my coworker wants us to call her boyfriend her “master”

I gasped out loud when I received this letter, and so will you.

A reader writes:

An employee, “Sally,” started at our workplace about a year and a half ago. She’s not my subordinate, but is the subordinate to a peer of mine, and works frequently with my subordinates. A few months later she got a new boyfriend, “Peter.” (I found out about this through normal water cooler-type conversation.)

After she’d been with the company a few more months, at Christmas time of 2015, she invited her boyfriend to our holiday party. (This is totally normal in our workplace; people are welcome to bring any family or friends they like to the party as long as they RSVP.) Everything there seemed fine as well, although at one point Peter asked Sally to get him a drink, to which she replied “Yes, master!” in a very “I Dream of Jeannie” kind of way. We all laughed it off as a joke, and it didn’t come up again.

…until it did. We had an early summer party in late May at which Sally and Peter both attended (again, bringing SOs and friends was totally acceptable, so that was not in itself a problem). At this party, there was a good deal more of Peter ordering Sally around and Sally calling him “master”: he sent her to fetch drinks and hot dogs, he told her to find a place for them to sit, etc., to which she replied consistently with “Yes, master.” It made a number of people, myself included, clearly uncomfortable, but there was nothing objectively abusive about it (he never yelled at her or threatened her), and her immediate supervisor and her supervisor’s supervisor weren’t there, and so no one said anything (perhaps incorrectly?).

After the party, at the office, I overheard a conversation in which one of her coworker-friends was like, “so uh, what’s up with the master thing?” and she explained that she was in a 24/7 dominant/submissive relationship, and he wasn’t her boyfriend or her SO or her partner, he was her “master,” and needed to be referred to as such. Her coworker was clearly flummoxed and didn’t have much response to that.

Later, I heard her correct someone who referred to her boyfriend as her boyfriend/partner, saying that he wasn’t her partner, he was her master, and should be referred to using his appropriate title. She compared it to gay rights, saying that if she was a man, they wouldn’t erase her relationship by referring to “Peter” as “Patricia,” and so they shouldn’t erase the D/s relationship by calling him a partner instead of a master. It’s pretty clear that her coworkers aren’t comfortable asking her “will your master be at the end-of-summer barbecue?” or “did you and your master do anything fun this weekend?, though, and thus have just stopped referring to Peter at all.

Her direct boss, my colleague, is baffled as to how to sensitively address this issue. My instinct is that there’s a very big difference between insisting that colleagues acknowledge that you’re in a gay relationship and insisting that they refer to your partner as “your master,” and that it borders on involving other non-consenting parties into your relationship … but I can’t really articulate why. For what it’s worth, I am a bisexual woman, and our office has a number of gay/lesbian, trans, and poly individuals, so it’s not an issue of being against nontraditional relationships. It just seems to be that it seems very important to Sally that Peter be referred to as “her master,” and it seems equally clear that her coworkers find this intensely uncomfortable.

Help? How can I advise my colleague? What’s reasonable in this situation?

Whoa. Yeah, your coworkers definitely don’t need to refer to Peter as Sally’s “master,” and she’s wildly out of line to request or expect it.

What Sally is asking for is indeed akin to involving non-consenting parties in their sex life and in their relationship. Even if she wanted to argue that the term isn’t a sexual one (which is a bit of a stretch), she’s still insisting that people participate in a dynamic of her relationship with Peter that people haven’t signed up to be a part of.

That may become more intuitive if you consider that there isn’t actually any need here for a label more specific than partner (or, you know, even just “Peter”). Partner is a conveniently generic term that covers a whole spectrum of possibilities — boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, long-term companion, asexual mate, and so forth. There’s no need to use a term that describes the dynamic between them so specifically. After all, imagine if you had a coworker who insisted that people identify her partner as her “lover.” It’s too much information, it’s not needed, and it’s understandably going to make people uncomfortable.

(The “lover” comparison works particularly nicely, since anyone insisting on it would come across as just as self-involved as Sally is doing here. And to be clear, Sally’s behavior is self-involved; making a point of describing the inner workings of your relationship to colleagues and insisting that they use very specific, sexually charged language to describe it when a more generic term would do is very much the province of people who are indulging their own urges at the expense of consideration for others.)

And really, “partner” should cover it. Someone could be your partner and also be your master; it might be an unequal partnership, but it’s still a partnership.

That’s why refusing to refer to Peter as Sally’s “master” isn’t at all equivalent to refusing to acknowledge gay couples or calling someone who identifies as a man by a woman’s name. You’re not refusing to recognize the relationship’s validity; in fact, by referring to Peter as your coworker’s partner, you’re inherently recognizing the relationship’s validity. No one is being erased.

But Sally is asking for more than that: She’s asking you to get involved in and play along with a specific dynamic of their relationship. It’s entirely reasonable to decline to do that. Whatever she and Peter agree to do together is all well and good, but you and your coworkers don’t need to participate in it.

And the fact that this is happening at work, as opposed to just in a social situation, gives this a whole additional layer of weirdness and discomfort. It would be odd enough if Sally were just doing this socially, but it’s infinitely weirder and more disturbing that she’s making it A Thing at work — where people normally have stronger boundaries than this, where she has something of a captive audience, and where people feel pressure not to cause tension in their relationships with her.

So, should her boss — your friend — say something to her about it? Probably, especially if it’s making people uncomfortable, as of course it is. If Sally pushes back with the gay-rights comparison again, her manager can point out that everyone is happy to acknowledge her relationship with Peter, but that they’re going to use the term “partner” as they would do with everyone else — gay, straight, poly, or any other relationship category.

I originally published this at New York Magazine.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 610 comments… read them below }

  1. silvertech*

    No no no no. This is way TMI to even be mentioned not just in the workplace, but in a lot more of social settings. I’m not against this kind of relationship between consenting adults, but you don’t need to make a statement out of it and demand that people (at work!) play by your rules on that specific context. It’s unwelcome, it makes people uncomfortable and it’s hugely disrespectful of healthy privacy boundaries.

    Though I wonder if it’s the master that insist on Sally doing this? It would be extra awful if that were the case.

    1. fposte*

      The master insists because Sally wants that, though, so I don’t think there’s much differentiation.

      And sorry, Sally, but I’m not going to use whichever froofy term a couple feels defines them best, whether it’s master, fuckbuddy, heart’s true desire, or soulkin. That’s insisting that other people take part it your intimate dramas, and it’s highly inappropriate.

      1. Kristin (Germany)*

        Nope! Sorry, I have just this moment decided to start referring to my husband as my soulkin (hilariously, autocorrect wanted to make that ‘sulking’) and I must insist that you validate our unique relationship by doing the same.

        (I’m being lighthearted, but I actually completely agree with everything you’ve written here.)

      2. EmmaLou*

        I am loving the idea of someone answering in a job interview, “And is there a nickname you prefer?” “Yes, ‘Cuddlebunny.’ It’s what my wife calls me.”

        And then later meeting with clients, “This is our CFO, Cuddlebunny; our office manager, Lord Thunderblade; our HR Manager, Sweetcheeks; and our art director, Frank.”

        1. Cautionary tail*

          At one point in my life I was referred to as sweetcheeks…by working professionals of the oldest profession…as I completely ignored them every morning on my way to work from my really really low-rent district apartment.

        2. Adonday Veeah*

          HA! One time many years ago, my 6’3″ construction-working boyfriend came to work to pick me up. My office buddy, a gruff, knuckle-walking, fireplug of a guy with whom I often discussed my personal life, came up to shake his hand. He said, “Hi, you must be Hunnybunny!”

          1. Cube Dwelling*

            My husband and youngest son share their name (Sr, Jr). Since everyone was calling Jr “Little first name”, he started calling his dad (my hubby) “Big Daddy” and it kind of stuck. I can’t remember how my boss found out that is what we call my husband; he must have heard me talking to a workmate because they had named their son Jr, too. My husband went to pick up a package for me from work when I sick with the flu one year and my boss called my husband “Big Daddy”!! My husband took it quite well. To this day, when my boss asks about my husband he calls him “Big Daddy” and coworkers who don’t know the history are gobsmacked.

        3. Cheesehead*

          My 15 year old son was just telling me last night that a girl in one of his classes is named “Sweetie” (her name just happened to come up in conversation and I asked him more about it). While I’ve heard of people being called “sweetie” as a term of endearment (and have used that myself), I’ve never heard it as an actual name before. Her family is of a different ethnicity, so perhaps it means something different or is a common name in their native ethnic circle than it does here.

          I did ask him if it felt weird to call her by her name, and he said it did at first, but he’s used to it now.

          1. Cat steals keyboard*

            Now I’m thinking of that scene in Friends where phoebe can’t bring herself to call precious by her actual name.

          2. Jennifer M.*

            That sounds like a Pinoy name. If I’m right, it does in fact me Sweetie like the endearment, it’s just that Filipino naming trends are such that it is pretty common to name people Happy or Sweetie.

          3. Bob Barker*

            Concur, it’s probably a name from a foreign country. There are a couple of Bollywood actresses named Sweety, presumably because it sounds nice and falls in line with other common Hindi names like Preety. (Not Pretty.)

            Or her parents might have terrible senses of humor, or have been excessively optimistic about their kid’s disposition. But yeah, one gets used to it pretty quickly.

            1. Tex*

              Oh, who can forget Dimple Kapadia or her sister Twinkle. I think there was a Bubbles (or Bubbly?) back in the 80s as well.

          4. Nope666*

            Knew a girl named “Honey” in elementary school. It was her real name and was so weird calling her by name.

            1. Alienor*

              I wonder if she was named after Honey Wheeler in the Trixie Belden “girl detective” books. That’s the first thing that came to my mind as a former passionate fan of the series, at least. :)

              1. Zeldalaw*

                I love that I wasn’t alone in going there first!! I got all of my mom’s Trixie Belden books as hand me downs and they were very well worn – loved them!!!

            2. Kelly O*

              I knew a “Honey” too; she was adopted by a family member and changed it when she was older. Can’t say that I blame her.

            3. Aeth*

              The adoptive son of my grandma’s neighbours was called Hunny. Apparently it was short for Hunnington (or something), but it was very odd to see a tall black *bodybuilder* (yes, really!) being called Honey/Hunny by his very petite white mother.

        4. Naomi*

          One of my math teachers in high school referred to his wife as “Wifey-poo”. She chaperoned a school trip once and I had to make an effort not to call her that to her face!

        5. MashaKasha*

          Oh, that Frank. Always the original, always with his artistic self-expression! (said Sweetcheeks to Thunderblade and they both shook their heads.)

      3. Not So NewReader*

        There you go, OP. Don’t call him “master” for the same reason you don’t call anyone in the office “honey”. You just *don’t wanna* be that well acquainted.

        1. Nonconsensual D/s*

          “Please don’t violate my consent by pulling me non-consensually into your power dynamic.”


          This is a huge violation of sexual ethics in the kink and D/s worlds.

      4. sysmanager*

        I’m very annoyed by people co-opting civil rights to claim they have the right to be inappropriately sexual and intimate at work and, well, basically everywhere.

        If your chosen “partner” alternative implies anything beyond your partner’s gender identity and married/engaged/not married, or contains cutesy or pet language, it’s an intimate name and inappropriate to ask others to use it.

        I’d argue it’s even inappropriate to use it yourself in contexts like work, but that probably depends on if the answer to “is this sexual or at all in reference to the amount of sex in the relationship [none counts]?” or “is it over five words long, something like ‘honeybear’, or spoken in a cooing voice, and regularly used as a replacement for a generic term in conversation?” is “yes”.

        I seriously hope the “but LGBT rights” argument isn’t the defense Sally plans to use if challenged.

        As a side note, correcting “partner” (unless it was “partner…?”) specifically would be odd and annoying to me in any context I can immediately think of, even if your preferred word is something like “spouse” or “boyfriend”.

        1. Mookie*

          I seriously hope the “but LGBT rights” argument isn’t the defense Sally plans to use if challenged.

          Well, that acronym, in so far as it has to do with Sally’s relationship with Master, doesn’t apply to Sally and I don’t see the OP indicating anywhere that Sally has said otherwise.

          I take your point about co-opting other people’s oppressions (and we don’t have enough information about Sally to gauge the likelihood that this is what she’s doing), but kink-shaming is real enough all on its own. This isn’t a special snowflake-situation and I wouldn’t feel comfortable endorsing Sally’s silence to protect herself from kink-shaming (which is comparable to telling queer people that if they’d only remain closeted they’d have nothing to worry about), but she is being inappropriate here and it is the crossing of boundaries that could make this a career-killer, not the mere existence of her kinks itself.

          1. Nonconsensual D/s*

            It’s not kink shaming – though I’m ok with everyone agreeing that their sex lives are utterly inappropriate topics at work – it’s the simplest consent.

            If it’s not enthusiastic consent, negotiated and consent clearly communicated, slave/master need to back off from involving others in their sexual dynamic. I guarantee you that the kink community would speak up loudly against this. My guess is that they don’t have a kink support network, and they learned how to do D/s by 50 Shades – which is a story of stalking, non-consent, and special abuse. So it’s understandable, but they need to stop making kinksters with a good grasp of consent look bad.

          2. Jeanine*

            First off I love the one who coined the phrase soulkin that is awesome. But I also want to say that I’m in a BDSM relationship with my Mistress, but I don’t tell anyone that at my work, and we don’t advertise it in public. As far as work knows she is my girlfriend. The Domme/sub side is mainly at home, in our own private dynamic.

        2. Jadelyn*

          The one exception I can think of to that last sentence, about correcting the use of “partner”, would be if you’re in a same-gender marriage, because there are people who will use “partner” to sidestep having to refer to one’s same-sex spouse as their spouse, as a subtle form of undermining and disrespect for the relationship. Like because they “don’t believe in” affording that title to a same-gender spouse. Which…I don’t care. They’re married, therefore they’re spouses, and it’s not up for a referendum on whether you’re going to acknowledge their duly gained legal relationship status.

          I’ve had to correct stuff like that before – not partner to spouse, in my case, but “roommate” to “girlfriend”. So I’m a little touchy about it.

        1. A Master (bater)*

          Not really. She’s not asking them to call him “master”, or “the master”. She’s asking them to call him “her master”. Compare…

          “How is dad?” vs “How is your dad?”. The second is a normal way to refer to someone else’s father. “How was your weekend with your master?” Honestly I would just use the term she wants and have fun with it.

      1. Camellia*

        But wouldn’t she then just say that is what she’s asking? To say, “your master” instead of “your boyfriend”?

        I think Alison’s comparison is great; we don’t (or shouldn’t) expect people to say “your lover”. “Your partner” should work in all these situations.

    1. MegaMoose, Esq.*

      Also, to the OP, assuming everything else is on the up and up, it doesn’t sound like you need to worry that your coworker is being abused, but you do need to worry that she’s got really bad judgment and that whole gay rights argument is just… Wow. Allison addressed that bit nicely. I can’t even.

      1. WorkingMom*

        Would it be out of line to worry about Sally? Is my inclination to be concerned for her well-being (emotional, perhaps?) because this kind of relationship is not my thing? Not suggesting Sally is mentally ill or anything like at all – just wondering at what point is the relationship so all-consuming that it’s a topic at work? I’m assuming that if one party wants out of the relationship, there is an “out” of some kind?

        1. Sara M*

          Yes, a good 24/7 relationship is totally negotiable, has safewords, and either partner can start a discussion about it.

          Now, in a messed up relationship, anything is possible (and the same is true of non Dom/sub relations–any relationship can be messed up )

        2. Jeanne*

          I don’t think they need to worry about her. She sounds happy and proud of the relationship. From what I have read, these are usually consensual relationships, just like the majority of all relationships. I think she sounds like any woman newly in love who can’t stop talking about it. (Not that all women act that way but I’m sure we’ve all known one who shares too much.)

          1. Nonconsensual D/s*

            Yeah, this doesn’t tweak my abuse red flags. But they need to find kink mentors.

        3. MegaMoose, Esq.*

          Eh, opinions can vary of course, but sub/Dom relationships are not inherently abusive, even if they might look that way from the outside. These kind of relationships are very much about consent, not coercion, so you can’t keep someone in one against their will any more than you could any other relationship. Of course, this is a weird case because the coworker is bringing it into the workplace, but the vibe I’m getting from the letter is far more that she’s either clueless or doing a “freak out the mundanes” thing as some people talked about below. Sometimes people just get preoccupied with things to an extent that it bleeds into the rest of their life, maybe inappropriately. Without interacting with the coworker I don’t think we can tell otherwise.

          1. MegaMoose, Esq.*

            Ug, edit: I don’t mean that opinions may vary about sub/Dom relationships being inherently abusive, but opinions may vary about this particular person’s relationship. I mean, opinion might vary on the former, but they’d be wrong.

        4. Jadelyn*

          There’s nothing to worry about, I wouldn’t think. Just like any relationship, D/s relationships can be abusive, but they aren’t inherently or more likely to be abusive, and yes, if someone wants out they can get out (with the obvious caveat of if it *is* genuinely abusive, it’s just as hard to get out of as it is for someone who’s being abused in a vanilla relationship to get out of that relationship, too).

          I think it’s just poor boundaries on Sally’s part – she’s caught up in the excitement of the relationship, and she’s getting a huge validation boost from trying to have other people “participate” by acknowledging the unique relationship dynamic there. As someone in that kind of relationship, I understand it, but it’s in really poor taste and that’s just one of those urges you need to keep to yourself, which she’s not doing.

        5. Red*

          In a good 24/7 (or even non-24/7) D/s relationship, everything is thoroughly and repeatedly negotiated. Everything. The power balance is so ridiculously consensual it would give a frat boy a heart attack. There are many ways to leave if she wishes.

          1. Candi*

            It likely is outside the manager’s preview, but my only concern would be if it were 50 Shades or mature, rule-bound BDSM as developed by the relevant community/ies. The first can be physically dangerous to follow (and not because of abuse).

            Hopefully Peter follows the responsible path and guides her appropriately.

      2. Mookie*

        that whole gay rights argument is just… Wow.

        Yeah, Sally doesn’t appear to be saying that the reaction is homophobic or deeming her kinks make her spiritually LGBT, but rather I view this is as her making an analogy, so this is a bit unfair.

        1. Emma*

          It’s a really bad and frankly offensive analogy, though. And no, it’s not offensive because of the D/s relationship, but because she’s trying to inappropriately cross sexual boundaries with her coworkers.

  2. kristinyc*

    When similar things like this have come up on Savage Love, Dan always says that they can’t ask/require people outside their relationship (or whatever these people want to call it…) to participate in their dom/sub games & rules. The co-workers did not consent to be involved in it.

        1. SW*

          At least he now acknowledges that bisexuality is a real thing. I’m also not a big fan of his, especially as he’s become such a prominent voice w/r/t kink and non-monogamy issues. And his tendency to fat shame people, especially women (as in, of course your husband isn’t into you after you gained all that weight having kids).

          1. TL -*

            Not to derail but what he actually says is that normal wear and tear is expected but major physical changes will/can affect physical attraction.

            1. Regular commenter*

              Yeah. How to explain to my wife that though she feels really proud and happy she’s lost 80 pounds and weighs less than she did in Middle School, I’m not attracted to skinny women…

            2. Turquoise Teapot*

              I appreciate the intent behind it – taking a realistic approach to relationships. But he crosses the line most of the time. You can talk honestly about the issues that come up in relationships without, say, shaming people for what they look like.

          2. Ellen N.*

            He is or was so awful on so many issues: fat shaming, bisexuality, women who expect men to be monogamous, etc. The worst of all is his obsessive vitriol against pitbulls.

      1. kristinyc*

        There’s not a group text or email chain between you, Dan, and Mallory where you compare notes on crazy letters? I was kind of hoping that existed. That should exist.

        1. SophieChotek*

          Totally! Like the Ethicist, when it used to be a panel response instead of just one writer — it could be a panel response – with different types of letters….

          1. Melissa*

            I used to do this improv game called “good bad worst” where an audience member would ask for advice and three improvers would give good advice, bad advice and then the worst advice so bad you aren’t even sure what the original question was.

            1. Hankie Enlightenment (formerly Sarahnova)*

              Oh, you would so have to get the Bad Advisor in on that.

              (Anyone who isn’t there already, Google “that bad advice you were looking for”.)

              1. MegaMoose, Esq.*

                Thank you so much for bringing up the Bad Adviser, because she’s got a new post up FINALLY and she’s writing about that totally bats**t Dear Prudence question last month about the neighbor using her dead parents as an excuse to have more dogs than allowed by the apartment complex. AMAZING.

                1. MegaMoose, Esq.*

                  I didn’t even mention the part where the LW complained that one of the dogs was supposedly elderly but hadn’t died after a year. It’s a work of art.

      2. Dee*

        At least one of the pertinent articles is here:

        Although in this case, Dan instructs that coworkers SHOULD call a man by his “puppy” name – Spike. Personally, I’d tell Sally that I respect her relationship but will not be referring to Peter as “master.”

        However, I would use “Peter” in favor of “partner”. While he most certainly is her sexual partner, that term in this particular situation feels a bit unfair, because in their arrangement the whole point is that they are NOT partners – she is his submissive. Peter is his name, and using it should make everyone comfortable.

        1. Letter Writer*

          Oh, that’s interesting. I think my instinctive response to this is that I wouldn’t object to calling someone Spike, but I probably would be uncomfortable if Spike felt the need to explain why that was his name. (It helps that Spike is, while definitely a name that people give to dogs, not completely ridiculous as a name–I might feel differently if he wanted to be called Poochie-Poo or something.) Sort of like if someone says, “Hey, I go by Philly,” I’d call them Philly no problem, but if someone said, “Hey, call me Philly, because that’s where I lost my virginity!” it would be a bit more yikes. Or the difference between “Hi, my name is Jaguar” (unusual but within the bounds of possibility) and “Hi, my name is Jaguar, because that’s the kind of animal I pretend to be in bed.” You know?

          1. MegaMoose, Esq.*

            This is my instinct as well. Assuming that someone’s desired nickname is generally work appropriate, I don’t think that the origin of the nickname is relevant. That said, I completely agree that sharing the context crosses into the realm of workplace-inappropriate.

            Your Philly example is vaguely making me think of some celebrity who named his kids after where they were conceived but I can’t remember who that was. Ron Howard maybe? I’m gonna go with an ick on that one, too.

            1. Aunt Vixen*

              I think I’ve heard that about David Beckham and Posh Spice – but it now occurs to me that Ron Howard’s daughter’s middle name is Dallas, so if I think too hard about that I’ll probably think a lot less of Ron Howard, and maybe I’ll just go now.

        2. lew*

          Related, I had a coworker who was a furry and not afraid to tell people about it. (They wore a minor piece of furry gear to work too, which was fine with the dress code.) They preferred, but didn’t insist, that people call them by their chosen animal name, which I won’t give because it’s pretty identifying. As a principle I think people should use people’s preferred names but I just couldn’t get on board with that and used their real name instead…. still wonder whether that was being a jerk or not. For clarity, the furry connection was made explicit, not just that it was a nickname.

          1. Isabel C.*

            My general principle is that, while I’ll address you by your preferred name, if your preferred name is “Caribou Sunshine” or “Ravenshadow Moonchilde,” I’m going to try and avoid addressing you at all.

          2. Nonyme*

            Meh. I’ve spent most of my life around fandom, so maybe I have a bit more tolerance of furry fandom — but depending on the handle, I’d probably just call them by it and not worry too much. One of those hills that aren’t worth dying on, you know? And it will make them happy. Unless the name is really inappropriate, or awkwardly long, I’d just go with it. Same as I’d go with any other nickname.

            It does depend on the handle, though. I might call someone, say, “Littlefox” but draw the line at “Thunderwolf the Brave!” (and hopefully there isn’t a real Thunderwolf the Brave — if there is, I’m not calling you out, I’m just making up a plausible name.) That’s too much of a mouthful to shout across the office if you ‘re trying to get their attention, and might lead to uncomfortable questions from customers/clients/other departments.

            A possible compromise might be to just call the hyopthetical Thunderwolf the Brave “Wolf” or Littlefox “Fox” — and if the furry in question objects to that compromise, they’re probably just plain expecting too much.

            Think about many non-furry people have animal names. You could have a guy who likes Harley Davidsons who answers to “Hog” or a guy with country roots who answers to “Bucky.” Katherine can be contracted to Kitty. I worked with a guy who answered to the name of “Fish” — he was a passionate diver. Etc. So an animal name itself is not that unusual.

        3. Christopher Tracy*

          However, I would use “Peter” in favor of “partner”. While he most certainly is her sexual partner, that term in this particular situation feels a bit unfair, because in their arrangement the whole point is that they are NOT partners – she is his submissive. Peter is his name, and using it should make everyone comfortable.

          I can see this. I think this is where I am.

          1. Kimberlee, Esq*

            Yes, I agree. “Partner” is not a neutral term for everyone, and when it is so easy to either use “peter” or “master” (which I would content doesn’t amount to “participating” in their kink any more than referring to someone as “Reverend” makes me a Christian) it seems rude to decide that I, as an external person, get to arbitrate the words used to refer to people in a relationship.

            1. MegaMoose, Esq.*

              I’ve been thinking about this since yesterday (NERD ALERT) and I think I’ve come around to that position as well. It doesn’t feel right to say that she should suck it up and accept people calling him her partner and it’s easy and neutral enough (if perhaps occasionally awkward) just to call him Peter.

            2. Kitten*

              This is extremely interesting. I know this post has come and gone, but I wanted to chime in. As a submissive, I think I’d argue that even if they are in a 24/7 Master/slave relationship, they’re still partners (especially in a monogamous situation). They both consent to the relationship and give as well as get something to/out of it. You could argue they don’t have equal power there, but in all honesty the submissive has final word on everything in a D/s relationship. 24/7 situations like that are, to my understanding at least, still fundamentally a relationship. Partner wouldn’t be appropriate if they were SOLELY sexual partners, but in that case he wouldn’t be going to office parties with her. As such, I’m inclined to say partner is a fitting term. As well as boyfriend, honestly. If I married my Master he’d be my husband AS WELL AS the dominant title I refer to him using.

        4. Snorks*

          Interestingly my fathers name is Spike. It’s a fairly common name in the Australian Navy (or was 40 years ago, not sure about now).
          Everyone calls him that, even my mother. Even HIS mother!
          But I agree with Letter Writer below, the reason why people are called a name makes a difference.

        5. Kitten*

          This is extremely interesting. I know this post has come and gone, but I wanted to chime in. As a submissive, I think I’d argue that even if they are in a 24/7 Master/slave relationship, they’re still partners (especially in a monogamous situation). They both consent to the relationship and give as well as get something to/out of it. You could argue they don’t have equal power there, but in all honesty the submissive has final word on everything in a D/s relationship. 24/7 situations like that are, to my understanding at least, still fundamentally a relationship. Partner wouldn’t be appropriate if they were SOLELY sexual partners, but in that case he wouldn’t be going to office parties with her. As such, I’m inclined to say partner is a fitting term. As well as boyfriend, honestly. If I married my Master he’d be my husband AS WELL AS the dominant title I refer to him using.

    1. OlympiasEpiriot*

      Right. I was going to post this advice. Everyone else at the job is not in their relationship and has not given their consent.


    2. Tara*

      That’s actually a pretty commonly known etiquette rule in BDSM communities. That you don’t involve people who have not consented to be involved.

      1. Chris*

        I’m glad others have raised this point both here and on the link to the other article elsewhere. Effectively she is bringing ‘the bedroom door’ to her workplace, and I think AAM’s response is extremely on-point and appropriate.

    3. Serin*

      Yes! This is what I came here to mention. “We didn’t consent to play a role in your sex life.”

      (I believe the actual letter there involved dom/sub roleplay at Thanksgiving dinner or some such, which is both more and less shocking than trying it at work functions.)

  3. Leatherwings*

    My god, Sally needs to get a grip. It’s honestly just offensive that she’s comparing her relationship dynamic to the struggle LGBT couples have faced to be recognized – it’s nowhere near the same level of systemic erasure and to claim that it is demonstrates a shocking disregard for that movement. She can and should feel free to do what she wants with Peter, but nobody else needs to feel forced to participate in the details of their relationship like this.

    1. SW*

      Yeah, seriously. Straight kinky people can try to make kink to be like sexual orientation or gender identity but it isn’t.

      I think that Sally is being deliberately manipulative, as other kinky people would call her out on forcing her dynamic on other people, but vanilla people have no frame of reference and thus think what she’s saying is ok. (Partially because consent isn’t really valued by/talked about in mainstream American culture. See: forced nonconsensual kisses and hugs c/o relatives)

      I remember being super uncomfortable with a pair of friends’ D/s relationship, but 10 years ago I didn’t know that I could say, “stop, please, I feel uncomfortable being included in your dynamic.” So it’s doubly ok to not be ok with it at work.

      1. Mike B.*

        A few years ago I spoke to a straight guy at an LGBTQ gathering. After a couple of beers he explained that he wanted to attend because he felt that his persecution as a “brony” (google it if you need to) was comparable to dealing with anti-gay animus.

        I’m not sure how or why I continued to converse with him politely.

        1. Wendy Darling*

          D…did you just walk away without saying anything? Because I think I might have, and I’m straight so it’s not even personal.

          1. Jadelyn*

            Frankly, I think even walking away without saying anything would take a heroic level of self-control. I might’ve ended up punching him somewhere delicate, is all I’m saying. Gods.

            1. Mike B.*

              It was late and I’d had a couple of drinks myself, so I don’t think I had the energy to do initiate an argument or do anything that would cause a scene. I left before he did, though, so I’m sure he got an earful if he brought that up with anyone else.

        2. Leatherwings*

          That’s an amazing story. I hope the brony found his own kind though, rather than intruding on others’ spaces.

        3. Tiny_Tiger*

          Ugh… and people like that dude can only contribute to the negative image furries and bronies already have.

        4. Chaordic One*

          “he felt that his persecution as a “brony” was comparable to dealing with anti-gay animus.”

          BWAH HA HA HA HA!

          I’m not sure how or why you didn’t laugh in his face?

        1. TheFormerAstronomer*

          I wonder whether this is a new aspect to herself that she is either only just discovering or starting to explore. People can sometimes be a bit … zealous … when they’re trying something new (be it finding religion, quitting smoking, taking up exercise, vegetarianism – you name it).

          Doesn’t change the advice though, but OP might find that she cools off a bit after her initial, um, ‘excitement’.

      2. Alton*

        I don’t mind people seeing their kink as a part of their sexual orientation. I think there can be a lot of similarities. But straight, cisgender kinksters who explicitly compare themselves to the LGBT community lose me. They’re different identities.

        And there is a more explicitly sexual connotation to most BDSM that makes it less appropriate to share at work. If someone was gay and their primary association with the gay community was cruising culture, I’d find that inappropriate to talk about at work, too.

        1. Jadelyn*

          I agree re similarities, but there’s gotta be a line. And I say that as a queer kinkster who *does* consider kink part of my sexual orientation because that’s how I experience it – that’s my way of conceptualizing it, but I’m not going to try to convince everyone else to regard it the same way.

      3. Nonconsensual D/s*

        “I think that Sally is being deliberately manipulative, as other kinky people would call her out on forcing her dynamic on other people, but vanilla people have no frame of reference and thus think what she’s saying is ok.”


        Yes we certainly would call them both out on it, then try to educate them, then blacklist them.

    2. Koko*

      Yes – LGBT folks have struggled to gain access to marriage, spousal privileges and protections, and the recognition that their relationship exists. Those are real harms. Nobody is being harmed by people treating your kink relationship like a vanilla relationship. Nobody is denying you any rights based on being kinky.

      1. Sara M*

        Kids are sometimes taken away from kink parents.

        (As a kink person, I would call Sally out for trying to force outsiders to participate in her kink. Her comparisons are wrong. But I had to mention, there _is_ discrimination against kinky people sometimes.)

        1. Lindsay J*

          And also if people find out you’re kinky some do feel like you’re immoral or otherwise of poor character. I think men tend to get this worse than women – just because a guy enjoys ordering around or spanking a consenting woman in the bedroom does not mean that he will be violent towards non consenting people, that he’s misogynistic, or anything like that.

          (And obviously the opposite goes as well, but I’ve never heard anyone levy similar accusations against women in the lifestyle.)

          1. Jadelyn*

            It depends on what crowds you run with…if you ever encounter radical feminists of a certain variety, trust me, there are a lot of nasty accusations about women who are into kink. Participating in/legitimizing one’s own oppression, that sort of thing.

        2. Alton*

          Some rape victims have had their kinks used against them, too. I knew a woman who decided not to go to the police after being raped during a BDSM encounter because she figured no one would take her seriously.

          So yeah, there are issues. It’s just not the same as being LGBT.

    3. Lissa*

      Yes, I don’t even like when people use terms like “coming out” as kinky (though that might be a personal bugaboo and not something I’d make an issue about) and this is way worse!

      1. Red*

        I don’t like it either, and I am kinky! No one needs to know except your partner and random internet strangers, so don’t make a big fuss!

      2. Anony for this*

        Eh, I’m kinky and a lesbian, and I don’t mind people using “coming out” for whatever it is they’ve been hiding about themselves.

        1. CMart*

          I have no personal skin in the game regarding the use of “coming out”, but I will say that I find the notion of going public as being kinky to be deeply discomforting. I just don’t think it’s necessary at all to know what people do for sexual gratification.

          For full disclosure however, I’ve hated as I’ve started looking more and more obviously pregnant because on some small scale it feels like a giant advertisement that I’ve had sex. which is totally none of anyone’s business. So I may be on the extreme prudish end of the spectrum when it comes to socially acceptable knowledge of people’s sex lives.

          1. HannahS*

            I certainly see that point being true in the workplace! I mean, Jennifer feeling free to be out as a lesbian at work is totally different, because she should be able to talk about what she did on the weekend with her wife like all the straight couples can. Same with Nicolette being out about her transition, so people use the correct pronouns. But Sally doesn’t need to be out *at work* about her foot fetish, because a fetish, unlike your gender or your relationship, IS only to do with sex, and that is off-limits at work.

            1. Wintermute*

              I feel like there is a slight exception if it may look strange to outsiders, not “using scene terms at a work party” strange that’s… a bit icky to me though for some 24/7 people it’s not negotiable for either of their hapiness, and to that I say “you do you but I’ll politely excuse myself from your dynamic”.

              Basically the only thing I could see is to say “hey, just so you know I’ve had past co-workers slip me domestic violence hotline numbers and stuff… he’s not abusive, I am very happy with our relationship dynamic, no it’s not a religious thing, which a lot of people assume and you don’t have to treat me any differently or worry about religious observances, but I don’t want you to misinterpret my deference and obedience as either evidence I’m abused and scared of being hurt, or to interpret it that I am easily pushed around and won’t be able to stand up for my team or my clients.”

        2. Lissa*

          Yeah, I know opinions differ wildly enough here even among the LGBTQ community, so it’s not my “hill to die on”. Just a private grump, you know? Sort of like when straight women call their platonic friends their girlfriends, ha.

    4. Sfigato*

      I have many gay friends and coworkers, and, just like my straight friends and coworkers, I know nothing about the sexual dynamics and practices of their relationships. I don’t need to know who is a top and who is a bottom, or if they have an open relationship, or if they are into bondage, or what. It’s not my business, I don’t need to know, and I shouldn’t know.

    5. a*

      Right? I’m bi and into BDSM, and they’re completely different aspects of my identity. Sally is nonconsensually involving her coworkers in her sex life (and probably most people she knows). That’s completely different from a LGB person referring to their partner as the gender that they are.

  4. Cake Name*

    Not involving other people in your kinks is basically BDSM 101…especially when those people are consenting.

      1. AyBeeCee*

        My first thought after hearing her explanation about it being a 24/7 thing was “What’s your safeword?” I don’t need to know it, I just want to be sure it exists. What if she wants to break up with her Master at some point? Is she not “allowed” to? Cause that sets off all kinds of alarm bells with me, and should with anyone sane.

          1. Kimberlee, Esq*

            100% agree. This is very much in the realm of Not Your Business Unless She Wants It To Be.

            We managed to have an agreement here that we don’t armchair diagnose; that we assume people are handling their own medical stuff and are not here looking for medical advice unless they ask for it. Why can’t we assume the same for relationships?

        1. Letter Writer*

          Honestly, my concern about asking that question would be not that she wouldn’t have one, but that she would take that as an invitation to explain in great detail….

          1. Letter Writer*

            (Or, to put it less flippantly, I don’t want to normalize for her even further that these are appropriate discussions for the workplace, which I feel like asking her details of her relationship would do. She opened the door to those conversations, but I would rather do my best to close the door than open it further.)

            1. Kimberlee, Esq*

              It sounds like she did not open the door to the conversations. Coworkers, who seem to talk pretty openly about relationships at work, asked her about it.

          2. Tinker*

            me: Is familiar with the norms of the BDSM community and is generally relatively open about such things.
            also me: Would nopetopus right the hell back into all available closets upon encountering a person like this, because OH GODS would rather sandpaper off face (is not otherwise into sandpaper play) than have the shiny-eyed D/s noob conversation of the sort that seems looming a) ever again b) at work.

        2. SW*

          As a long-term kink practitioner, I tend to think of safewords as a beginner/101 thing. As in, the use of safewords isn’t a panacea for several reasons:
          1)They aren’t magic words that will stop people from doing things you don’t want them to. A bottom can call red but a top doesn’t have to listen to it.
          2)There are many bottoms that can’t/won’t use safewords, because of external pressure from their partners and because of internal pressure about their value. Also, bottoms in the altered mental space of subspace are often nonverbal or not able to determine if things should stop.
          3)Using safewords can lull the top into a false sense of security. “Well, they didn’t safeword, they must be ok!”
          4) It is completely ok in the kink world to just say, “I want to stop now.” or “Stop” or “No.” Even in a D/s or M/s relationship.
          5) Most D/s relationships don’t have a safeword, so you come across as being a vanilla who knows enough about kink to be judgmental without actually being helpful. As in, if she’s being abused you should help her like any other person who’s being abused.
          6)Asking something like that is a one-way ticket to making sure that she doesn’t trust you about any part of her relationship.

      1. AMT*

        Yes, this smacks of clueless new kinkster. I have my own beef with people in the kink community who get all “you’re doing it wroooong” with newbies, but this is one of those moments where someone needs to be taken aside and educated about involving unsuspecting passers-by in your relationship.

        1. Jadelyn*

          There’s a vast difference between “you’re doing X wrong [in a way that does not appeal to me personally]” and “you’re doing X wrong [in a way that crosses consent boundaries with non-participants]”.

    1. Biff*

      THIS! THIIIIIIISSSSSS. As someone who is peripherially part of the community, that’s exactly what came to mind here. BDSM prides itself on consenting. And sanity. And safety even. These are none of those things!

      1. Nobody Here By That Name*

        YUUUUUUUUUUUP. Which makes me wonder about the consent issues in her own relationship if her dom is pushing the “master” thing on others who haven’t consented to be a part of their scene.

        1. Jadelyn*

          Eh, I’d read it more as her getting a thrill from the exhibitionism of it and being the one pushing others to acknowledge it like that, not so much that he’s pushing it on others.

          1. Lissa*

            I read it that way, too, but that could be my bias because IME in many kinky couples it’s the sub driving a lot of it.

          2. Gadfly*

            Although he seemed happy enough to play along at the party… Nothing about him objecting, just him giving orders…

          3. Isabel C.*

            Yeah, my take is that she’s young and pretentious and thinks that liking a bit of rough trade makes her the next Kushiel’s Dart heroine. Saw a lot of that in college. (“I am so special and nobody understaaaaands my darque edgy desires!” Honey, it’s 2005 and you’re at Brown: every third goddamn sophomore has a dog collar and fuzzy handcuffs. Dial. It. Back.)

    2. Anon for this*

      Right??? I will admit, anonymously, that I am one of the relatively few people in this world for whom watching this kind of dom/sub dynamic play out in real life would not be terribly offputting (helper domme, if anyone’s curious) and my first thought when reading this was No, no, no, agghgghh, what are they DOING?

      1. Biff*

        I wouldn’t find the master/slave dynamic off-putting, but I’d find their inability to stow it away for a company event off-putting, if that makes sense. Honestly, beyond maybe a hug or a peck on the cheek, no relationship shouldn’t be an elaborate display in front of coworkers, regardless of the pairing or the dynamic between them.

        It would not be difficult to settle on a suitably respectful nickname that would allow them to maintain respectful servitude in front of those who need not know about the whole dynamic. Peter could be “Boss” or “Captain” or even a playful “sir” without arousing too much suspicion.

        1. Liane*

          I think it would be more appropriate in work relationships for the boyfriend to be referred to as “Peter,” “your boyfriend,” &/or “your partner.”
          Now if it were a relative/friend close enough to the couple to be told “we’re in a D/s relationship,” your suggestions might be good for someone not comfortable using “(your) master.” I say “might” because I don’t know enough about the BDSM community to be sure.

          1. Biff*

            Oh wow. I didn’t mean that the coworkers should call Peter Boss or Captain or whatever, I meant SHE could. Peter is being weird in asking people NOT HIS SUB to call him Master, no question about it.

      2. Also Anon*

        Same here. If I saw it in person I wouldn’t feel the need to comment and would easily go about my day, but making a deliberate point to involve others deserves a big NO.

        In addition to having her boss talk about toning it down at work, it might be good to mention cooling it at work functions, too. It’s one thing to invite your partner to a work social event; it’s another thing to get intimately handsy with them in front of your coworkers. By referring to him as “master” to others and being obvious about her service, she’s closer to the latter than her coworkers should have to deal with.

      3. Dust Bunny*

        Yeah, all I care about is 1) consenting and 2) adults, which I think we can assume they both are.

        But the rest of the office in this case is not consenting, so it’s a no-go. Leave it at home.

  5. Blue Anne*

    So… As a pretty active member of the kink community… This is totally unacceptable, way over the line, even for a 24/7 lifestyle.

    Rule #1 is that you do not involve non-consenting members of the public in your sex life. You don’t flash them, you don’t make your sub walk up to them and offer a allow job right there, you do not ask them to refer to your master that way – ideally, you don’t even refer to your master that way in mixed company. Not at work, for sure. This is so ridiculous. This is completely irresponsible kink.

    Argh, argh, argh.

    I hate doms like this.

    1. LizB*

      All of this, 1000 times over. This is not how 24/7 BDSM relationships should operate in the wider community. Gaaaah.

      1. Catalin*

        Is anyone else like, “holy crap, how has a 24/7 relationship (as opposed to relationship with scenes) gone on for that long?

    2. Tanith*

      I’m also part of the BDSM community and can’t agree more. We are about consent, informed consent, which hee co-workers cannot give.
      I like Alison’s reply that partner is a good phrase to cover it, and is used by many of us when talking to more vanilla groups.

    3. Just Another Techie*

      I will bet dollars to donuts these two aren’t part of any community or scene. They read the Story of O, or some kinky fanfic, or something, and got in their heads to do this without any kink “mentor” or real life role models to teach them healthy behavior.

      1. Somniloquist*

        If I recall correctly, even in The Story of O, she kept her slave relationship separate from her work. No one knew.

        1. Blue Anne*

          Yes! That’s one of the (few) things I actually really like about that book. She’s an independent fashion photographer. She has a successful business of her own and the relationship is separate.

      2. Anonsie*

        I don’t know about that. I’m pretty tangentially connected to the scene, but almost everyone I know who’s spent a lot of time in the scene has had run-ins with people like this, active community members who still have no boundaries and no concept of what it’s appropriate to involve strangers in.

        1. Sara M*

          Absolutely. It’s frustrating. Anyone reading this–please understand that a 24/7 Dom/sub relationship can be done safely! (Not my thing, but I’ve seen it done.)

          1. Anonsie*

            Yeah. It is frustrating. Even when I briefly dipped my toe into the scene, I experienced some mild forms of this. Since I was/am dominant-leaning, I got a lot of random dudes assuming it was appropriate to approach me with “please, Mistress, do X to me” type stuff. Which… dude, I don’t even know you. Stop calling me Mistress. Stop assuming I’m here to do X for you. It’s different from this work situation, because at least I consented to be in a kinky space. But the underlying problem of dragging random people into a relationship and dynamic that they haven’t agreed to is the same.

            It’s one of the reasons I’m not really affiliated with the scene.

            1. Jadelyn*

              Ugh, this. I come at it from the other side of things so I always have random dom-type dudes calling me filthy names, which…yeah no, unless I’ve invited you to call me that, don’t. And then of course they’d have a fit because I wasn’t “respectful enough” – well, no, because I don’t owe you anything???

            2. One of the Sarahs*

              I used to hang out with some Poly people, and one of the reasons I stopped was come-ons, that when I’d do the “that’s flattering, but I’m in a monogamous relationship”, would get a lecture on how monogamy is patriarchy, and I should be more open-minded, and go to bed with them. I’m not sure why they thought this would seduce me – certainly not enough for the same person to do it more than once. And this is why I don’t hang with that crowd any more!

              1. Blue Anne*

                On behalf of the poly community, I want to apologize for those immature jerks. I’m so sorry you had to deal with that. :(

              2. a different Vicki*

                That’s the point at which I would be glad to be able to truthfully say “I’m bi and poly, and I’m still not going to sleep with you” [because I have some taste/have to floss the cat/would rather scrub the kitchen floor than see you naked]. Fortunately, I hang out with people who are civilized, or cautious, enough not to argue with “sorry, my dance card is full.”

    4. Koko*

      Yes, a dom is supposed to be very concerned with his sub’s well-being. For that reason alone he should recognize that her standing in the workplace will be negatively impacted by her calling him that at work, and either not require it or–if she’s the one pressing the issue because it gives her a sexy thrill at work–order her not to call him that at work.

        1. Also Anon*

          That was my thought also. Whether or not this behavior is of interest to her, he shouldn’t be allowing it because it can cause (professional) harm. At this point, even if she breaks up with him and get a new job, her reference from this place will always be, “she was good/great/phenomenal, but had no sense of boundaries or professionalism”.

    5. General Ginger*

      OMFG seconded, thirded, or whatever number I am in line at this point. The coworkers are not consenting and definitely should not be involved in this in any way.

    6. Kimberlee, Esq*

      IDK, it sounds like the ONLY time that the person has involved her coworkers is when they’ve specifically asked. It’s a fairly open workplace where you have openly LGBQ people, open trans people, you know that people are poly… Like, the poly thing specifically makes me feel like this coworker heard the standard watercooler talk around relationships and thought “Oh, ok, these people are cool, and are fine with referring to Peter as my master instead of as my partner.” I can understand why a lot of people at a lot of workplaces would be uncomfortable with that, but I really don’t see how it is significantly different than, say, bringing your 2 partners to the BBQ and mentioning you’re poly. It doesn’t seem like the coworker did anything overt to impose this on their workplace before people asked them about it.

      1. Blue Anne*

        Ergh. It is different. I’m struggling to verbalize exactly why, other than poly is about much more than just sex, and kink is almost exclusively about sex. (I’m poly and kinky.)

        I’m dating three men; I would refer to any of them as “my boyfriend”. That’s about an emotional relationship. If I was someone who did casual sex, I wouldn’t refer to “my friend-with-benefits” at work, because that’s about my sex life.

        I do completely understand that the kink side of relationships can have a huge impact outside the bedroom. I’ve certainly had that kind of relationship. But most of kink is very much about sex and sexual dynamics, and the vast majority of kinksters understand that if you tell someone your partner is your Master, you’re revealing a ton about your sex life. If you ask that person to refer to your partner as your Master, you’re really asking them to participate in something that’s inherently sexual.

        I mean, one of the guys I’m dating is a massive sub; it comes out in bed, but it’s also part of our relationship dynamic, I’m certainly the more dominant personality. I would still never call him “my servant” or whatever else at work. He’s my boyfriend. Anything else would be about sex.

        I mean, if we want to get into a really extreme example, many people have an ageplay kink. If a relationship is based around being a “daddy” and a “little”, that often has HUGE ramifications for the emotional side of the relationship. And the emotional relationship can certainly be a healthy, lovely, important romantic relationship. But it would still be totally, totally inappropriate to ask your colleagues to call your boyfriend “your Daddy”.

        1. Jadelyn*

          I think the analogy with dd/lg play is fantastic. It very much shapes the whole relationship, from what I’ve seen, but you’d never argue that it’d be cool to ask others to refer to a little’s partner as “your Daddy”.

          I actually argued a bit with my Sir last night about this post – he brought up the same question about how that compares to being openly poly or wanting people to use nonstandard pronouns for you. To which my response was that those things aren’t primarily or solely about sex. They’re about relationships and identity, respectively, which are acceptable topics for public life. Sex isn’t so much, so there’s a huge difference between expecting people to validate your gender or all of your relationships, and expecting them to validate how you get off, even when the things that you get off on do shape the relationship side of things as well.

          I also then disinvited him from my office’s Halloween party. Mostly jokingly. ;)

  6. Anna*

    This letter makes me angry because of the non-consensual aspect. D/s relationship are all about consent and if Sally doesn’t get that, she might need someone to guide her through it. She’s being an ass about this and if Peter is the one who is insisting on this, he’s being an ass, too.

    1. Random Lurker*

      I know only little about the BDSM community, but from the one friend I have in it, I know enough to think this whole thing is not cool. It’s very 50 Shades of Grey, in terms of what a Dom/Sub shouldn’t be.

    2. Meagan*

      That’s an exceptional point. Id also question how sane it is to insist your coworkers call anyone “Master”, but that’s a little more subjective.

  7. Aurion*

    Alison, this is why you’re my hero. I read the letter and just…spluttered incoherently, whereas you were able to write an articulate, thoughtful answer of why this is so, so not cool at all.

    My non-existent kingdom for a fraction of Alison’s articulation…

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ha, after I wrote this answer, I thought “this is the most dry, boring answer I could have written to such an amazing letter.” But then I decided I kind of liked that element of it.

      1. Aurion*

        Did you do some incoherent spluttering? Like, at all? Or do you just have superhuman levels of chill?

        My mouth is still hanging open a little from this letter. Yeesh.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think my sputtering was more around “omg, I’m so excited that I get to publish this letter.” These sorts of letters always make my heart sing.

          But I did talk out my answer with a couple of friends to help me sort out my logic, which I don’t normally do — so that might be evidence of a bit of sputtering.

            1. Kelly O*

              I love that this is a “single-use monocle” – so you don’t waste your GOOD monocle on this foolishness.

      2. HannahS*

        I read the letter and thought, “THIS IS A GORDIAN KNOT OF A PROBLEM OMG WHERE DO YOU EVEN START?!” And you just go, “Call him partner; here’s why that makes sense.” That’s why I read this site every day.

    2. MegaMoose, Esq.*

      Oh, I dunno, we don’t know how much time she might have spent spluttering incoherently before drafting that excellent response. It’s a pretty… special… letter.

    3. Photoshop Til I Drop*

      I love the idea that Alison read this flaming pile of a letter, rolled her eyes, and basically responded with “Tell Sally she’s doing it wrong.” That is Master Wizard levels of chill.

  8. 123456789101112 do do do*

    As someone who has read a variety of romance novels written by and about people in this type of a relationship, what Sally is asking for is not normal. I haven’t read the Fifty Shades series, but I don’t believe that the main characters discuss the specifics of their relationship in public either. The boss needs to step in and enforce boundaries.

    1. Blue Anne*

      I just want to point out to anyone who has read Fifty Shades that it is NOT a good example of a healthy kink relationship.

      1. Liane*

        I have not read it–but from what I have come across on the internet and from the one acquaintance who is a Dom, there’s only one reason the author isn’t #1 on the BDSM community’s “Most Despised” list: That spot is usually occupied by serial killer John Edward Robinson who often posed as a Dom.

  9. Joanna Reichert*

    The fact that this worker doesn’t know this is inappropriate, and is in fact getting upset that other people aren’t playing along with it, speaks so loudly as to her delusions in general. I’d seriously reconsider keeping somebody this kooky on my staff. Imagine if she were to start telling customers/clients about her relationship and instructing THEM to address this man as her “master”? o.O

    1. Lauren*

      I agree with you. While the description made me want to drag out the Lysol and spray the letter, what actually and really disturbed me was Sally’s boundary violation of the professional workplace. I am trying to imagine my reaction if a co-worker did this, and I think preventing myself from physical recoiling and squealing in horror might be beyond my capability. At least at first revelation. After that, I’d avoid that co-worker for anything and everything. I do NOT want to know about anyone else’s intimate choices (so long as it involves only fully consenting adults), and if that happened I wouldn’t hesitate to insist my manager deal with it quickly and immediately. If they refused, I’d be gone and HR would know why.

    2. Letter Writer*

      She is, thankfully, not in a position where she is likely to deal with the public pretty much ever; her role is in fact one that is pretty forgiving of people with poor social skills generally, although I’ve never had it manifest like this before. The more usual problem we have is people who are socially clumsy/difficult in more ordinary ways.

      But yes, it obviously does say pretty worrying things about her judgment, and I’m going to suggest to her boss that she keep an eye out for other instances of bad judgment etc., since it seems unlikely that this is the only place they might turn up. (I’m not sure if she genuinely doesn’t know that this is inappropriate, or is deliberately “challenging societal norms” or something, but either way it does not speak well of her judgment…..)

  10. Temperance*

    Why do I feel like the follow-up to this will involve Sally showing up at the holiday party in a dog collar, with Peter leading her around?

    This letter is a gift.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      Yes, it sounds like the boundaries are being tested at every office party. I’ve never been so frightened of scope creep.

    2. neverjaunty*

      I think your instincts are right on here.

      Some people are just oblivious to others’ reactions. Other people – and I am betting Sally and Peter are among them – get off on ‘freaking the mundanes’ by involving others in their sex lives.

    3. aebhel*

      I’m not sure if you’re joking, but I have legitimately met people who did things like that.

      ‘Freak out the mundanes’ is a distasteful game practiced mostly by college students just getting into the community, because they want to feel special and enlightened by making other people uncomfortable.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        They’d get bored being around me, then. Hah, it only took four years in Santa Cruz to completely inure me to stuff like this. Also extensive piercings and tats, panhandlers, public nudity, and just about every kind of alternative culture and woo.

        It would have to be pretty weird to get side-eye from me. But I don’t really care. Unless someone’s getting hurt, that is. If I had a coworker who was talking about his/her unusual activity and said anything I found alarming, I’d probably say something like “Hey, work may not be the best place to discuss that sort of thing. But I’m here if you need help.”

        1. aebhel*

          I get it a lot because I actually in the community (and therefore tend to hang out around a lot of other people who are), but I’m generally discreet enough that people who don’t know me assume otherwise.

    4. Case of the Mondays*

      If you follow the passenger shaming blog, there was a post of a guy walking with another guy in a full latex outfit, including face mask, on a leash. Commenters referred to it as a gimp suit. I’m not familiar with the term so I don’t know if it is actually what it was called or an offensive term but, holy crap, that would make for an interesting flight.

    5. Liane*

      I have been to cons (SF/anime/comics/etc) that specifically ban this. No doubt because you shouldn’t involve the non-consenting in your intimate games. Of any sort.

  11. BRR*

    Letters have really been all over the spectrum today. Nope. Just nope. Her boss needs to put a stop to this. I imagine everybody is incredibly uncomfortable and it’s because they’ve been invited into their coworker’s bedroom. It’s not the same as a same-sex relationship and as a gay man, I find that comparison insulting. You can have the same type of relationship with any genders. They’re not on the same level. I used to work at a gay bar and two men who worked there were in a d/s relationship and you would never know by their interactions with each other. Shut it down.

  12. periwinkle*

    If Sally is asking her co-workers to call Peter her master, just imagine the letter Alison might have received from Peter’s co-workers after a “bring your family” social event…

    1. NW Mossy*

      Let’s just say I’d find the insistence on calling him ‘master’ a convenient excuse to disengage from Sally.

      Co-workers are lovely and all, but there’s a certain merit in pretending they are all Kens and Barbies beneath their clothes.

      1. Liane*

        “Co-workers are lovely and all, but there’s a certain merit in pretending they are all Kens and Barbies beneath their clothes.”
        Phrase of the day!!
        This needs to be added to anti-harassment training! (Or whatever the correct term is.)

      2. Liane*

        “Co-workers are lovely and all, but there’s a certain merit in pretending they are all Kens and Barbies beneath their clothes.”

        Phrase of the Day! Love it!

      3. Tempest*

        Boss and I actively say this about colleagues, IE as far as I’m concered my colleagues are ken dolls under their clothes. Glad I’m not the only one who feels this way!

    2. Jesmlet*

      That was my thought. Maybe she just objects to the use of partner or boyfriend because they are inaccurate. He’s not her partner, he’s her master which I guess would make her his subordinate which =/= partner. I would just call him Peter and leave it be. Ask Sally if it’s okay if they just use his name and if she says no, say that while you respect the dynamics of their relationship, you shouldn’t have to participate by using her title for him.

    3. Letter Writer*

      That is, in fact, what both Sally’s boss and I have told our direct reports–just call him Peter. What has actually happened, though, is that they have mostly responded to this situation by not mentioning him ever (which isn’t honestly that hard; it only came up originally in the context of casual water cooler comments like “It was so nice to meet your partner the other day” which are easy to avoid) and not talking to Sally about anything other than work.

      1. Jesmlet*

        This seems like a perfectly good solution so long as Sally cooperates by just not talking about him that much. If not, I would definitely suggest someone speak to her about what’s appropriate content in the workplace.

  13. Former Diet Coke Addict*

    Man. “Partner” is fine. It’s really OK. This lady is so over the line that the line is a dot to her.

    You know, a friend of mine (getting more distant every year) once had my husband and I over to a party at her place. We’d been married about six months and she stood up at our wedding. While she was introducing us to some of her other friends, she said “This is my friend FDCA and this is her friend.” Um. The next day I questioned why she had introduced my husband as my “friend” rather than husband or spouse or partner, and also not used his name. Her answer was that she didn’t believe in privileging some relationships over others, and in her point of view friends were just as important as partners, and her friends were her life partners so she simply felt that it was a more accurate descriptor. (Her fit of fidgets over this lasted a few months and then she went back to referring to my husband as husband, by name. I still don’t know why.)

    I feel like that was the polar opposite of this story. There is a middle ground between “make my coworkers call my partner my master” and “I don’t believe in calling anyone anyone else’s partner because I don’t believe in privileging some relationships over others and friends are just as good as anything.” That middle ground is just using the damn word “partner” and being done with it.

    1. fposte*

      I remember a college professor of mine who was going through a bit of a cultural midlife crisis where she was trying to be cool and alternative, and in an introduction to somebody she mentioned that the man she lived with could also be helpful. The man she lived with was her husband.

      1. MegaMoose, Esq.*

        A coworker of mine refers to his wife as his “former fiance.” But he’s kind of a grandpa type and I suspect someone chuckled at that once and now he’s just running the joke into the ground because he thinks it’s hilarious.

        1. Wendy Darling*

          A former coworker of mine actually introduced her boyfriend as her lover. At work events. Multiple times. There was so much cringing.

          She was generally super bad with appropriate professional boundaries, though.

          1. KG, Ph.D.*

            There’s a super great bit in Bojack Horseman where an over-the-top artsy-type character is talking about a former flame and says, “…back when we were — prepare yourself, I’m about to say lovers — lovers.”

          2. she was a fast machine*

            This is giving me flashbacks to the time my then-boyfriend introduced himself as my lover in the night time…to the family of my sister’s dead boyfriend. At his visitation. It was beyond embarrassing and we had a long talk about it.

            1. Rob Lowe can't read*

              My one-time boyfriend referred to me as his lover the first time he introduced me to his brother. I actually said, “WTF.” (Except the words, not the acronym.)

              That man was not my boyfriend for much longer.

        2. NJ*

          There was a fantastic article in Frankie magazine (Australian magazine) years ago by Marieke Hardy, who took her new boyfriend to meet her friends for the first time. The article was about how she agonised over how to describe him — partner, boyfriend, etc — and the final line is she ended up saying, “So, this is Daniel, and he’s my bitch.”

          1. Jax*

            When my partner and I first started dating and he introduced me as his girlfriend/partner/whatever, I always wanted to respond like Brenda from Six Feet Under – “I prefer the term fuckpuppet.” (I was never brave enough, and it doesn’t even describe our relationship, but thought it would be good for a laugh)

          2. Trout 'Waver*

            A group of friends were celebrating graduating law school together. One girl’s serious boyfriend was meeting not only her family, but everyone in the group’s family for the first time. He put on his name tag “So-and-so’s Escort”.

            They’re still married with kids and her family loves him. So I guess it worked.

    2. Photoshop Til I Drop*

      I had a very tall coworker introduce me to his very tiny wife by saying “This is my better third.” I thought it was cute as hell, but that is a fine line to walk.

      1. Shannon*

        That’s cute.

        I think the line is around the spot where the person’s title calls up an involuntary X rated movie. If someone calls someone else their lover, I’m imagining them doing the deed.

    3. Chaordic One*

      Years ago (like in the late 80s or early 90s), my co-worker (and GBF), Bill, showed up at the company Christmas party with his partner. He was a nervous wreck about it, because it had never happened before at a work function for that company. His introduction of his partner to myself and group of female coworkers began, “This is my buh, buh, boy…”

      Then his partner stuck out his hand to shake hands and said, “Hi, I’m Steve, the guy Bill has kinky gay sex with.”

      (Yes, it was TMI, but it broke the ice, and it was only in front of a group of lower-level employees, such as Bill and myself, and no one from the executive team. We laughed ourselves silly about it. When I want to tease Bill, I remind him about the incident. I don’t really think there was anything kinky about their relationship, but they broke up after a couple of years. I don’t know what happened to Steve, but Bill has had the same partner for about 15 years and they’ve been married for about 2. There were some legal problems that were, thankfully, worked out but that delayed their inevitable marriage.)

  14. WhichSister*

    Thank you for this letter. I had a rough day yesterday and this morning and I needed a dose of LOL WTAF. Did someone just read the cliff notes of 50 shades of grey or what?

    1. MegaMoose, Esq.*

      Agreed! I 100% get that the consent elements and comparison to gay rights is really skeezy, but I just can’t stop laughing at this ridiculous person. And I really needed a laugh today.

    1. fposte*

      Or “Because of the unprofessional behavior last time, Peter is no longer welcome at the party.” (Okay, OP isn’t Sally’s boss, but it’d be nice if somebody said it.)

  15. NewHerePleaseBeNice*

    Hmm. I would definitely just call Peter ‘Peter’, and be done with it. Anything else is just too awkward!

  16. AlsoASub*


    As others have commented, one of the first rules of a dom/sub relationship is that you don’t involve non-consenting people in your play – so this situation is breaking a major rule.

    I am a woman, who is also a sub who has a master. After reading this, my first thought was “I bet Sally is new to the dom/sub lifestyle.” I have a feeling that Peter may be Sally’s first dom, and he’s not a very good one. While a dom’s role is to guide the sub and push past limits, a good dom will take into account his sub’s overall life and not make things uncomfortable for her at work, with family, etc. I have a feeling that Peter is a bad dom, but Sally is too green to know it, unfortunately.

    Or I could be wrong and Sally is trying to “normalize” dom/sub relationships…and if she is, she’s going about this completely the wrong way.

    1. she was a fast machine*

      As someone else very familiar with BDSM and D/s…exactly. This feels startlingly like Sally just finished reading 50 shades, decided she wanted her own Christian, and went out and found the first guy who said he was a dom. Just judging from the fact that he brought their play to a public event is plenty proof that he’s a bad dom, and I’m 100% sure he’s not educating Sally like he should…and it’s probably gonna end poorly for Sally and Peter.

      Someone else mentioned asking Sally what her safeword is to verify that she actually has one, which I would definitely do the next time she brings the topic up, and maybe politely suggest she look up the definition of safe, sane, and consensual. But that’s just me.

    2. Lizabeth*

      Really bad doms give the scene a horrid name – unfortunately it’s next to impossible to weed out the idiots. And don’t get me started on 50 shades…

  17. oh123*

    WHAAAAAA????? Oh no. Bringing that ish to work is a whole lot of crazy and super-inappropriate. Nope nope nope.

  18. AW*

    She compared it to gay rights

    OMG. OMG.

    I’m also finding it extremely difficult to believe that she really doesn’t understand why casual references to SLAVERY would make people upset, sexual connotations or no.

    1. FroggyHR*

      I literally made a “WTF” face when I read that line about comparing it to gay rights. So tone deaf and ridiculous!

    2. Lissa*

      Some people really don’t get it. We had an unfortunate similar situation, I won’t go into details but involved somebody wearing a large collar in inappropriate circumstances, somebody being upset with the slavery was unfortunate.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      I agree and I am pretty angry that Sally could not see this as a possibility. Sally is not just tone deaf, she is also blind and does not read the news. Wildly, wildly inappropriate. I’d tell her to drop the “master” stuff right now. And I would inform her of my next steps if she chose to keep discussing the “master” issue.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Right, he’s not my master, nor will he ever be.

      I don’t care what people agree to, just bring me into it.

      1. Annie Moose*

        The header photos are always on point. I don’t know who over there picks these things, but they’re doing a fabulous job.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        1980s fashion is on an upswing. Just wait. :)

        *Says the person who wore a purple tweed sweater she had in high school for two-and-a-half decades (it finally fell apart).

        1. Mallory Janis Ian*

          My son reports that the mullet — THE MULLET!! — is coming back in style at his school. He says some of the “cool kids” are now wearing mullets.

          1. Lucy*

            Mullets have been back for several years now in large urban centres: definite mullets in Montreal and New York in 2008, acid wash has been around again for the past 5 years or so on the west coast for sure (but first noticed high-waisted acid wash jeans and jackets were being worn by 20-somethings circa 2009).

    1. LeRainDrop*

      OMG, that is the first thing I thought! Where is NY Mag getting these photos from? The computer is operating on DOS, for god’s sake!

  19. AcidMeflux*

    I might refer to my significant other as my sweet patootie, lovey cakes, oompsie woompsie or hunkahunka burnin’ love in private, but I wouldn’t demand that of the rest of the world.

    1. Gene*

      If you worked with Sally, it would be awesome if each of the coworkers required that she refer to their SOs by an amazingly uncomfortable sobriquet.

      “Sally, I’ll gladly call Peter ‘Master’ if, and only if, you refer to Paul as ‘Oompsie Woompsie’.”

      1. Letter Writer*

        I did have a brief urge to tell her that she had to call my girlfriend “Princess Consuela Bananahammock,” but I womanfully resisted.

        1. Knitchic79*

          “Princess Consuela Bananahammock” has got to be a mouthful to call across the aisles at the store!

    2. Lunch Meat*

      “Sugarpants” is my favorite endearment. I don’t like the way “husband” sounds–just an aesthetic thing–so I’ve been known to say to my close friends, “Where’s your boytoy?” or “How’s your person doing?” But at work, it’s strictly spouse and husband.

    3. Alice Ulf*

      I can only think of Calvin and Hobbes.

      “Or ‘Bitsy Pookums.'”
      “…I think that would affect my stomach a lot more than my heart.”

  20. Torrance*

    This is one of those letters where I worry for someone on a professional and personal level. It’s inappropriate af in the workplace & the fact that Sally doesn’t recognise it makes me worry about the safety of her relationship (which, of course, is beyond the purview of both AAM and the OP’s ability to judge &/or fix).

    You gave really good, non-judgmental advice, Alison. It’s much appreciated, especially given how much people tend to judge/sensationalise non-traditional lifestyles.

  21. March*

    Fifty Shades of NOPE.

    There is nothing wrong with having a kink. There is nothing wrong with being kinky. There is nothing wrong with D/s relationships if they are done with full consent, boundary respect, and properly. Forcing that on coworkers is wildly non-consensual and it needs to not be happening.

    1. Yet Another Liz*

      I don’t comment often (but I read every day!)….but I’m going to +1 your comment for the phrase “fifty shades of NOPE”!

  22. animaniactoo*

    “Your partner is welcome at our company family-friendly events. Your master is not. How you live your relationship on your personal time is up to you. If he is both your master and your partner, you may bring him as your partner, and have him referred to and accepted as such on that basis. If he is your master and not your partner, it is entirely inappropriate to bring him to work events that are open to the families of our employees.”

    1. JMegan*

      I like this answer. Not that anyone should be required to have this conversation at work at all, but since somebody apparently DOES have to have it, this is a good way to draw the line.

    2. she was a fast machine*

      I typically am not a fan of “but what of the children!?” comments, but this is one of those situations where…yeah. What if Sally calls Peter her master at a company picnic where kids are nearby? How are their parents supposed to explain that? It needs to not even be an issue in the first place.

      1. Lance*

        Not even just parents, but other people who don’t know her. What are they supposed to think about her calling someone else ‘master’ and serving the man like that?

        1. Anon for this*

          They probably thought of that: Public humiliation is a kink.

          It’s not a thing I like or want to be around, just saying…

          1. Phoenix Feather*

            But even “public” humiliation for a D/s is publicly around other D/s, not in the vanilla world!

      2. Not So NewReader*

        Omg. What if they expect everyone at the picnic to call him master also. [mind boggles] Please tell your friend to put the brakes on this one, OP.

        1. Alienor*

          Yeah, I am basically not calling *anyone* master under any circumstances, unless we are playing Alfred and Bruce Wayne in a gender-swapped Batman musical.

    3. Anna*

      That’s a great answer. My kids are teenagers, and I know what the first thing out of my son’s mouth would be if Sally instructed him to call Peter her master.

      “Master Bates?”

      And then we would have to go home early.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        The first thing I thought was, “okay, Sally, I won’t call him Peter. I will call him Bates.”

    1. seejay*

      That’s totally what I wanted to say. ><

      Dear general public:


        1. LisaLee*

          This was college food service, where we generally had a high number of dysfunctional people. This chick was nice but had depression and no boundaries. One day she walked in wearing a dog collar. Not like a Hot Topic dog collar, but an actual collar for an actual dog.

          Being food service, we weren’t allowed to wear any jewelry at all. So my boss (a very nice but kinda old-fashioned woman) goes to have a talk with her after multiple customers comment on the collar. She tells this chick she needs to take it off.

          Chick says, “it’s not jewelry, it’s a fetish thing. It’s necessary.”

          Unfortunately this befuddled my boss and we all had to put up with the damn thing and her weird boyfriend.

          This chick also tried to get me to bang her twin once, because said twin had just had s breakdown and was feeling really sad.

          1. LisaLee*

            Also I forgot to mention, the depression wasn’t an issue, it was the depressed TMI moments that were the issye

          2. aebhel*


            I mean, I know a lot of people who do wear collars, but when there’s a no-jewelry rule at work, they figure out a way around it. Jesus.

    1. Lindsay J*

      Wth seriously?

      The cashier at a Walgreens in my city wears a dog collar to work. It’s just like, do you really have to do that.

      If they’re into the symbolism thing, there are plenty of collars out there that don’t look like collars. Really pretty ones.

      I have a choker that I wear as a symbolic collar. We didn’t want to do a locking one because we travel a lot and didn’t want to worry about having to unlock it to get through airport security or anything. It’s just a regular choker. I just wear it every day and it serves its symbolic purpose. Many, many people in the community have a “day collar” (as opposed to a “play collar” that is more functional but looks like an actual collar) that they wear that is specifically designed to not put you to vanilla people.

      1. LisaLee*

        Tbh, I think it would have been okay if she wasn’t so much WHY YES THIS IS MY FETISH about it. It was college, weird sartorial choices are pretty much mandatory.

      2. Meagan*

        I think the dog collars are preferred by some BECAUSE they stick out and have an aspect of humiliation. They (or their Dom) want people to look and for the sub to be embarrassed. Some people really get off on humiliation. And while I agree that it’s inappropriate to force people to play in your so games, that seems like a relatively harmless way of publicly humiliating someone while having participants not necessarily get anything beyond “that’s weird… New fad?”

    2. seejay*

      So I accidentally left my phone at work one day when a friend and I had plans to go out to the club for a show. I showed up at the office after hours expecting it to be empty and safe so I could pick up my phone. The elevator opens up and there’s the CEO and two of my coworkers and I’m standing there in full fetish gear. We’re talking dog collar, fishnet shirt, short skirt, garters, stompy boots, the whole 9 yards and everything.

      That whole “pregnant pause” thing? Yeah. That’s what happened. I just stood there with the utter dumbstruck look and “duhhhh” look on my face.

      Now… CEO was also a pervy, lines-crossing jerk and he totally wanted to drag me out to a party once he saw my outfit. I managed to extricate myself from the situation, get up to my desk and grab my phone and get back to the cab and my friend, only to find out the CEO and coworkers had tried to get into the cab (thinking it was empty) to find my friend in there in FULL GOTH LOLITA DRESS and then tried to PICK HER UP.

      Yeah. It was a super fucking weird night. And super weird week when I got back to the office. You do not want your CEO to realize you’re in the fetish scene especially when he’s a total line-crossing perv. I liked to keep that part of my lifestyle out of the office but I guess I was risking it when I showed up at the office in full gear. But who the hell is in the office at 10pm?????

      (Apparently the CEO and a few coworkers playing poker. Learned that lesson the hard way. I had no bloody idea until that night.)

        1. seejay*

          I will admit that I can laugh at it now, but it was *soooooo* uncomfortable at the time and for a few weeks afterwards. ><

      1. LisaLee*

        No. And I think my boss could have made her take it off if she pursued it…but I don’t think she wanted to touch the situation with a ten-foot pole.

        There was other stuff going on too, like her boyfriend would come in and stand silently in the middle of the floor, sometimes for upwards of 45 minutes, until the chick got off work, and they really encouraged each other’s less healthy behaviors, like once they both decided all personal hygiene was optional. It was super dysfunctional and I just don’t think my boss wanted to embroil herself in whatever was happening there.

        FWIW, my impression was that they were werewolf fetishists, not D/s.

    3. AB*

      I had a co-worker who wore a dog collar to work every day. He was also in a d/s relationship. We weren’t customer/client facing and we had a pretty liberal office with no dress code so it never became an issue. He didn’t really flaunt his relationship and only brought it up if people asked.

      This woman is sooo in the wrong though. Comparing it to misgendering a trans person is so offensive. While their D/S relationship can be described as their lifestyle choice, it’s also a game they both decide to play 24/7. He isn’t really her master. She can stop playing and leave the relationship anytime she wants to. They ‘play’ that she has to do everything he says but she will (HOPEFULLY!!) have some kind of safeword, and which point the game stops.

      None of her co-workers have consented to be apart of their roleplay and insisting they go along with it even if it makes them uncomfortable is way out of line.

    4. Anon for this*

      Now I know what happened to my collar-wearing friend in high school.

      (Kink stuff: I learned about it early.)

  23. Allypopx*

    I was in a poly relationship once where I referred to my male partner as my boyfriend and my female partner as my roommate in professional contexts. I worked in a conservative-leaning-though-generally-accepting environment and I wasn’t comfortable pushing the boundaries of that. She was completely fine with that, and the coworkers I befriended came to know her as my girlfriend.

    I can’t even fathom this. I’d be so uncomfortable on either side of this situation.

  24. Another sub with an opinion*

    Also a 24/7 sub with a master here (since we’re all chiming in). That would make me uncomfortable in that environment, and I’ve been in some very odd situations before. First of all, I don’t refer to anyone else by their title that they request for their sub. If Peter thinks that he’s going to get an experienced sub to immediately call him master, he hasn’t met me. No one but my actual partner (and yes I call him my partner or boyfriend in public) gets any sort of automatic submission like that, and it’s only the most inexperienced and arrogant “dom” who would expect that. Second, the whole dragging the public into their sexual life without consent thing. Any actual kinkster knows that’s wrong and gives a bad name to the bdsm community. Finally, they’re both probably pretty new to this and sounds like they have read too much 50 Shades. I’m curious to know if they have any experience in the actual community and seeing how a real M/s dynamic works in real life and in public. If you’d like to find out, good luck. It’s pretty hard to tell us from the vanilla people if you don’t know us personally. Just look for the people getting ideas for restraints in the hardware store.

      1. Jadelyn*

        Ah, yes. Dom Depot.

        …I slipped and called it that once in front of my mother. Thankfully she didn’t ask.

    1. Merci Dee*

      To the restraints from the hardware store . . . . oh, yeah. That always gives me all kinds of ideas.

      And I agree with another aspect of your comments — very inexperienced people here. In my particular group, we would call him a faux dom, and her a subbie princess, based solely on the information that’s been presented here. A man looking for someone to boss around, whether he’s earned the privilege or not. And a girl who’s looking for attention, uses her body to get it, and can typically be found climbing from one lap to the next in order to look for a little excitement.

      I hope that they live in an area with a good, established community that can show them what being in the lifestyle really means, and the things that you’re giving up and getting to become a part of it. It’s typically been my experience that the things you give up (closed-mindedness, fear, a sense of alienation) are vastly outweighed by the things you gain (community, a sense of possibility, greater self-awareness, greater compassion in both the community and the wider world).

      1. Another sub with an opinion*

        Exactly. Once I became involved in more of a community and connected with like-minded individuals with experience and knowledge, it completely opened up a new level of understanding of what this lifestyle really entails. Now in my group, I’ve become more of the reference/experience for other people who are curious about the lifestyle, but without that initial assistance from the community, I wouldn’t be in the position to offer help and guidance to other new kinksters.

        Good grief, they could even get involved the bdsmcommunity on reddit if they really don’t have anyone local.

    2. CS Rep By Day, Writer By Night*

      I’m not in the scene personally, but I have close friends who are and have been filled in pretty well on responsible BDSM practices. Aside from the horrifying consent issue with the co-workers, what you mentioned really stood out to me about her (and I’mm assuming Peter) stretching the Master title automatically to others. Titles along with a lot of other important things should be negotiated on an individual basis. This whole situation has unhealthy D/s dynamics written all over it.

    3. James*

      I think you’re reading the situation wrong. She’s not expecting others to refer to her partner as master, only as HER master. This doesn’t imply automatic submission on my part to him, but merely acknowledgement of the relationship between the two.

      Secondly, as I said below, I have my doubts about how much this involves sex, vs. psychology. We both know that the mental aspect of this is very important, just like the mental aspect of a marriage is important.

      1. Critter*

        I dunno. FWIW, I am the Very Incredibly Vanilla, so I have very little context for this, but I do agree with many others here that referring to him as Master would be involving themselves in the dynamics of the relationship. It does not necessarily make me submissive to Peter, but it would require me to submit, in a sense, to the situation. Sally is conflating what would be involving others in their relationship with acknowledgment. Between respecting the boundaries of others and seeking acknowledgement of their relationship, at least here, in a workplace scenario, the former trumps the latter.

      2. Another sub with an opinion*

        Re-reading it, I understand more specifically what she means. However, that still implies that the conversing party is consenting to being involved in their dynamic. FWIW I refer to my partner as my Master (or other appropriate titles) with conversations among kinksters, and if I was specifically in an environment such as a dungeon or another gathering of kinksters who are all aware of that status, I would expect them to refer to Him in our conversations as “your Master” or something like that to respect the dynamic that He and I have. But in other casual conversations or in public or really anywhere that it would cause any sort of potential conflict with a non-consenting party, they would refer to Him as my boyfriend or partner.

        However, when it comes to vanilla situations (which I just had a conversation about the other day so this is fresh in my mind), I would have no such expectations besides them knowing that I have a boyfriend and that is as much as they would need to know without having to directly consent to something more.

    4. Letter Writer*

      I do want to clarify that she wasn’t telling other people to call Peter “Master,” she was saying that they should refer to him as “your master”/”Sally’s master” rather than “your partner”/”Sally’s partner.” Still obviously out of line (and both her boss and I have made it clear to people that they absolutely can just call him “Peter”), but not quite the same thing.

      Sally and Peter are both fairly young (mid-20s?), so I think the most hopeful read is that they’re just both pretty new to everything and will acquire a clue at some point. In the meantime, I’m going to suggest to Sally’s boss that she speed up the process by addressing this directly.

      1. Another sub with an opinion*

        I understand better now. Someone else said the same thing, so I’ll respond with basically the same thing. Obviously it’s not necessary for you to go into this detail with her, but just so you know how kinksters would expect this to go down appropriately:

        I refer to my partner as my Master (or other appropriate titles) with conversations among kinksters, and if I was specifically in an environment such as a dungeon or another gathering of kinksters who are all aware of that status, I would expect that they would refer to Him in our conversations as “your Master” or something like that to respect the dynamic that He and I have (although never calling Him Master directly) because that is pretty common in kink circles and events. But in other casual conversations or in public or really anywhere that it would cause any sort of potential conflict with a non-consenting party, they would refer to Him as my boyfriend or partner.

        However, when it comes to vanilla situations, I would have no such expectations besides them knowing that I have a boyfriend and that is as much as they would need to know without having to directly consent to something more, which is appropriate to these work environments as well.

        If I was in this situation that you are, I would still call him “Peter” or “Sally’s partner.” If I was in a situation with them that was clearly consensual for all involved parties and kink-friendly, then I would refer to him as “your master” to Sally, but only in that specific environment and only if I chose to do so (although honestly I might just keep calling him Peter because they’ve annoyed me). However, anyone who chooses to refer to my partner by his name would be welcome to do so if it’s otherwise uncomfortable for them, regardless of kink or work environment.

  25. Unegen*

    So if the coworker continues to insist Peter be called “master” in a workplace setting, would the LW be out of line to suggest that this is involving the LW in a sexual situation he/she did not consent to be in, and therefore should be brought up with HR? Because HR has ways of dealing with people who inject unwanted sexual talk into the workplace.

    I had a “lifestyler” for a supervisor once who apparently thought I was the “cool kid” or something, so she involved me waaaay too much in that, which I did not want. I did not have luck with HR because she was buddy-buddy with the HR director…who was married to another director…who was BFFs with the CEO…etc. But would referring this to HR in the LW’s case be warranted?

    1. Unegen*

      I put “lifestyler” in quotations marks here because I think what she was doing was not in keeping with BDSM lifestyle norms. Her method of being a lifestyle domme was to be a difficult, abrasive, temperamental, manipulative a-hole to everyone who crossed her path, and I feel that gives the whole thing a bad rap.

      1. Golden Lioness*

        Technically, what is called “the lifestyle” is free partner sharing and group participation, not dom/sub or kink (though they do not exclude each other).

        1. Unegen*

          Ah, see now I’m using the word she used for what she was doing, and what others in the local scene use for what she was doing, so now I am really confused.

          1. Golden Lioness*

            By your brief description and his own admission he was in the lifestyle. Most people are very discreet and you would not imagine. There’s no dom or sub in this situation. just adults free sharing/swapping partners and group sharing.

            BDSM is a different dynamic.

    2. MegaMoose, Esq.*

      I don’t think she’d be out of line and HR might be the right place to end up if they won’t stop, but I’d start with the boss and encourage the boss (since they’re friends with the OP) to loop HR in if necessary. This really is the boss’ problem to be dealing with, not the coworker’s.

    3. James*

      Would you say that calling a lesbian’s spouse her wife is involving coworkers in their sex life?

      To be clear: If she’s sharing details, that’s different. If your only objection is to the term she uses, then no, you’re not involved; you’re merely being asked to respect the nature of her relationship, in the same way that I can ask you to respect my relationship with my spouse by referring to her as my wife.

      1. MegaMoose, Esq.*

        Nah, I really do think it’s important to draw a distinction between recognizing the existence of a relationship and recognizing the details of that relationship. Spouse, husband, wife, partner, boy- or girl- friend all recognize the existence of a relationship and a rough sense of how established that relationship is. Any other details are getting people too involved in the specifics of your relationship, i.e.: bottom, top, lover, heterosexual lifemate, puppy, number one toe-sucker, etc.

      2. aebhel*

        That is really, really not the same thing. The ‘nature of the relationship’ that other people are required to respect is: there is a relationship, it exists and is important to the people involved. People not involved in the relationship should absolutely not be expected to know about or acknowledge D/s dynamics (or, frankly, any other relationship dynamics), particularly when it comes to such a loaded term as ‘master’.

      3. ZVA*

        No, calling a lesbian’s spouse her wife isn’t “involving coworkers in their sex life,” because “wife” isn’t a sexual term. “Master,” in this case, is. They really aren’t the same thing.

  26. Althea*

    I liken it to a different term: “fuck buddy.” Or even the less profane “friend with benefits.”

    Even if that’s the correct term, can you imagine asking people at work to use it??

    1. Lily Rowan*

      OMG, that would be so good. “Hey, boss — I’d like to introduce my fuckbuddy, Jason. Oh no, we’re not actually dating!”

  27. Amber Rose*

    Every year at our comic expo, in amongst all the geeks in awesome, bizarre and/or silly outfits… is inevitably someone walking their partner on a leash. A partner who is on all fours.

    It’s unnerving as hell. The other stuff is a game and a hobby, and here’s people doing what seems a lot like having sex in public. Yergh.

  28. BePositive*

    I’m sorry but expecting people outside this relationship to follow Sally’s request is unprofessional. I agree that at work the best thing is to call him as Sally’s partner. I dont think a manager needs to get involved at this at all. I would say this to a peer. If that make her and her master uncomfortable they can deal with it. I would say it makes me feel more comfortable as ‘master’ is too personal. I would be direct in telling her this. I have no issue between two consenting adults and what they do is no business of anyone else’s. I view this the same if it was reversed and he called her “mistress”.

    FYI – I’m not a prude. I have friends who engage in more riskay type relationships. I just think it’should rude tor involve others in the workplace.

    1. Pwyll*

      I don’t think there’s anything prudish about saying this type of behavior doesn’t belong at work-related locations.

  29. Pwyll*

    I agree with everyone’s outrage. It really sounds to me like someone immature (no matter her age) who is excited about this new part of her life and doesn’t quite get that this isn’t an appropriate way (or location, or audience) to share it. We once had an entry level employee who was quite excited to be exploring life as an out-and-proud poly pansexual, to the point that she felt the need to share her exploration in graphic detail with the office. We basically just had a chat with her about how discussions of sex aren’t appropriate in the office, including allusions to sex or kink, but that we certainly respected her orientation and that she should feel free to bring her boy and girlfrend(s), if any, to our usual partners-included work events (that we had often).

    But I definitely agree to addressing the consent aspect of this, as the coworkers most certainly did not consent observe behavior that is effectively foreplay.

  30. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

    I’m a lesbian and I can’t even with this comparison. I want people to call my wife my wife or spouse, since it acknowledges both our relationship and the commitment we could (finally!) make to each other.

    But acknowledging a committed relationship is all that is. It’s got nothing to do with sex, unlike the “master” thing.

  31. BobcatBrah*

    I don’t think I’d ever be able to take her seriously again. Nothing wrong with kink, but boy oh boy does she have a hilarious lack of judgement.

  32. Meemzi*

    -No, you need to call him my master.

    “No, /you/ need to do that. I don’t have to do anything. The workplace is not the place for kink. Please don’t share the details of your sex life at work.”

    I’m going to make my boss call my boyfriend “handsome stallion of sex” or “Daddy.” I wonder which he’ll choose?

  33. Fluke Skywalker*

    Oh my gooooooosh. I was peeking out from behind my hands at this letter. I’m feeling secondhand embarrassment so hard right now.

  34. Ms. Anne Thrope*


    I’m not referring to anyone’s ‘special friend’ as their master, slave, pony, jockey, or bubblekins. And anyone who insists will force me to think of many and varied ways to say ‘keep your fetishes out of my workplace, thanks.’ And once I run out I’ll just quit talking to them at all.

    Good lord, grow up woman!

  35. Critter*

    I’m kind of wondering if Sally is going out of her way, sort of, to mention Peter. Were I one of the coworkers, I would probably do what OP says some of the coworkers are doing and just not ever mention Peter at all. Just give the situation a super wide berth because WOW. I can simply not ask Sally any questions about her personal life, even in passing and colloquially, ever ever again. BUT if Sally brings it up? And sort of forces me to respond? Well then I’d have to use my heretofore unknown Kitty Pryde-like powers and disappear through the floor.

    1. Myrin*

      Yeah, I wonder how he comes up so much that this is even a discussion she felt she needed to have. It would fit with the “new to the scene/hyper excited about the ~unusual~ relationship” theory many commenters have.

    2. Letter Writer*

      LOL, I definitely think some of our coworkers would like some Kitty Pryde powers now! Great image.

      She definitely talks about Peter quite a bit in general; I had always chalked it up to excitement and new relationship energy, since they started dating a little less than a year ago and even normally conscientious people do tend to get chronic mentionitis with regards to new crushes/partners/etc. who they’re exited about. (She did not start out by referring to him as ‘my master.’) Most people seem to have just stopped talking to her about anything but work, though.

    1. Al Lo*

      I know! And I mean that in the best way possible. I really appreciate people chiming in with their experiences in the community and their expertise — I’m not at all versed in kink culture, and it’s really interesting to hear people’s informed opinions and experiences.

      1. Ineloquent*

        Ditto! I wonder how acceptable it’d be to lurk on kink online forums as an observer. I don’t find it sexy, personally – it just doesn’t light my candle – but the culture and rules just sound so freakin’ interesting!

    2. Ife*

      Right!? I read the headline and was like, “What, he wants to be Master Jones instead of Mr. Jones?” No, nope.

      1. Dynamic Beige*

        Well, he would have to be under the age of 18 to be Master Jones (I read various ages from 14 to 7). Kind of like a French woman is Mademoiselle until she is married or over the age of 21 and then it changes to Madame.

        I did not expect that I would learn stuff like this today. With today’s letters, I was asking myself if it’s Wednesday, even though I know that’s not A Thing.

  36. Jeanne*

    It’s never ok to be giving details of your sex life at work to people who didn’t ask. I don’t care if you’re gay, straight, or abducted by aliens. No one wants to hear that. There are millions of other topics of conversation. I’m surprised anyone wants to talk to her at all. Are there no professional boundaries left?

    1. RVA Cat*

      This all so reminds me of the very NSFW Key & Peele skit with the co-worker seriously oversharing, the one that ends with “…maybe I’m just an a**hole.”

      1. phedre*

        The office homophobe skit. I love it! “Oh, I get it. I’m not persecuted, I’m just an a**hole.”

        And seriously, no one wants to know anything about your sex life. Ever.

    2. M-Anon*

      Ugh reminds me of the employee who loudly told another coworker she had a STD.. and how she get it.. and with who.. and where she went to get treated.. and all of the symptoms…

    3. BananaPants*

      I do not want to know anything at all about the sex life of anyone I work with, under any circumstances. Christ on a cracker, I felt slightly weird about telling people that I was pregnant because then everyone would KNOW how I’d gotten in that state.

      I’ve always been of the opinion that sex and politics should not be discussed at work unless the nature of one’s work requires it. Your run-of-the-mill office job, HELL NO.

  37. FroggyHR*

    So, question for those in the Dom/sub community. Sally said she was in a “24/7” d/s relationship. Is that common? Does that mean they are just constantly acting a part/ role playing?

    I guess I was under the impression that the Dom/sub thing was for certain situations. 24/7 seems…unhealthy.

    Curious to hear from those who have experience with this!

    1. J*

      The majority of kinky people that I know tend engage in bdsm more sporadically. 24/7 power exchange relationships aren’t super uncommon though. The healthy ones have all of the same elements as bdsm scenes: negotiation of boundaries, safe words, being safe, sane and consensual. Like any other relationship they can be perfectly healthy or abusive.

    2. Merci Dee*

      It’s not like every D/s couple on the corner is in a 24/7 relationship, but it happens with some regularity.

      It doesn’t have anything to do with acting a part or playing a role. This is who you are, in much the same way that you’re a brother, a sister, a mother, a father, etc. You are dominant, you are submissive, because that’s who you are. Granted, that doesn’t mean that you boss everyone around all the time, and it doesn’t mean that you do everything that everyone tells you all the time. Like so many other parts of life, your behavior is modulated by circumstances.

      In practice, this isn’t much different from living in any other committed relationship. People come home and gripe about their bosses, talk about what they had for lunch. They get the flu, they raise the kids (with the BDSM aspects behind closed doors, if they’ve got half a brain), and go back and forth about where to eat for dinner.

      It’s just people living life.

    3. aebhel*

      Common enough. It’s not so much acting a part as just being… part of how two people relate to one another. Frankly, you see a lot of power exchange dynamics in non-BDSM relationships, too; it just frequently isn’t acknowledged by the participants (who ‘wears the pants’ in the relationship, etc). Calling it a 24/7 D/s relationship just formalizes what that means to the two people involved, and also (more importantly, imo) acknowledges that this is a choice people are making for the dynamic that works best for them, not just the natural order of How Relationships Work.

    4. Alton*

      24/7 D/s relationships often involve some level of routine. The sub might agree to follow rules, do mundane stuff for the dom like cooking and cleaning, ask permission before doing certain things, etc.

      Healthy couples continue to communicate as equals and respect the sub’s right to have limits and to speak up when they need to. Many couples will drop or minimize the dynamic when necessary.

    5. Jadelyn*

      It really varies based on the couple (or group) involved. It can be complex and rigid with rules and protocols, or it can be very simple and casual. Mine is more toward the latter – we have defined scenes too, because we enjoy those, but the 24/7 aspect is simply acknowledging that I’ve ceded to him the right to control over me and my actions as he chooses. He doesn’t always choose – I do quite a bit of stuff on my own recognizance – but if he steps in and says “don’t do X” or “do Y right now” (the latter usually when I’m putting off something I know I need to do but don’t want to do), then I acknowledge his authority to say that and will shift my activities accordingly. So 24/7 can be that simple, really. I don’t even call him by any particular title most of the time – sometimes I do when talking to others in the scene because I want to make it clear what the dynamic is, sometimes I do when talking to him because we both enjoy that, but most of the time he’s just Ozz to me.

  38. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

    Also got me wondering: a college friend of mine is poly (him and two women, 3 small sons). He refers to his partners as his wives, and the first one is legally married to him, though. The women do not sleep together.

    Don’t be thinking something along Jeffs/Kingston lines, though. They all have college education and work, dress normally, interact equally, and so on. It’s a real partnership, not a fetish.

    If “master” is wrong, what do you do about multiple partners where both might want to be addressed as “spouse?”

    1. fposte*

      I figure I only care about its legal accuracy on relevant paperwork; otherwise if you say “wife,” I’ll call all twenty of them wife. (I suspect real partnerships and fetishes are Venn diagram circles with a lot of overlap, btw.)

    2. The Strand*

      Just call them both spouses or partners. That’s pretty much what you would do in a country where plural marriage is legal, right? Legally, only one might be a spouse in the US (where plural marriage is not legal), but only HR needs to worry about that (for benefits’ sake).

      Referring to them as such is not part of a sexual game, just an acknowledgement of the existing relationship.

    3. MegaMoose, Esq.*

      This seems like it’s getting to the distinction Allison was talking about between recognizing the existence of a relationship and recognizing particular details about how the relationship is carried out. Addressing multiple partners as spouse is recognizing the existence of the relationship, which is different than the master thing.

    4. Jeanne*

      I’m fine with him saying he has two spouses. I should be able to say “How is Cindy” not “How is second sister wife” or whatever. And he should not tell me how they decide whose turn it is to sleep with him or if they’ve ever had a threesome.

  39. The Strand*

    I am pining for the days of the Duck Club.

    If one of my colleagues insists that I call her husband – or mother – “Fart Face” every time the family member comes for a visit, she can’t make me do it, no matter what it does for the strength of her relationship.

  40. Lindsay J*

    Seriously, nobody cares about the details of your relationship. Especially not at work.

    My boyfriend started out as just a BDSM play partner and there were a couple interim steps before we officially acknowledged we were in a relationship.

    When talking to friends and coworkers I initially referred to him as “a guy I’m dating”, and then later my boyfriend – even before he was officially my boyfriend. Because that’s all people need is some kind of short reference to what type of relationship it is. “I went to the pumpkin patch with a guy I’m dating and went on a hayride. It was nice. How was your weekend?” conveys pretty much the same thing as “I went to the pumpkin patch with my not sexually-exclusive Master that I do kinky things with,” except that the second one is way TMI for the office.

    1. seejay*

      I pretty much had something similar with my current partner. We started off as “friends with benefits” but it was way too complicated and TMI to explain to people so I just said we were dating even though we weren’t really and for others to make it simple I called him a boyfriend. At this point, it’s been six years, it’s kind of progressed beyond FWB so he’s now officially a partner given the complexity and uniqueness of the relationship we have but I don’t bother explaining much else around it since most people wouldn’t understand. Unless they would and want to know details of it (and are close enough and non-judgemental that I don’t mind sharing those details). In most situations, including work, no one needs to know the intricacies of it, especially my managers and casual coworkers.

      1. Unegen*

        I once dated a guy that I wasn’t terribly proud of dating (we weren’t compatible, At. All.), and at work I happened to mention him in conversation. The person I was talking to said, “Oh, and he is your…?” trying to get me to fill in the blank. I could have said “boyfriend.” I could have said “friend,” “guy I’m dating,” or anything really.

        Instead I said “Associate.”
        And realized two things:
        1) Apparently I think I am a mobster.
        2) I really needed to break up with that guy.

        1. Letter Writer*

          This cracked me up. I so want to start referring to my girlfriend as “my associate” now, ideally accessorized with menacing gimlet eyes and a cigar.

        2. Golden Lioness*

          I love that! I need to call the next guy I date my associate. After all we’ll be like partners in crime! =)

        3. Blue Anne*

          I have mountain dew in my nasal cavity due to an ill-timed drink. Thanks for that.

          oh my god, “associate”…

  41. The Rizz*

    Haven’t read through the rest of the comments to see if this perspective is already out there but twits like this ruin it for the rest of us kinky folks. It is 100% involving people in your sexual relationship and it’s totally wrong. It’s one thing to come out to your family about D/s so they don’t think you’re being abused (but honestly, should also be unnecessary if you’re actually in a respectful D/s relationship) but co-workers are 1000% off-limits. These people are the worst and she should be fired for having terrible judgement.

  42. Buffay the Vampire Layer*

    Does this remind anyone else of that Will Ferrell & Rachel Dratch SNL hot tub sketch? That’s all I can think of now.

      1. Blue Anne*

        That’s all I can think of when ANYONE says “lover”. I can’t use that word at all. I just assume we’re going to be oiling up and feeding each other ham.

  43. Dr. Doll*

    Flies are buzzing in and out of my open-for-several-minutes-in-amazement mouth. What. The. Hell.

    *Great* answer, Alison. I would have had NO idea. Thank God I will probably never have to deal with something like this, ever.

    1. Dr. Doll*

      I posted before reading any of the other comments and want to say that I meant no disrespect towards anyone’s orientation or choices.

      Just glad that no one I work with would ever think for a nanosecond of talking about their relationships at work at all beyond “My partner and I went to a concert” or if a partner does join us for the rare happy hour, they are all very nice and courteous people who drink a polite beer and then everyone sheers off home.

  44. Cantaloupe*

    This is killing me – I have a smile stuck on my face and my boss is bound to ask what is so funny!

    I think there is a rather simple way to explain this to her – in addition to mentioning that this is not work appropriate to request. For anyone to call him ‘master’ is having them imply that is THEIR relationship with Peter, not hers. Asking “Where did you and Master go this weekend?” is dripping with the implication that Peter is their master.

    For one to be referred to as master means that they have control over the other – in this case it is only Sally. It only makes sense for him to be called Peter by everyone who isn’t his sexual submissive.

    But who knows… maybe Sally wants to drag the office into her sex life. Maybe she is breaking the ice for other coworkers to join the relationship or wants a big office orgy where he is the CEO.

    I do wonder though how good the sex must be for her to be motivated enough to call him master in public. My husband and I tried it once and it didn’t really pay off enough for me to continue… I can only imagine.

    1. a*

      That’s not exactly what Sally is asking for (although what she’s asking for is still extremely inappropriate.) She’s asking for them to call Peter “your master.” Syntactically similar to talking to a child and referring to their parent as “your dad.” It doesn’t mean that you’re calling their parent “Dad.”

      What Sally *is* asking for is still bringing the office into her sex life, but she’s not trying to have her coworkers play a submissive role to Peter.

  45. HR newbie*

    i swear every time some kinkster tries to compare their lifestyle to the ongoing struggle for LGBT rights i get a little closer to my supervillian origin story

  46. Chocolate Teapot*

    So, how to describe the other party in your relationship? There is a phrase in german which translates as life partner/companion, or I was reading a historical novel set in the 17th Century which refers to an “Intended Helpmeet”.

    I also heard of a woman introducing her other half as a “Special Friend”. To be honest, I had visions of Teddy Bears’ picnics and fluffy pink fairies at the bottom of the garden, and it was hard to keep a straight face.

    1. fposte*

      To work? Date, partner, spouse/husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend. Stick to the conventional. The goal isn’t to be as accurate as possible about your relationship but to allow your co-workers not to think about any more.

      1. Lily Rowan*

        Seriously! I am trying to use “partner” more for anyone, like I think they do in England? It seems so convenient not to have to worry about knowing the legal status.

        1. Blossom*

          I’m English, and I’d say “partner” is definitely used as a generic catch-all, but not usually about a specific married individual. So, “partners are welcome” would imply both married and unmarried partners, but I would never refer to my husband as “my partner”. If someone else refers to “your partner” (which is usually done with hesitant voice and unsure expression), I will lay any doubts to rest by answering about “my husband”.

          1. Blossom*

            Oh – and it can imply a long-term, marriage-like relationship. Not in the very breezy “partners are welcome” example, but generally if I hear about someone’s “partner”, I assume them to be living together. Once or twice, I have heard it used by over-earnest couples in their early 20s (not living together, no kids) and have felt a bit eye-rolly.

            1. seejay*

              It can also refer to long-term partners who aren’t living together but have something more than just casual dating. It’s pretty much dependent on the people involved, but I do agree that it has to be a bit more involved than casual early-dating overly-earnest early 20-something.

              I’m way past casual dating status at this point, but we’re not living together, not planning marriage, no kids, but definitely in long-term mode, and boyfriend/girlfriend is too young for our age, spouse isn’t accurate, companion sounds… weird… and that pretty much leaves us with partners as the best description despite the fact that we don’t live together. It’s a good catch-all description that fits since there’s pretty much nothing else that fits… so that’s what we go with.

            2. Jadelyn*

              I use it because after 7 years together I want to connote something a bit more serious than “boyfriend and girlfriend”, but we’re not married for Life Issues Reasons, so we can’t use fiance or spouse. So “partner” fills that gap.

      2. Isabel C.*

        I say “significant other” when in the second/third person (“SOs and children welcome…”) and, back when I dated, similar in the first person.

        I have referred to “gentleman friend” when talking to elderly relatives about guys I was dating in the “going out to dinner a couple times, seeing where it goes” sense but not Dating in the “he’s my boyfriend” way.

    2. Blue Anne*

      I have been known to introduce my partners as “my other fraction”, because we’re all poly.

      But never ever at work.

    3. FrankiesGirl*

      I read the comment too fast apparently and had a brain glitch where I thought it said “fluffy pink fairy bottoms.” And then I sat there for a few minutes trying to decide how a request for others to refer to one as “Ms. Fluffy Pink Fairy Bottom” would go over. It apparently included muffled giggling, and the husband thinks I’m undermedicated (again).

      And now the cat has a new pet name.

      That is all.

  47. Moonsaults*

    I wonder what the labor board says about this, if everyone involved would have a huge tangled harassment suit on their hands. From Sally, then from her coworkers to Sally. What a horrible messy mess.

    Management will want to squash the **** out of that though, it’s seriously trading all over professional lines that will very much get people to their ears in boiling lawsuit water. You have to leave sex and relationships out of it. Just say “Is Peter going to stay?” call him by his name, not “your partner” or “your master”. “Is your guest”, “is your plus one”, whatever that shows that it’s just “that frigging guy you brought over.”

  48. James*

    This is a bit complicated….For the record, I’m not part of the BDSM scene, but I know a lot of people who are. This is my opinion on what’s going on; obviously other people have other opinions. If you ask three people in BDSM about a situation, you’ll get seven answers and a fist-fight; it’s nowhere near a homogenous group.

    On the one hand, this behavior is definitely outside the social norms, and the people in the relationship have to accept that. Carrying aD/s relationship into the wider world is going to cause friction, because it’s not generally accepted by our society.

    That said, these relationships are very real to the people in them, and are just as important as the more traditional boyfriend/girlfriend vanilla relationships. Being dismissive about it, or worse being disrespectful of the relationship or those involved in it, is no different than telling a homosexual person that they can’t call the woman they’re married to their wife, because “wife” means a woman married to a man and just, ew, women shouldn’t marry women okay? The BDSM community is fighting for the same rights and privileges the homosexual community fought for not that long ago: the right to exist in the open. And part of that is not hiding what sort of relationship they’re in. I’m actually quite proud of this woman for standing up for herself and her relationship. She has the courage to refuse to hide that aspect of her life. She’s not flaunting it by any means–and believe me, there are ways to flaunt it–she’s simply asking that you show her the respect of referring to her relationship by the proper terms.

    And this sort of relationship often isn’t about sex. I won’t get too into it, but a big aspect of this sort of thing is trust and communication. Can I trust you to push my boundaries without going over them? Can I feel safe enough around you to let go of the reigns and give up control? Physical intimacy is a very small part of the dynamic for many people. It’s just like homosexual marriage–calling him Master is about as sexual as a lesbian calling her spouse her wife in a 24/7 relationship.

    Telling her to “grow up” is just wrong. Imagine telling a lesbian or gay man “It’s just a phase” or “You’ll grow out of it”. Or, imagine someone going up to a transgendered person and telling them “You’re just immature”. It’s not fundamentally different–YOU don’t like the relationship, so you’ve found a comfortable way to dismiss it. Or at least, that’s how the person who’s lifestyle you just dismissed will feel.

    A lot of folks in the community have been pushing people to be more visible, particularly after 50 Shades became a hit. Again, this isn’t about rubbing their lifestyle in other peoples’ faces; it’s about gaining acceptance from the community, about getting the community to accept that these relationships exist, and are valid. 50 Shades is a horrible series with dangerous, potentially lethal scenes portrayed and is about as accurate a representation of BDSM as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is about Japan, but it has given the community wider exposure, and many want to take advantage of that fact.

    FroggyHR: No, 24/7 D/s relationships are not common. They’re actually generally discouraged, because most people don’t understand what that means. This is no different from any other hobby or relationship (different people view it differently, and that’s fine!): if you’re smart, you don’t start playing baseball by trying to join the Cubs and you don’t start dating by proposing to marry the first girl you date on the first date. In a BDSM relationship, you ease into things–and the overwhelming majority of the time it doesn’t include a 24/7 lifestyle. It sounds like the person in the OP does understand this sort of relationship; she’s willing to accept the realities of the situation. But what usually happens is that someone who’s only knowledge of the concept comes from “50 Shades of Gray” wants to jump into something like that.

    A 24/7 doesn’t mean that the sub has no rights. Communication is absolutely vital in a relationship like this, between all parties. A traditional marriage can last years, decades running on autopilot. That’s just not possible with a D/s relationship, of any type. The key is to make the relationship fulfilling and enjoyable to everyone involved, and that requires communication and commitment, just like any other relationship.

    I don’t see anything in the letter that suggests an unhealthy relationship in this case. It doesn’t appear that the Dom is asking his sub to do anything more unusual than refer to him in a certain way in public. There are warning signs of unhealthy relationships in BDSM, just like in the vanilla world (though they are different), and none of them are present here. And the use of the relationship terms in public honestly may not be coming from him–SHE may be the one to initiate it, because living in closets sucks and knowing that you can refer to people in your life the way your relationship dictates they be referred to is INCREDIBLY liberating.

    In summary, I’ll agree it’s weird. I STRONGLY disagree with the notion of dismissing this person’s views on her own relationship, and I find the notion that she needs to “grow up” and the like to be insulting, on par with transphobia and homophobia. This isn’t about sex; this is about acknowledging the legitimacy of her relationship with her Master.

    1. I'll call him Peter*

      But heres the deal, Peter aint nothing to me but Peter. He defiantly isn’t my Master so I refuse to call him that. Live your life how you want it, I don’t care as long as kids and pets aren’t hurt. But don’t make me call anyone anything. Ill just call you by name.

      1. James*

        Is anyone asking you to? If I say “She’s not my girlfriend, she’s my wife” am I asking you to call her YOUR wife? Of course not–the notion is silly and semantically ridiculous. If she’s saying “Please don’t call him my boyfriend, he’s my Master” she’s not asking you to call him YOUR master, just HER master.

        That said, calling him Peter would work just fine. A lot of people I work with call my wife by her first name, too.

        1. Nobody Here By That Name*

          Insisting that others refer to him as HER master is still involving people in their scene and doing so without their consent. Ergo, not cool.

    2. Fade*

      Calling him “your partner” recognizes the legitimacy of the relationship, though. I can call my coworker Bob’s husband “your partner” and my coworker Ann’s girlfriend “your partner” and my coworker Alex’s paramour “your partner” and my coworker Sam’s platonic life partner who also does some light spanking on the side “your partner” and this woman’s 24/7 BDSM master “your partner” and in every single case it recognizes the relationship as a legitimate one.

      It’s not “on par with transphobia and homophobia” to accord someone’s significant life partner the exact same term given to everyone else’s significant life partner, any more than it would be if she went around insisting everyone refer to him as “your double-penetration fuckbuddy but only on Tuesdays”.

    3. fposte*

      I guess this is some kind of current truism in the BDSM community, and it’s pretty tin-eared.

      You *have* the rights the gay and lesbian community fought for. You have the right to identify this person as a partner or a spouse, a boyfriend, girlfriend, or date to your work.

      Whether partnership means BDSM or asexuality or furry life is up to you to decide. It’s not the obligation of the rest of the world to notate the shades of your partnership, be they Shades of Grey, grey ace, or grey fur, and it’s not cheating you of your rights to expect you to leave the emotional and sexual dynamics of your private life out of the workplace. You get to say who it is and get that treated respectfully. That’s it.

      1. Blue Anne*

        For the record, quite a lot of people in the kink scene (including myself) would disagree with what James has said here. It’s not a truism in the BDSM community (which James, as he notes before his essay on how the BDSM community works, is not part of) and I really wish people would stop with the comparison.

    4. MegaMoose, Esq.*

      In terms of rights, I think that people are entitled to exactly two things when it comes to relationships: recognition of the existence of their relationship, and the right not to be discriminated against because of the existence of that relationship. You simply do not have to right to *require* that other people have anything else to do with your relationship than that. I have not seen a single member of the BDSM scene say that they feel closeted because they can’t talk about the specifics of their relationship to anyone they feel like – as best I can tell, there appears to be a unanimous consensus from the members of that community posting here that what this coworker is doing is inappropriate, for a number of excellent reasons set out at length above, but first and foremost being consent.

    5. Trout 'Waver*

      I find it highly ironic that you’re comparing d/s relationships to civil rights movements, when the original civil rights movement in this country was to free women from d/s relationships by default…..

    6. Tiny_Tiger*

      The only issue with this is the plain and simple fact that BDSM is a lifestyle, being LGBT is not. Trust me, I have a part in both groups. I’ll admit telling her to “grow up” is an overtly harsh way to say “No one is required to follow the rules you and Peter have set down for each other” but she has no fight in this to say that her struggle is comparable to being LGBT. Being able to be open about your kinks is great, but I definitely don’t feel the need to tell my coworkers about them because that is my private life. Honestly, I feel it would be going out of my way to make people uncomfortable to tell them about my kinks.

    7. Ms. Anne Thrope*

      Well, as someone who said ‘grow up’ I didn’t mean ‘grow up and don’t be in that kind of relationship’ I meant ‘grow up and keep your private relationships out of the workplace.’ Ever notice how most middle-aged people don’t grope and make out on the bus? Not because people are freaked out by it but because it’s rude to involve others in your private business. Certainly I don’t want to see it. Why? Because I’m freaked out? Nope—because I don’t give a shit that you’re soooo in love. Do what you want but leave me out of it. Involve me, and it’s my business. I know people in the ‘lifestyle’ and we get along fine but if this chick started her ‘yes master’ act around me at the company picnic I’d suddenly have to go walk the dog. (Bonus points if everyone knows I don’t have a dog.)

      Also, not for nuthin’ but it’s highly ironic for someone to be all indignant over people ‘disrespecting’ their lifestyle while calling others’ lifestyles ‘vanilla’ and ‘mundane.’ That sure seems dismissive.

      1. Tiny_Tiger*

        Actually “vanilla” isn’t meant to be demeaning or dismissive at all. “Mundane” is another story, but vanilla is mostly just a slang term for “people who aren’t into kink.”

      2. Blue Anne*

        “Vanilla” is not usually meant to be dismissive, although I do see how it could come across that way.

      3. Isabel C.*

        Yes. I do not want to be around people who constantly talk mushy baby talk to their SO, or who feel the need to post every day on FB about how wooooonderful their relationship with and how in luuuuuuuv they are. My experience is that those people are either in middle school, mentally if not physically, or are really insecure about the relationship and overcompensating like whoa, and I don’t want to deal with it in either case.

    8. aebhel*

      1. I’m in the lifestyle.
      2. I’m queer.

      This comparison is so offensive on so many levels. These are not the same thing, and I am not oppressed by it not being socially acceptable for me to describe the exact ~~emotional and psychological dynamics~~ of my relationships to casual acquaintances. Insisting that coworkers acknowledge those dynamics is incredibly inappropriate. I have the right to insist that they acknowledge that the relationship exists (this is my wife, this is my girlfriend, these are my partners); I do not have the right to insist that they acknowledge the dynamics of it (this is my Dom, this is my friend-with-benefits, this is my master).

      It’s really gross for straight kinksters to claim that kinkshaming (or even just PEOPLE NOT WANTING TO HEAR ABOUT IT) is basically the same as homophobia. There are legitimate civil rights issues involved, but ‘no, I won’t call him your daddy’ is not the same damn thing as ‘two women shouldn’t be allowed to marry.’

      1. Anonymous 40*

        Hit the nail on the head with PEOPLE NOT WANTING TO HEAR ABOUT IT. That’s exactly it. I can respect any sort of relationship fully consenting adults choose to have – straight, gay, bi, poly, kink. But I don’t want to know what people get up to in their sexytimes, no matter what their relationship type is, ESPECIALLY if it’s someone I know.

        Straight married couple? DON’T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT IT.

        Single people with NSA FWBs? DON’T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT IT.

        Swingers? DON’T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT IT.

        Gay couples of any gender? DON’T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT IT.

        It’s not about being prudish at all. I just don’t have any interest in knowing intimate details about friends, neighbors, coworkers, people I go to church with, etc. The existence of the relationship is awesome. The details should be private.

        Plus, imagine this with any other kind of relationship. Would this even be a question if someone was insisting their coworkers refer to their partner by a cutesy bedroom nickname? If some middle aged accountant insisted everyone refer to her husband Dave as “Stallion” at all times, wouldn’t everyone just laugh at her?

      2. Buffay the Vampire Layer*

        Also, drawing this false parallel really reminds me of all the homophobic people arguing that gay people are shoving their sex lives in the faces of everyone else. Kind of undermines LGBT rights to give credence to that argument.

      3. aebhel*

        Also: the real distinction here is that certain kind of relationship labels indicate how outsiders should treat the relationship (‘this is my wife’ is different than ‘this is my date’ or ‘this is my roommate’ when it comes to things like being invited to weddings or asked after casually at work gatherings). Terms like Dom or Master or Daddy are only really relevant to the people involved in the relationship. That doesn’t mean they aren’t important to those people, but they just aren’t relevant for social interactions–especially casual ones–outside of the relationship.

    9. Buffay the Vampire Layer*

      This isn’t at all like refusing to call a woman’s spouse her wife. This is like if a woman introduced her spouse to you as “This is my wife, Jane, but I call her Peg because that’s what she’s into sexually. You should too.”

    10. AFT (Anon For This)*

      Hey James, you’re on the right path, but you said it right here:
      > For the record, I’m not part of the BDSM scene, but I know a lot of people who are.

      Please run this one by your kinky friends and see what they have to say. For the most part, for most people, kinky play is sexual play, so talking about it really is the same as talking about sex. I don’t talk about sex at work; I don’t talk about spanking at work. And for the record, I’ve been being kinky in public for *decades*. I’ve been involved in the public scene — both parties and organizations. I do have a sense of what kinky people in general think about this stuff.

      1. seejay*

        Yuuuup, so much this. What James said is akin to saying “I’m not black but I have black friends and I think they’d think this”.

        There are quite a few people in this thread who are *pretty clearly* well-versed and experienced in the scene and lifestyle for many many years. Not as outsiders, not as dabblers, and not as random 50 shades of grayers who picked up the book and thought “OOOO NEATO LET’S GRAB SOME TIES” and they’re all saying that this is so over-the-line and way out of bounds. Sure, a few have said there’s some people who *do* live this lifestyle out in the open and enact their D/s, B/D, S/M play in the grocery store, in the mall, heck, walking down the sidewalk, but they’ve also stated that this is not the norm and this is seen as not totally acceptable. Heck, I live smack dab in the middle of San Francisco, probably considered one of the kinkiest cities in the US and even I don’t see that walking down the street (although all bets are off if you wander through the Castro on a warm sunny Saturday afternoon and we are not even going to mention the weekends of Pride or Folsom Street Fair because all bets are off then, seriously parents do not bring your kids to the city on those weekends, you are warned!)

        I would take the word of people who are actually knowledgeable of the lifestyle over someone who “knows people” in the scene and has some thoughts about how he thinks this should be handled. The overwhelming consensus is clearly in the “not cool” column.

    11. BananaPants*

      I admit I have zero firsthand knowledge of this kind of lifestyle, but expecting coworkers to call her husband “your master” in conversation is the social equivalent of expecting them to call him “your lover”. It’s weird and icky and takes it beyond communicating the relationship to putting it in a sexual context, and I don’t want to know anything about my coworkers’ sex lives. Whatever the hell consenting adults want to do on their own time/behind closed doors is their business; they don’t need to make it mine.

      Now I’m thinking about those SNL skits with Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch where they make everyone around them deeply uncomfortable by calling each other “lover” and talking about their sex lives.

  49. Letter Writer*

    LW here–

    Is it bad that I felt super proud of myself when I saw Alison refer to this letter as ‘amazing’? :D That has (almost) made this whole baffling story worthwhile. Well, that and the fact that I now have a great workplace anecdote that I can break out at cocktail parties for the rest of ever.

    It’s also kind of reassuring to see that everyone else finds this as mindboggling as we do!

    Sally’s boss and I already made it clear to our direct reports that nobody has to call Peter anything but Peter if they don’t want to, although most of them seem to have decided that it’s easiest to just… never mention him ever, which I doubt was Sally’s intention, but there you go.

    For what it may or may not be worth, Peter’s behavior at the parties was much more… er… “normal,” I guess, than Sally’s. He introduced himself just as “Peter,” for example, and behaved the way I would expect from someone attending their partner’s work party. Even his telling her to do things for him would probably have gone totally unnoticed–he phrased it like “Go save us some seats, sweetie” or whatever–if she hadn’t replied with “Yes, master.” She’s consistently cheerful and confident, just… with really terrible judgment, clearly. I don’t know if it’s, as others have speculated, a case of being new to the scene or not well-versed in the norms, or if she’s trying to freak the mundanes, or what, but it hardly matters in the long run, I suppose. The behavior is bad regardless of what’s causing it.

    Anyway, thank you for the answer! I’m going to suggest to Sally’s boss that we continue to reinforce (as it comes up) that people can call Peter “Peter” or etc., and that it is probably wise for her to address the issue head-on with Sally as well, particularly using the excellent example that you wouldn’t (or at least, shouldn’t) refer to your boyfriend as “lover” in the office either, and certainly you can’t ask people to use that kind of title for you. (To be clear, she wasn’t saying that other people should call Peter their master, but that they should say ‘your master’ or ‘Sally’s master.’ But while that’s certainly, um, better than telling other people to call him master, it’s still pretty terrible!) And that it’s probably wise to keep an eye out for other examples of really horrifyingly bad judgment on her part….

    1. AW*

      To be clear, she wasn’t saying that other people should call Peter their master…

      Sure, but I think people’s point with the “he’s not your/their master” thing was that it doesn’t make sense to expect people outside of the relationship to refer to him that way.

      Thanks for the letter and the update. I hope you’ll come back to tell us how it goes. Good luck!

    2. Nobody Here By That Name*

      If I was her friend I’d pull her aside and tell her to stop involving her co-workers – or anyone else for that matter – in her scene without their consent.

      As someone from afar, I read your description of her and think she and/or Peter are probably those folks at your munch who can’t stop making obvious kinky “jokes” long enough to order some damn food already. ;)

      1. ToxicNudibranch*

        Oh, they are totally those people. The ones leering at the waitstaff and making damn sure said waitperson *knows* they’re in the presence of kink.

        1. Nobody Here By That Name*

          “You know I like my eggs like I like my women – ”
          “Shut UP, Pete, and let the rest of us get an order in.”

          1. Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude*

            “You know I like my eggs like I like my women-”
            “You like your eggs pissed off, grossed out, and vowing to avoid you? Don’t order off the menu, Pete, it holds up the kitchen.”

  50. Teacup*

    How can I advise my colleague? What’s reasonable in this situation?

    You tell her to tell your co-worker that her sex life stays in her personal life. BDSM is about informed consent and she is dragging your workplace into her sex life without their consent.

    Plus, he’s not their Master, so asking them to refer to him as such is just daft.

  51. Christmas Carol*

    Even Tony Nelson never let Gennie call him master anywhere on the NASA base, especially when Dr. Bellows was within earshot.

  52. Anon for This*

    This one makes me see red. You see, I require the use of a cane and will walk with a limp for the rest of my life, because five men decided that me being gay was a personal affront to them; so they proceeded to beat me into a coma and left me bleeding on the street to die.

    If one of my employees decided that they wanted to compare their non-traditional relationship not being taken seriously to the issues and violence that gay people still face regularly, I’d fire them on the spot.

    1. Golden Lioness*

      I am straight and It makes me angry when people make thoughtless comments like that. You can certainly not compare her preference with the issues gay people have to face every day.

      I cannot even begin to imagine how hard it is to go through something like that! I am sorry you were treated like that!

  53. Tiny_Tiger*

    UGH! That is literally the only reaction I can have to this! I’ve known people in relationships akin to what Sally is describing, but there is a limit to it whether she wants to admit it or not. It’s true that most kinks are not exclusive to the bedroom or even the home, but an office is no place for it at all. I’ll go with what others have said and let Sally know that her co-workers are not a part of her D/S relationship and are not required to call Peter her “Master” whatever her feelings on it may be. Because to them, he isn’t her “Master,” he is a significant other, boyfriend, partner, whatever.

  54. Critter*

    Okay I have a question. Is “D/s” capitalized that way on purpose? D for dominant and s for submissive?

    1. seejay*

      yes. D is capitalized because it’s Dominant, s is lowercase for submissive. It’s purely for the context and insinuation.

    2. seejay*

      It’s also why subs will lowercase “i” when talking about themselves in writing and capitalize any words pertaining to their Master even when the words shouldn’t be, such as “i went to get the mail for my Master today”.

      1. Jadelyn*

        SOME sub will do those things, sure. Unless they are subs who also care about grammar. The whole “w/We” thing in particular makes me literally twitch when I see it…you’d never catch me using “i” for myself or “Him” for my other half. /rant

        1. seejay*

          Well yes, it’s all dependent on how the whole D/s arrangement is set up of course.

          I started exploring the scene on the BBS’ back in the day so a lot of my initial experience and exposure was primarily through text so there was definitely a lot of the textual status used to convey the relationship status at the time and I’ve seen it continued now (20 years later) to a lot of online forums, but it’s less common now than it was back then. It’s something some people use as a hint to pick up who might be in the scene, although it’s not a set-in-stone rule by any means.

        2. Blue Anne*

          It bugs the crap out of me too. But I love grammar and hate protocol, so I’ve never actually said “AUGH I HATE YOU AND EVERYTHING YOU STAND FOR” to the people who do it. Ahem.

          I’m glad I’m not the only one who dislikes it. That said, Fet is not exactly the most perfectly punctuated place.

          1. Blue Anne*

            (By which I meant… I realize that my love of grammar and hatred for protocol makes me an outlier, their kink is not my kink, etc.)

    3. Letter Writer*

      Yes, I capitalized it that way because some cursory research indicated that that was how it was commonly done–but I am far from an expert.

  55. AW*

    As more of an aside, pulling the general public into your relationship like that is just a bad idea. She’s just giving all her co-workers permission to comment on it.

    There’s a comment way up-thread where one commentor says they want to ask what her safeword is and a reply saying that isn’t their business but Sally is making it their business.

  56. kinkycanuk*

    If I didn’t know better I’d think this was a women from my local community. While *most* people in the kink scene know better then involving others in their scene there’s always a couple who feel it’s their right to be open, proud, and loud about their dynamics.

    In my local community we have a couple who are in a 24/7 Master slave relationship and it doesn’t matter if we’re in public, private, at a playspace or the grocery store, they wear their relationship proudly and it’s often quite awkward. She always wears her (obvious) collar, calls him Master in public and doesn’t want anyone to define him as something other then her Master. He tells her what to do, when to do it and how, and there’s no discretion involved.

    Unfortunately it’s not always the new or inexperienced who make these mistakes, nor is it those who got 50 shaded. These are long time commuity members who simply feel that no one has the right to dictate how they live their dynamic, nor do they feel there’s anything wrong with it. It’s not sexual for them, they see it as a title like boyfriend, partner or husband and feel they have the right to insist on the proper title to be used.

    Personally….I think they’re wrong as is Sally. I don’t refer to my dominant as Sir at work or where non kinky people can hear us, and he doesn’t call me puppy anywhere that it would cause raised brows or issues. We stand by the idea ‘your kink is not my kink but your kink is ok’. I won’t judge you for it, but I won’t participate either.

  57. jaxon*

    Dan Savage says, do not involve third parties in your sexual fantasies unless you all discuss it first and they clearly give permission. This letter is a GREAT example of why that is good advice.

  58. Christine*

    I would have been beat red & catching flies if I was asked to do this. Doubt I could have kept my mouth shut. I can hear myself now, “you are crazy for bringing this up at work,” and “he’s not my master and I do not want to hear it.”

    This is one of those situations that you wonder where their common sense is. Wish you the best in dealing with it. OP — please let us all know how you decided to handle it, and how it went over.

  59. Meagan*

    I actually don’t think partner is always adequate. For example insisting on referring to a gay man’s husband as his partner is at best thoughtless, and at worst dismissive and offensive. This was true even before gay marriage was legalized, because relationships are more than a legal definition.

    The problem with insisting on “Master” isn’t that it’s inherently sexual, it’s that it romanticized a dynamic which is still a problem worldwide. The title of Master has been USED in the US, and it has been rightly set aside.

    If she chooses to have that lifestyle, that’s fine. But it’s only fine because it’s not real: it’s a lifestyle, not slavery. She can walk away from it, and no one else is obliged to acknowledge her 24/7 role play, any more than if she insisted on being called a Paladin or a goddess.

      1. Vicki*

        It may also be a borrowing by heterosexuals of a term originally used by people in same-sex relationships that didn’t have legal recognition at the time.

        If I say “my girlfriend” a lot of people think I mean a close friend who isn’t a romantic partner, but we aren’t married, so I tend to use the word “partner” when talking to people who don’t already know her; when I’m talking to mutual friends, or my mother, I refer to her by name.

    1. MegaMoose, Esq.*

      Ehh, I don’t think anyone’s saying that someone should use partner if they’re told that husband or boyfriend is preferred, but that 1) partner is a good place to start when you don’t know what the appropriate term is, and 2) master is not on the list of appropriate terms for the workplace.

      1. Letter Writer*

        “Partner” is what people commonly default to in our office if they can’t remember the marital status, gender, or name of the person in question. IME it doesn’t mean anything more complex than “I can’t remember whether Joe and Kate are married” or “crap, what was Tony’s boyfriend’s name again?”

        It looks like this might be location-dependent, though. I’m in the USA, West coast, major city.

        1. MegaMoose, Esq.*

          I grew up near a major progressive west coast city and carried it with me when I moved to a major progressive Midwest city. It’s still got an association with same-sex couples here that was much less of a thing on the west coast, but I’ve seen that gradually fading.

    2. One of the Sarahs*

      As a lesbian, I use partner all the time – but then, I’m in the UK, where it’s the default in a lot of industries/sectors/circles, to refer to significant other, esp for over 30s, when “boy-/girl-friend” feels inapproporiate. It’s not at all offensive – and having “partners welcome” for eg a work do is a really inclusive thing, both in terms of stopping a heteronormative culture, and as saying “spouses/husbands & wives”, for example, implies that people who aren’t married are in lesser relationships to those who are.

  60. Ian Mac Eochagáin*

    What self-centred conceit. This woman is obsessed with herself (and her partner) and can think of mothing more than “me me me!!! (and Pete!)”. Not a hint of basic manners.

    Alison, just out of interest, is there a reason you and readers refer to readers’ written submissions as letters? They’re mostly emails, aren’t they? I don’t ask to be pedantic – this is genuinely the first site I’ve come across where emails are routinely referred to as letters.

        1. Ian Mac Eochagáin*

          Indeed it is (that is one of the acronyms you use and an email is a type of letter). I suppose, having seen emails replace letters, I still think of “letter” as meaning “paper letter”.

  61. Photoshop Til I Drop*

    This is prime fodder for a future “what was the worst thing you had to deal with at work” question. I’d love to see an interviewer’s reaction.

    Okay, probably don’t do that. Unless you tape it, and send it to Alison to post.

  62. Alton*

    One of my concerns, if I worked with Sally, would be is that if she’s bringing her dynamic into the workplace in this way, what will her judgment be like if other contexts arise that might conflict with role as a sub? Will she respond tactfully if someone offers her some candy, and Peter has forbidden her from eating candy without his permission? If they decide she’ll wear a collar, will she make sure to wear one that isn’t too obvious or wild for an office? If she isn’t allowed to sit on the furniture at home, will she extend that to work?

    Maybe none of this will ever be an issue, but by making a point to refer to Peter as her master at work, I think she’s implying, intentionally or not, that the authority she’s given him is valid even in the workplace, and it really shouldn’t be. Her workplace hired her, not her and Peter, and by identifying herself so strongly as Peter’s sub, she’s undermining her own credibility.

  63. Milton Waddams*

    Perhaps a compromise? Would everyone be OK with “Mister”? :-)

    One way to look at it might be to relate it to Japanese honorifics — when someone talks about “Jones-sama” they are essentially saying “Master Jones”, but because it is expected that in a conversation the person with the dominant role will be identified (whether a -sama, sensei or sempai), everyone is OK with it.

    Another way to think about it — nothing cements company loyalty like a willingness to respect those odd little quirks which don’t effect business but that have a personal impact. She will want to work for a company that “gets” her, and if you can be that company, she will be hard to poach.

    1. motherofdragons*

      Except that these “odd little quirks” ARE effecting business. People are straight-up avoiding talking to Sally because they find it so weird that she insists they call her partner “Master”. I don’t find it hard to assume that this is impacting staff morale, and Sally’s morale (nobody wants to friggin talk to her!), which all impacts the business. Plus, how is she interacting with clients/customers? Again, not hard to assume she would do this with them as well.

      Frankly, I wouldn’t be too sad about an employee with blatant disregard for the boundaries of others being “poached”.

    2. Observer*

      I suspect that a lot of people would be very happy if she got poached. Not because of her relationship, but because of the inappropriateness of how she has brought it into work.

    3. HannahS*

      But…this isn’t a Japanese office. You can’t take the norms from one language and staple them on top of another. Not only do modern English-speakers not use “Master” as an honorific, in this case it’s been *explicitly* tied to their coworker’s sex life, which isn’t appropriate to be talking about or alluding to at work. It’s not like I could refer to a mixed-gender room as “the men” and expect people to be ok with it, just because other languages use the male plural for a mixed group.

    4. Kay J*

      Eh, using the sama honorific is not that common in day-to-day life unless we’re talking standard phrases like okyakusama for a customer… Even when it’s used sincerely (rather than ironically, which I actually hear more often) sama is a sign of respect, not the same thing as “master”. Sensei is closer in definition, but not the same thing either really, as it indicates a master of a craft but not who’s in charge. Senpai is just someone older or more experienced than you. None of them mean master like this woman uses master. Most importantly, all of these words, whatever their meaning, are part of an existing culture, whereas calling someone master totally isn’t in the English-speaking world! I also wouldn’t expect American workers to bond through getting completely 100% smashed with their bosses, doing karaoke, or bathing naked, but that’s all normal as anything in Japan.

  64. Caramel Popcorn*

    Safe. Sane. Consensual.

    Those are the basic rules of fetish play, and this breaks two of them. You don’t force other people to be involved in your fetish, that violates their consent. Full stop. Said from that, this is wildly inappropriate for work. Just, ugh.

  65. Retiree57*

    Have any commenters mentioned so far that slavery is illegal? If she is insisting on this in the workplace, “master” is committing a crime. (Maybe “slave” too….can people be complicit in their own enslavement?) Still not sure what HR can do about it but it seems reasonable to have a policy against allowing employees to participate in criminal activity at work. Perhaps you could address Peter as co-conspirator.

    1. Observer*

      Oh, come on. By definition, this is not slavery. As others have noted, that’s one of the reasons they find her behavior so off-putting. While she and her partner have decided that these are their roles in this relationship, she is NOT a slave, because she is actually free to walk out at any time she pleases.

      Now, if the “master” was calling the workplace and insisting on this, that would be a whole other situation.

      1. Retiree57*

        No, I’m not really serious. But, I have met M/s practitioners who insist that their slavery is “real” and not “role play.” If it’s “real,” it’s illegal; if it’s “role play,” references to it (beyond the generic “partner,” as Allison advises) are inappropriate for the office. I’d be tempted to say, “sorry, but we can’t employ slaves. We can only hire adults who have the ability to consent to their own work arrangements. If you were a slave, we’d have to contract with our owner for your services. Doing so would clearly be illegal. If you insist you are a slave, you’re not employable.” Yes, this would be obnoxious but not equivalent to objecting to a gay relationship, even where gay relationships might be illegal. Being a slave removes your ability to consent to anything without your master’s permission. As an employer, I would not want to have anything to do with people who own other people. I am strongly opposed to slavery. If people want to play at it, that is their business….business that does not belong in the workplace. I know people who enjoy rape play scenarios too. I can’t imagine bringing a partner to work and insisting that everyone call him “my rapist.” Slavery is no less a crime than rape. The analogy probably makes everyone squirm. Well I squirm having to hear about other people’s slavery. Just…no. I recognize that this is intolerant. Some things should not be tolerated and slavery is in that category.

        1. MegaMoose, Esq.*

          “If it’s “real,” it’s illegal”: No, it isn’t. People can insist something is real until they’re blue in the face, but that doesn’t make it real from a legal standpoint. You know, unless they’re actually acting without the consent of the sub, which is not the scenario here. The point is that it’s inappropriate to talk about in the workplace.

          And as aebhel mentioned below, you cannot be complicit in your own slavery. That’s pretty disgusting if you think about it.

        2. Alton*

          When it comes to how the kink community defines roleplay, there’s some middle ground between roleplay and something that would fit the legal definition of slavery. In the kink scene, some people do “bedroom-only” BDSM where they explicitly play roles for sexual fun and drop those roles in other contexts. 24/7 people do see their dynamics as being real, in that their relationship is based around those roles and there may not be many contexts where they drop them. But a lot of people in the BDSM community define slavery, in that context, as being a consensual arrangement between like-minded adults, which obviously isn’t legally binding. Their slavery is real for what it’s supposed to be.

          Now, there are some people who take their kinks a little too seriously, or use kink as a justification for abuse. I have seen some people online talking about how their slave literally isn’t allowed to leave the relationship or have any limits, and I think even if they’re just bullshitting, that’s a very problematic mindset for a relationship. It’s definitely possible to cross a line into abuse, or even just stupidity. But most people in the community understand that BDSM slavery is not the same thing as non-consensual or institutional slavery.

        3. Blue Anne*

          I think it’s pretty clear from this that you haven’t had much experience with the dynamics of these relationships. They are really built on everyone’s enthusiastic consent.

    2. aebhel*

      Oh, good grief. It’s not literal slavery, and calling oneself a ‘slave’ is not illegal–merely, in most public contexts, distasteful.

      And no, people cannot be complicit in their own enslavement. This is a BDSM game that the participants are not handling like mature adults, but if you talk that way about literal slavery, you have some serious problems.

  66. Anon for this*


    I had a roommate a long time ago who was in this kind of relationship and was too vocal about it. I was kind of horrified to bring it up! We were really different people – religion, politics, family background, relationships, orientation – and I didn’t want it to turn into a fight. Besides that, I’m queer and I don’t totally understand what might or might not be okay to tell a straight person. I framed it as a consent issue: I hadn’t consented to be involved in this.

    That actually went over just fine. I think it worked because she was already cool with talking about boundaries explicitly. And I didn’t make any judgment on her personal life, just said I wasn’t a part of it.

  67. Not Your Honey*

    This site is more fascinating to me than most TV dramas put together. Alison, your answer was absolutely on point!

  68. Nina-Marie*

    Well its a rare day that I disagree with Alison’s answer. I mean sure that if this was a conventional office and in white bread conservative America this would make people faint. But as the questioner stated this is a very liberal non traditional group – all people and types are accepted. Or are they??? When the writer comes up with a co-worker that has a relationship that she deems unacceptable NOW its an issue. So once again its the idea that liberals are tolerant of others -well unless they disagree with their ideas – then its unacceptable to them. Typical.

    1. seejay*

      Not a single person is unaccepting of her relationship. They’re asking her to keep the sexual talk (because if you read the comments above, 99% of the people in the lifestyle, who know what they’re talking about, will tell you that calling someone “master” is sexual talk) out of the office and not include them in it. That is absolutely within anyone’s liberal non-traditional acceptable boundaries. Just because people are liberal and tolerant doesn’t mean they have to let others walk all over them and push their comfort levels, which is what Sally is clearly doing.

      I’m extremely open and liberal and tolerant but my tolerance ends when you start crossing the boundaries I’ve laid down. My boundaries say that I don’t want to be involved in your fetish kink sex life and having to refer to your partner as “master” is forcing me into that.

      Or do liberals have to not have boundaries in order to be liberal???

    2. Blue Anne*

      The relationship is fine. None of her colleagues have a problem with her relationship. They have a problem with being asked to participate in her sex life, which is what’s happening here.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hey, there’s no reason to slam entire groups of people here.

      I haven’t seen anyone here have a problem with the coworker’s relationship, and my answer certainly didn’t object to it. The issue is with involving non-consenting parties.

  69. FiveByFive*

    Expecting someone to be referred to only as “Master” is certainly unorthodox. It does make one wonder if other types of nom de guerre are more acceptable than others. For instance, suppose a conductor demanded that friends, family, and coworkers refer to him only as “Maestro”?

  70. Tweety*

    Actually, one can’t insist that colleagues acknowledge same sex relationship.
    To attempt to do so would be fascist.

    If a card is circulated for Stan & Dan’s wedding, it is not mandatory for everyone to sign it.

    As my granny said, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. You can’t force someone to say anything. There is a difference between something being legal and trying to insist that everyone celebrate it.

    1. Nedra*

      It’s a pretty big jump from an expectation that people be polite and follow workplace norms to Fascism. You are correct that nobody is forced to sign a card for a wedding — gay or straight — but using an incorrect pronoun, referring to a spouse as a “friend” or whatever is just plain rude. On some level, you are expected to acknowledge a same sex relationship for what t is, even if you don’t feel compelled to “celebrate it.” (FYI, I have rarely even met the spouses of the straight people I have signed wedding cards for — I have never had an expectation that I should “pre-approve” of their marriage in order to sign a card of well-wishes.)

    2. aebhel*

      I don’t think you can insist that colleagues acknowledge a same-sex relationship. If you think Dan and Stan’s marriage is an affront against God and nature because they’re both men, you can refuse to sign the card. The corollary to that, though, is that your colleagues will now know that you’re a homophobe and that may color their interactions with you.

      The issue here is one of manners. If I’m married to a woman, and I introduce her as my wife, it’s gross and offensively rude for you to refer to her as “aebhel’s…. friend,” unless you also do that with straight couples. It’s not illegal, nor should it be, but it is pretty damn rude.

        1. Tweety*

          So it’s OK to name-call, i.e. calling people ‘homophobes’ (which is a contrived term) but not to respond to such name-calling.

    3. Observer*

      All well and good, but not relevant.

      The issue is not that anyone has to acknowledge anything, but that there is a difference between acknowledging the existence of a relationship and getting into the intimate details of that relationship.

  71. Nedra*

    The Peter/Patricia thing is a terrible analogy — I don’t think this co-worker really understands the point she’s trying to make. The analogy to LGBT relationships would make more sense if it was a person refusing to acknowledge a relationship by calling a romantic partner their “friend” — I don’t know of anyone who just randomly substitutes a woman’s name in place of a man’s name because they feel uncomfortable with the relationship. I guess maybe if the person were trans and someone knew their former name….

    Anyway, I am in agreement that this person has crossed a line. There is no reason for anyone else in her workplace to have to refer to this person as her “master.” If I were in this situation I would just refer to him by name and be done with it.

  72. kapers*

    MAJOR consent issue aside– if Sally thinks she’s being discriminated against, what does she think she is doing to me (her hypothetical co-worker), a woman of color, making me participate in slavery dynamics in the workplace?

    As a black woman, I am not referring to AAAANNNNNYYONE as master! If I was asked to do this in the workplace, if this were even tolerated in the workplace, there would be blood. Okay, maybe not blood, but definitely lawyers.

    Letter writer, please, please bring this point up to your boss. If there are persons of color in your organization–even if there aren’t– “master” could be perceived as outright hostile. It is not just a cutesy label for someone’s sex life.

    1. Little Missy*

      +1 I am a white woman but yes, this is another reason it doesn’t belong in the workplace (aside from what others have said about consent).

  73. crazy8s*

    I mean that the request that other people refer to this guy as her “master.” is what is ridiculous, not the relationship. What they want to consent to in their personal life is their business.

  74. kapers*

    Sorry, still fuming?

    How about not referring to Peter at all? He doesn’t work there. Asking how someone’s boyfriend is is not required for business.

  75. Ana*

    I’m in the same sort of relationship, but it’s a part-time, not 24/7, and I’d be mortified to share it with coworkers!

    For me, it’s about security and submitting to making someone else happy, which feels good to do sometimes, so I wouldn’t worry about the relationship being abusive unless there are other signs. In healthy bdsm relationships, the most vulnerable person sets the limits.

  76. Psul*

    Leaving aside the issue of workplace appropriateness, it seems like a suitable compromise would be to refer to him as “Mister” X, or whatever his last name is. The two words are cognate, with similar (archaic) meanings, and it’s already considered socially acceptable (albeit standoffish) to request that kind if formality.

  77. Alex*

    I’m going to take what I think is an unpopular position here. I see a lot of kink-shaming in that article, and especially (big surprise) in the comments section. People are saying a lot about how Sally shouldn’t shove her “sex” life down other people’s throats. This is exactly the kind of language straight people use to erase LGBT people’s relationships and experiences.

    Co-workers are not being asked to call Peter “master.” They are being asked to substitute “master” for “partner.” That’s a different thing, and the difference matters. Many of us who are polyamorous have husbands or wives and other non-spousal partners. If our co-workers asked “how is your husband/wife” but never “how are your other partners,” we might feel that our polyamorous identities were erased. Our co-workers might say that asking about our other partners was inappropriate because that was bringing our sex lives into work. They would be wrong, of course, but that kind of “logic” is used every day by monogamous folks who don’t understand polyamory.

    This is not about Sally’s sex life. 24/7 master/slave relationships are not just sexual: they are romantic, and sexual, and mundane too. They are committed, long-term relationships. Sally is not asking for people to participate in her sex life: she’s asking them to respect her life choice.

    She is also asking them to use the correct honorific for her partner. If my partner was a doctor, and someone in HR said, “I’m listing your emergency contact as Mr. House,” and I corrected them by saying, “Actually, it’s Dr. House,” no one would blink an eye. I mean, they might think it’s a little pretentious, but they wouldn’t have the kind of negative reaction I’m seeing in these articles and comments.

    All of this could also be solved by co-workers simply asking, “How is Peter?” In no universe could that be considered erasure, nor disrespect. Co-workers are Peter’s equals, so they get to call him by his first name. Problem solved.

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