Chicago dominatrices on pleasure, pain, performance art, and the therapeutic value of BDSM
The countdown to graduation has begun. In anticipation of the impending entry of hundreds of SAIC students into the job market, throughout the spring semester F newsmagazine will be looking at professions that are off the beaten path. For February, editor-in-chief Brandon Kosters met with local dominatrices to find out more about this often overlooked career. How does one become a dominatrix, what are the day-to-day details of the job, and how do dominatrices feel about criticism suggesting that they’re enacting misogynistic fantasies?
By Brandon Kosters, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
Photos by Alli Berry
“You wanna talk bizarre … ” Head-Mistress Cleo began. “We had this client come in who had all of his genitals removed. He claimed that some person in his personal life was training to go to medical school. [The client] wanted to be castrated and this person did that for him. He came in with nothing in that area, and he brought a branding iron, and he wanted you to just brand the area where the genitals once where. That’s probably the most far out thing I’ve seen in this business yet.”
Mistress Cleo, 26, is a professional dominatrix. She first took an interest in fetishism and BDSM (bondage, domination, and sado masochism) as a teenager in London.
“I bought my first whip when I was 14,” she said. It was purchased at a “pound shop” in England (the British equivalent to a dollar store). “It was a cheaply made item, but I knew I had to have it, and I couldn’t explain why. The next few years, I began exploring it in my personal relationships, and then once I discovered I could make a career out of it, I thought, ‘what’s better than that?’”
Five years ago, she founded her own commercial dungeon, the Continuum, in downtown Chicago.
The dungeon is a site to behold.
There are cages; swings with ankle and wrist restraints (used largely for motion and tickle torture); a cross where the submissive party is shackled spread eagle (convenient for spanking and flogging); a “medical room” which is fashioned to resemble a doctor’s office for “medical fetishism;” and stools for over-the-knee spanking.
Wigs, costumes and boots abound.
Cleo has a staff of 15 Mistresses, one male Master, one male sub (where the client is dominant) and one transgendered (male to female) sub on staff.
The duration and details of each session may differ significantly client to client. A session may last anywhere from an hour to a day.
“There’s a few different categories,” said Lady Shana Von Gabor, 25, a Chicago native who has been with the dungeon for two years. “I would say that there is a big difference between a fetish session and a domination session.”
Fetish sessions, she said, tend to be friendlier, more playful exchanges. “People who have a fetish are not necessarily wanting to be humiliated, or demeaned, or yelled at, or punished for anything. Someone who has a foot fetish, really, it’s about worship and appreciation, and so, if I’m having a foot session, pretty much I get to sit and have a foot massage for the most part.”
There are the “forced feminization” sessions. “These are straight men who are married,” Lady Shana said, “who are not homosexual at all, and I’m a lesbian, so I know, and they’re really just interested in the nylons.” Both the client and the mistress wear nylons and essentially play footsie. “It’s the feeling of nylon on nylon, and so that’s more of a fetish. That’s about a sensation.”
Then, for those who are a little more masochistic, there is the domination session. “That’s where you get into play-piercing with needles, heavy flogging, heavy whipping, paddling, over-the-knee spanking,” Lady Shana said. “That’s all more about being controlled, confined, and having pain.”
And within these three general categories are curiosities which may baffle even the most vivid imaginations.
“There are so many different crazy things,” said Mistress Lydia, 24, who has been with the dungeon for two years and plans to study political science and women’s studies at Roosevelt University. “Like the guy who likes to dress up like a pig. Or he likes to be dressed up as a little girl and I play an eight-year old and I have to act bratty and reprimand him. And he likes to be forced to curtsy and do really girly things, like tea parties.”
Although it would seem that each mistress has a fairly consistent client base, there are occasionally situations where a client will come in with expectations that are incongruous with the services offered at the Continuum.
“We always have security standing by,” Mistress Lydia said. “It’s only happened twice that I’ve worked here that I’ve had to ask a client to leave.” And Mistress Cleo said that in the rare instances where someone has to be turned away, things don’t get that confrontational. “No one has ever tried to put up a problem or anything like that. They don’t want to get busted any more than we do.”
“Domination is not prostitution,” Mistress Cleo said, “and some people don’t realize that. The sad thing is, there are some people in this business who do that as well, and it makes it difficult for all the rest of us who are running a legitimate business.”
Clients forming emotional attachments to their mistresses is another potential problem.
Lydia said that “there’s always like one [client], once in a while, that will try to latch on and get closer, and they’ll want to know more about you.” She spoke of having to sever ties with one client who couldn’t discern the reality from the fantasy. “He wanted me to be his girlfriend, so I had to let him go. It was obvious that he was looking for a girlfriend and not a domme to beat him … .”
But clients don’t get their hearts broken every day.
“There are some really nice clients that come in and they know what it’s about,” said Lydia. “They pay and then they leave and you don’t think about it, but when they’re here they’re a lot of fun.”
“Just a couple days ago,” she went on, “there’s one of my regulars who another girl and I, we have a lot of fun with him. We ordered pizza. We just hung out. We wrapped him in plastic wrap, cause he likes to be mummified. And we, you know, kick him in the balls. That was a six hour session.”
Misogyny, Therapy, or Performance Art?
Beyond mere kinkiness, is there also something much richer to this scene? Critics contend that this profession, and related images like those published with this article, perpetuate misogyny. There is also persistent ambiguity about whether this profession empowers women, or simply continues to participate in a system of patriarchal oppression, cleverly disguising misogyny in the guise of mock female aggression.
“BDSM is much more than just a job,” said Cleo. “It is a lifestyle that has nothing to do with objectifying anyone, and does not apply to any specific gender or orientation. It’s simply about one person choosing to relinquish control and the other choosing to take control in a safe, sane, and consensual environment. The activities that transpire are discussed, negotiated and agreed upon by both parties before play will be considered. Men, women, trans; gay, straight, or bi, who choose to participate in this lifestyle from the role that most appeals to them, Dom, sub, or switch, will then seek out the right individual to fulfill the opposite role based on consensual interests.
Women ,and men, who choose this as a profession almost always enjoy it as their lifestyle as well. The few who don’t never last long in the business because you just can’t be good at it if you don’t truly enjoy it as well.”
There is also, it would seem, a very real level of playfulness, and a potential social utility in this profession that should be acknowledged.
Lady Shana’s mother was one of those people caught up in what the dominatrix considers to be a commonly held misconception about her profession. Lady Shana recalled her mother being “pissed off, to say the least” upon learning that her daughter, who had recently graduated college with a degree in pre-law, had become a dominatrix.
“I think the impression a lot of people have is that we’re prostitutes, that we sleep with our clients, and that the point is to get them off sexually in some way. Is there a sexual element? Yeah. But it’s a lot more psychological than that,” Shana explained.
Shana says that at the end of the day, “it’s a lot of therapy.” She went on to discuss a client she meets every month for a three and a half hour session. “We spend the first 30-40 minutes actually just sitting and talking. He tells me what’s going on in his life, what’s going on in his mind. Very much like you would talk to your therapist.”
Of course, this session deviates somewhat from “traditional” therapy, Shana explained: “He likes corporal. He likes being suspended upside down. But he likes it to be playful. For him, the most important thing in the session is the story-line. So sometimes I pretend that he’s a sailor and he’s crash landed on my island. He has to survive a certain number of tests.”
Other times, Shana will pretend that it’s the Cold War Era, and the client is an American spy in Russia who’s been captured. It’s her job to interrogate him.
Shana has found her practice to be therapeutic for herself, as well. “When I get whipped,” she said, “it’s a huge release.”
She attributes some of this release to the production of natural opiates within the body in response to punishment. For some, she said, screaming is also helpful. Some “want to have that primal yelling,” she explained. “It’s part of their release. Their catharsis.”
Mistress Lydia says that the Continuum serves a diverse client base, although it is mostly male, and she also attests to the therapeutic value of her work. “It’s all walks of life. Lawyers, doctors, accountants, blue-color types, plumbers, cancer survivors. I’ve had a couple of guys who’ve had traumatic experiences, and they come here and it’s like a release for them.”
Beyond making a case for the potential social utility of the field in terms of pyschosexual cleansing, there may also be something to be said for the artistry of it all.
Prior to joining the Continuum six months ago, Mistress Yola, 22, was earning her BA in photography from Columbia College in Chicago. While her practice as a photographer is stagnant presently due to her current financial constraints and lack of studio space, she says she has found a creative outlet as a dominatrix.
“It’s just like acting,” she said. “I come in here, I’m in street clothes, and I get ready, and I put on a persona and it’s like: ‘playtime.’ ‘Dress up.’ ‘Fun.’ [Like] acting a role.”
The aesthetic of the attire the mistresses wear on duty seems to integrate elements of various subcultures. Part heavy metal. Part vintage pinup. Part burlesque. Leather and pleather corsettes. Tall boots. Fishnets.
Given the performative and somewhat theatrical nature of what the Mistresses do, it’s not surprising that their practice has informed public performance work.
“I was a ballerina and I was a theater person my whole life,” said Shana. “So now I’ve actually taken some of those elements and mixed it together. For example, tonight I’m going to be en pointe, in a tu-tu, in the beginning doing more classical ballet moves to industrial music, and I’m gonna lose the ballet get-up, and do ballet with fire, and spitting while on pointe.”
For Lady Shana, it’s all about cultural synthesis. “I’ve kind of taken the classical training, and the classical cultural styles that I grew up with and [have been] weaving it into fetish, BDSM, and the more industrial scene,” she said. “Just because it’s underground doesn’t mean it lacks culture.”
The mistresses frequently participate in bondage nights at bars in Chicago like Exit and NEO, where they perform demonstrations with their equipment and whip willing patrons.
Yola, Shana, and Cleo do collaborative performance work regularly.
“There’s two different ways you could basically perform,” Shana said. “Traditional burlesque, which we also do, and that’s much more about the kind of classic look and tease. It’s playful. And then there’s more gore burlesque, which is what we also do.”
Yola and Shana perform “needle shows” together. “We’ll get up on stage and maybe use a song that has religious overtones like ‘Hallelujah! Praise Jesus,’ and we’ll get naked and I’ll insert needles in her arms, her chest through both of her lips, and then we’ll take them out and play in the blood.”
“It shocks people” she continued. “You basically take an isolated thing you can do in a session, like needle-play, or fire-play, and you put it on stage, and put it on display, and people are mesmerized. Anything that’s taboo. Anything that people are uncomfortable with. I think that’s what the performance is really about. It’s about making you look at what you’re uncomfortable with, making you face it, and maybe even making you a little more comfortable with it. Some of our shows have offended people before.”
“I can’t imagine why,” I quipped.
“Yeah,” came the response. “I mean it’s offensive to some people. But it’s art.”
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