There’s no such thing as:
1. Intimacy without vulnerability
Every once in a while, a client would come for a first session with his heart set on having the amazing kinky experience he’d always dreamed of, but would end up disappointed because of something I had no control over: the walls wouldn’t budge. He had a very specific fantasy, but he wouldn’t be able to communicate specifically what it was. He couldn’t let go of the initial discomfort and let the scene happen, let alone allow me a good enough glimpse of his inner world to take control of it for an hour. Verbalizing his truth—how he really felt, what he really wanted—put him at risk of rejection, or perhaps worse, being laughed at. For some people, that risk is too frightening.
This kind of interaction happens all the time, in any relationship. I’m occasionally guilty of expecting people in my life to be able to read my mind. If they could just do that, I’d have the ultimate fix: the intimacy I crave without risk of being misunderstood or rejected. Unfortunately, I haven’t met anyone who can do that. To let people in, I have to let down my guard. Otherwise I’m still alone.
2. An accurate definition of sex
Presumably, this is why commercial dungeons can operate legally in New York City—it’s also why they routinely get raided and shut down by law enforcement. It’s a never-ending effort on both sides to figure out if what pro doms are providing can be defined as prostitution.
To get a good laugh, all you need to do is ask a New York lawyer what legally constitutes sexual conduct. NYC criminal defense attorneys Crotty Saland PC say, “As applied to offenses relating to Prostitution, courts seem to agree that ‘oral sexual conduct,’ ‘anal sexual conduct,’ ‘masturbation’ and ‘sexual intercourse’ fall within this definition… While the analysis of these scenarios is fact specific, each case is different and requires the analysis of a skilled criminal defense attorney.”
The lines one can draw around sex are only valid for the individual drawing them, and may change as that individual’s sexuality develops and evolves. This point is especially apparent when it comes to unusual fetishes. I had clients who were completely sexually satisfied by things most people wouldn’t regard as sexual at all. For some, having a tooth pulled, mopping the floor, or watching a girl wiggle her toes while she’s wearing jeans over tights are highly erotic activities.
Sex lies in the eyes (or mouth, or feet, or what have you) of the beholder.
3. A typical submissive man
I’m often nudged to confirm the stereotype of the dungeon client as a high-powered executive, a controlling breadwinner who comes to a dominatrix because it is his only release from the stress of his daily alpha role. I’m sure that does exist. Successful businessmen do make up a good portion of dungeon clientele, but that’s probably a result of the price of entry. However, I never had a typical client demographic that otherwise differed much from that of the greater New York City male population (I rarely had female clients, which is another can of worms).
I saw guys from a huge variety of economic backgrounds, nationalities, and ethnicities, with all sorts of career paths, social group affiliations, political leanings, and religions. I had older (okay, mostly older—and some way older) clients, and clients who looked like they’d saved up their allowances to see me (we did card those). Some were douchebags; some were sweethearts. Some were shy—and others chatted up every person they encountered on the way in, talked through the entire session to me as well as on their phones, and asked to be paraded down the streets of Manhattan in pink tutus. Some were virgins; some were married with children. Some were out, and some were paranoid about being identified to the point of wearing sunglasses through their sessions—well, one guy did that.
The men I saw walk through the dungeon doors represented all walks of life. Their only common denominator was the dungeon, of all things.
4. A woman who isn’t someone’s wildest fantasy
I had the odd pleasure of taking phone calls at all three of the houses I worked for, making appointments for the doms. Usually, if we had a caller who wasn’t sure about who he wanted to see, I’d ask if he had a preference for a certain type of woman.
“Physically, or otherwise—a certain look, demeanor, or style, perhaps?”
There were guys who wanted Amazon women. Petite women. Blondes, amputees, voluptuous, curvy girls… The list of requests was endless. Lots of tattoos, no tattoos, slutty-looking, elegant, tomboyish, smelly, slender feet, long hair, long nails, shaved head, gothic-looking, black, white, Brazilian, mature, “with an 80’s side ponytail” (for real), classic feminine beauty, muscular, busty, flat-chested, strict, bratty, girl-next-door. There was a niche for any woman, truly. Part of my job as a manager at Rapture was to guide new doms in finding and developing their own sex appeal.
Most women think they have to mold themselves into a very limited idea of what they think men want. What I had to remind them consistently was that sex appeal doesn’t come from a cookie cutter. It has to start with something unique, something that they already possessed. Once they embraced what was remarkable about themselves, it was never a far reach to a really hot fantasy.
5. A neat cause-and-effect explanation for the nuances of human psychology
People like to come up with theories to match their experiences, even if doing so means ignoring big chunks of information. As Dan Savage once described on his podcast, about half of people who are into spanking will say, “I was spanked as a child, so that’s why it turns me on to be spanked.” The other half say, “I was never spanked when I was a child, so subconsciously I always craved that kind of attention and now I’m aroused by spanking.” Sexuality is manifested in so many ways, probably as many as there are different personalities. My theory is that for some people, specific moments trigger specific kinks. For most of us, though, it’s more complicated than that.
Being a pro dom is part theater, part service, part therapy. Along with kinks they’d never disclosed to their closest friends or wives, clients often shared other secrets with me. Their sexualities were not the only aspects of themselves they couldn’t quite reconcile with the rest of their lives. Through working with these people, seeing their complexities, accepting them as they were—often as no one else ever even had the privilege of witnessing them— and hearing their confessions of being different in one way or another, I came to see the world differently.
I think this had something to do with the fact that generally, before they stripped down, my clients looked average. They rarely had any of the “identifying markers” people wore in my own little social enclave, like neon hair and facial piercings. I started seeing people outside the dungeon who looked just like my clients did, and realized they each had their own stories. I began to imagine that everyone struggles to fit into the various roles we either take on ourselves, or which are imposed upon us. I feel lucky to live mostly according to my own expectations now, inside and outside of my enclaves, but it hasn’t always been easy. It’s been a process for me to shake off the desire to fit in or measure up to someone else’s standards. My clients taught me a lot about the misery that can bring, and about the freedom of sharing something they thought was strange or unacceptable. As a friend of mine who is fond of cheesy sayings tells me, “Normal is just a setting on your dryer.”
7. A replacement for hard work
As a director at Rapture, I participated in the recruiting and hiring process for new dominatrixes. Dungeons have a very high turnover rate due to several factors. One of these is that people often underestimate the amount of work it takes to be successful in any part of the adult industry. They also misjudge what makes a successful dominatrix. The reality is that no matter how good-looking, or how naturally dominant, or how experienced in the BDSM “lifestyle,” you are, work takes work. I’ve met scores of gorgeous, talented, sexy young women who came to New York to make easy money. It doesn’t exist. The ones who ultimately made money, and made it look easy, were the ones with street smarts who busted their asses to get into their own rhythm of marketing and sessioning and gaining a following of devoted regulars. Successful women don’t take anything for granted.
8. A one-sided relationship
This is a tough one for me to delve into. As a pro dom, I got countless offers from men wanting to be my slave. So many of them would proclaim their devotion and declare that under my ownership, they would expect nothing in return for their services—as houseboys, as human furniture, as ashtrays, as toilets, as skilled workers, as personal assistants, as sex toys, as punching bags, as pets, etc. etc. I have taken on one slave in my life, who wore my collar for several years.
I believe the main reason our arrangement ultimately failed was that he refused to acknowledge his own needs. He held stubbornly to his fantasy of “true” ownership and slavery, to the point that his desires ended up coming up sideways. This was a huge obstacle to communication between us, and no amount of negotiation or contracts or arguing could resolve it. I prefer not to go into details of the ensuing ugliness, but only to say that a slave’s or submissive’s wants and needs must be brought to light for a relationship to work in the real world, just as all parties must contribute work and gain reward, in their own way, in any relationship.
9. Universal taboos
Just like normalcy, what’s abnormal is a cultural construct. Working in a professional dungeon atmosphere makes this obvious, when certain things are customary that wouldn’t be in other jobs (nudity in the office, for one, or having time taken up at staff meetings to discuss protocol for cleaning lube off the furniture). One of the things I’m most grateful for to the BDSM communities I’ve been part of over the years is showing me something of the active creation of culture in opposition to religious or political values that don’t work for us. At its best, dungeon culture prioritizes acceptance of all people, feminine power, technical skill, beauty, and pleasure. These are values we choose to assert. It is possible to create a new culture around chosen values. It takes a community with a vision and the willingness to step outside of the restrictions of the dominant society.
10. A good age to stop playing
Play is how we learn. One of the many job perks of a dominatrix is the opportunity to embody different archetypes, to be spontaneous, to react to and lead another mind and body in a new direction. A good session is a gorgeous dance, and a good dominatrix can lead with a spirit of fluidity. I hope I never stop playing for its own sake. Life would be mind-numbing if I didn’t get out of my head sometimes, to explore it with a fresh perspective, and to enjoy my partner in the moment.
A lot of the stuff I learned as a dominatrix isn’t generalizable outside of the dungeon—like how to make shoes smell more like feet, or what kind of champagne makes the best enema. But so much of it is generalizable. Working in dungeons allowed me to really get hands-on with people, to explore how to relate with them in all kinds of ways, and to play in the world at its edge.