Unconventional leisure and career: insights into the work of professional dominatrices.

Author:Williams, D.J.


In this paper we draw from both the relevant scholarly literature and from our own rich and diverse experiences on the complex topic of bondage/discipline, dominance/submission and sadomasochism (BDSM). Our paper is not a research study, but rather an important critical viewpoint. Professional domination is frequently trivialized, misunderstood, and not taken seriously. We hope to demystify a fascinating occupation that seems to provide deviant (unusual) leisure services to many mainstream clients, yet this phenomenon has received virtually no serious attention within the academic literature. We believe that it is time for scholars and professionals to consider this issue more thoroughly and critically. Our paper is intended to be a first step in this process.

The first author is an interdisciplinary social scientist whose interests and formal education span the fields of clinical social work, leisure sciences, deviance and criminology. The second author shares interests in the behavioral sciences, and has had a long and successful career as a professional dominatrix. In this capacity she has had the opportunity to work with hundreds of clients and several top peers in her field. Drawing from both of our professional backgrounds and observations, the purpose of this paper is to briefly describe and explore the work of highly trained dominants alongside a spectrum of helping professions. We acknowledge that professional dominants may be of any gender, but we refer herein specifically to dominatrices (female gender) since the demand for their services is much greater.

Given that this is a professional paper, we have decided not to capitalize references to dominatrices and interchangeable terms (dommes, dominas, and mistresses). However, it may be noted that BDSM subcultural discourse and writing practices frequently necessitates capitalization of such terms, which emphasize a power dynamic. BDSM, generally, seems to be first and foremost about playing with power--not necessarily sex directly--and it has been suggested that the term erotic power exchange may be a good descriptor (Langdridge & Butt, 2005).

Background: BDSM as an Alternative Lifestyle

BDSM is difficult for scholars to define precisely, but historically has been conceptualized as having several coexisting components (Weinberg, Williams, & Moser, 1984):

* The appearance of dominance and submission

* Role-playing

* Mutual (voluntary) consent to participate

* Mutual definition (a shared understanding of activities)

* A sexual (or erotic) context

Regarding the latter criterion, we prefer the word erotic over sexual, since erotic seems to be a broader term and many BDSM experiences do not include sex. Additionally, recent research challenges the common assumption that all or most BDSM is sexually motivated (see Newmahr, 2010a). Following the motto of "safe, sane, consensual" (SSC) play is a strict requirement for participation within the BDSM community, although some groups prefer using the slogan "Risk Aware Consensual Kink" (RACK).

BDSM may include a number of diverse activities (i.e., bondage, discipline training, role-playing, spanking, whipping, controlled sensory deprivation or overload, objectification, fetish activation, etc.), yet for many people seems to be a lifestyle preference. In other words, committed relationships are purposefully structured in one way or another around BDSM roles. BDSM relationships may be designed in various ways that meet the complex needs of participants. Some structures may look more traditional, while others can be quite diverse. Many people who live a BDSM lifestyle often attend BDSM community events and parties, thus strengthening a support network of people with similar interests and forms of self expression.

Despite pervasive myths and stereotypes, recent studies show that people with BDSM socio-sexual identities are generally psychologically healthy (Beckmann, 2001; Connelly, 2006; Cross & Matheson, 2006; Richters, de Visser, Rissel, Grulich, & Smith, 2008; Weinberg, 2006). For some practitioners, regular BDSM participation may promote trust, communication, spirituality and intimacy within relationships; provide new understandings of self and lived experiences; and lead to new insights about unnoticed phenomena (Beckmann, 2001; Kleinplatz, 2006; Taylor & Ussher, 2001; Williams, 2006, 2010).

In light of recent research that runs counter to traditional psychiatric discourse, some scholars have recognized that a BDSM lifestyle may be understood as a form of legitimate serious leisure experience that requires considerable personal investment and the acquisition of specific skills (Newmahr, 2010a; Williams, 2006, 2009). Particularly noteworthy in illustrating how lifestyle BDSM can thoroughly meet the criteria of serious leisure is Newmahr's (2010a) extensive ethnographic study. Such research is especially valuable because, as Newmahr has suggested, a leisure perspective expands the discourses (including beyond sexology and psychiatric understanding) through which BDSM is interpreted, including among scholars and professionals. Indeed, specific BDSM practices among some individuals may be highly erotic and may be partially explained through discourses of sexuality, yet for many others BDSM does not seem to be primarily a sexual or erotic phenomenon. A leisure perspective allows for such variation (leisure may or may not include sexual phenomena). Although existing research challenges common perspectives that BDSM is somehow inherently problematic, people who practice BDSM have faced harassment, discrimination, and unfair legal sanctions (Green, 2001; Klein & Moser, 2006; Wright, 2006, 2009). To date, articles in scholarly journals on the topic of BDSM, including those referred to here, have focused almost exclusively on those who participate in it as an alternative lifestyle (as serious leisure experience). Participants may be bisexual, heterosexual or homosexual; associate frequently with fellow BDSM practitioners; and often tend to be active to some degree within their local BDSM communities. Conversely, there are other individuals with a BDSM socio-sexual identity who are not always identified within the BDSM community, or they may less active within it, yet who from time to time privately and secretively seek out the services of a professional dominant. Our experience (and that of several mistresses with whom we have worked) has been that individuals often seem to be men who, justifiably for fears of facing stereotypes and discrimination, may be afraid to admit arousing fantasies and desires to others, including those in their lives to whom they are closest emotionally.

An apparent widespread issue of maintaining secrecy seems to be a significant problem at micro, mezzo, and macro social levels, which perhaps signifies a need for broader and more comprehensive sex education in North American society. Because secrecy associated with BDSM has a protective function, participants, when exposed, sometimes may be mislabeled as being psychopathological, morally deficient, dangerous, and/or sex addicts due to pervasive social discourses concerning sexuality. For example, a recent survey by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom found that significant percentages of BDSM participants reported experiencing discrimination from medical doctors and mental health professionals (Wright, 2009). Such misunderstanding is unfortunate. Participants may be mislabeled because they engage in unconventional practices that are, unfortunately, not understood but feared within our society.

While professional dominants may be male or female, we will focus specifically on female dominants-dominatrices since they are in far more demand than their male counterparts. However, our discussion here may pertain to both males and females within professional BDSM. While lifestyle and professional BDSM overlap in terms of many activities that are performed, these BDSM forms differ due to factors related to the broader social roles and contexts of participants and the commonly accepted meanings associated with such roles.

What Exactly Does a Professional Dominatrix Do?

Given the lack of education on BDSM, generally, it is not surprising that the work of professional dominatrices is easily misinterpreted. For many who are unfamiliar with BDSM, the services provided by a dominatrix often are perceived to be little more than common prostitution with an added dimension of kink. There seem to be cases were sex workers have, with little or no training, incorporated BDSM activities into their work due to the simple process of supply and demand. Such examples might be to add bondage, blindfolds or spankings before the sexual experience. Some of these practices may be considered dangerous and risky, and such sex workers cannot be classified accurately as professional BDSM workers.

By making the above observations, we are not disrespecting the sex work profession, but simply pointing out that sex work, in traditionally conceived forms, and professional domination bear some resemblance, but are also...

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