bad description of a collar, but i’ve been involved in this lifestyle for 8 years from the slave’s perspective. i never see anyone in the psy community address anything about except the Sadism and masochism, the power exchange. No one ever addresses the total commitment between M/s couples to one another’s emotional and physical welfare. They totally ignore the practice of transparency within the relationship, honor, truth, bonding, trust.
    i had a loving,caring vanilla (normal) marriage for 36 years,i’m well acquainted with both lifestyles. i’ll take the honest, transparent, deep commitment of the BDSM relationship any day. An M/s relationship that works well, is a wonderful bond to see.

  • Darlene

    I wear my collar proudly. Not only for my Master and the respect I have for him collaring me, but I feel a sense of pride that I am owned by a wonderful mentor.
    I am a professional by day and a slave by night. Given the ability to release control to Master is heavenly. The emotional bond is like no other. BDSM relationships are for a special breed, both parties must be strong but one must give up control.