Miss Georgia is mad, so she grabs David by his face and starts pushing him.
He looks genuinely scared, and can only stammer a bit as Georgia presses him for an explanation. "Your travel plans got changed?" she suggests. "The dog ate your homework? Your grandma died?"
She slaps him around a bit, nothing too hard. David has only medium pain tolerance, and once she really lays into him, huge red splotches will appear on his bare back. Miss Georgia (who asked to use a pseudonym) isn't actually mad that David, a professorial 48-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair, failed to bring her a Sephora gift card as promised, or that he canceled his last session here at her independent Manhattan sex dungeon. That adds up to a $300 loss for her, true, but at least now she gets to have fun. David wants punishment and she's eager to deliver it, because being a dominatrix is Miss Georgia's dream job.
Georgia stands six feet tall without her size-10 shoes, hipless and muscular, yet overwhelmingly feminine. She's a purple belt in karate who wears Queen-sized stockings over her muscular thighs, drinks Powers on the rocks, and chases it with Stella Artois. Intelligent and enthusiastic, when she agrees with you, she says so four times fast: yeahyeahyeahyeah.
Georgia took a meandering path to her untraditional career. She graduated from college with a psychology degree in 2000 and moved to Seattle, where she started dabbling in the scene.
"I started out as a submissive. I knew I wanted to be spanked. I had never been spanked in my life, by my parents or anybody. It was just this drive that I had, so I went to a club that had a screening process," she says from inside her dungeon. "You had to go through an orientation period and learn certain rules, and then they would let you in and let you play."
Georgia had a relationship with a vanilla (non-kinky) partner that took her out of the lifestyle for three years. But when she moved back to New York six years ago (she's originally from Westchester-ish), she jumped right into the professional domination scene, finding a gig at a commercial dungeon in Midtown West.
In February 2008, a 67-year-old retired math professor named Richard Benjamin slipped into a coma at a dungeon called the Nutcracker Suite, causing then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to crack down on commercial BDSM houses. In one of those sweeps, six of Georgia's fellow dominatrices at the dungeon where she worked were arrested for offering sex to undercover cops.
Rather than risk a similar fate, Georgia turned entrepreneur. As an independent dominatrix, she requires letters of recommendation from other professionals and a pre-interview, precautions which have protected her from arrest so far. (While performing as a dominatrix is not illegal, she sometimes performs illegal activities involving anal penetration. But cops looking to make a quick bust are unlikely to go through these hoops, she says, and lack the acting skills to make it through an interview full of BDSM jargon.) Georgia is interested in building relationships with her clients, so she doesn't accept spur-of-the-moment appointments. This also helps her maintain a sense of normalcy. "A lot of people expect to call you up like you're sitting in your Spandex," she says. "But no—I'm in my jeans and about to go to a birthday party."
She makes more money, too: $250 per hour-long session versus the $60 she would pocket at the commercial dungeon after the house took its cut. Her business has few costs besides her $1,500 per month rent, and thus a fairly high profit margin. Her biggest expenses outside of room and board are the incidentals—she spends about $200 a month on paper towels. She even files taxes as an independent entertainment contractor, writing off dildos, taxi rides, and wigs, although she notes, "Dommes are always in danger of being audited."
Keeping things discreet serves David's best interests, too. (And David is only the name he uses with dommes.) He's a married freelance writer, and since he quit drinking 15 years ago, he's sessioned with more than 200 women, all without his wife's knowledge. He's been fixated on masochism ever since a memorable prostate exam in his teen years, but long ago decided that he'd rather have a great vanilla wife than one who merely shared his kink. Visiting independent dominatrices is a safer option for someone who wants to keep things under wraps.
"I've never tried to justify it by convincing myself that since I'm not having affairs or intercourse, I'm not cheating," David, who even leaves his wedding ring on during the session, says. "I find the whole thing to be secret, unhealthy, and a betrayal of not just marriage, but a family. Yet here I am."
In an ideal world, Georgia says, her clients would all be open with their partners. However, she sees her job as part business, part philanthropy. She provides catharsis, much like a therapist.
"I think this is a real need that people have, and if they're not getting it from their partner, then it really plays a mind-fuck on them if they can't have it," she says.
Surveying Georgia's apartment, you might think a college kid lives here. It's sparsely furnished, with Café Bustelo coating the kitchen counters and Foucault lining the living room. There's also thick foam covering every door, window and peep-hole, for soundproofing. The only closet that isn't concealed stores a double-digit collection of strap-on dildos and various other "WADs" (weapons of ass destruction.)
Georgia tells clients that she doesn't live here, just rents it out to other dominatrices for sessions. The truth is, it contains both a secret bedroom and a hidden closet of baggy jeans and Converse sneakers, her uniform off-hours. She had a run-in with a stalker a few years back, so maintaining an air of distance is preferable.
"None of my clients know who I am completely," she says. "There's always an air of fantasy and mystery." Most clients only see the wood vinyl floors and the maroon area rug of the session room, maybe noting the silver-painted walls for a second before being forced into a leather facemask or told to stare at themselves in one of five mirrors.
There's no trace of Georgia's name anywhere in the building—both the downstairs directory and her apartment door say nothing. Her sister's name is on the lease. "You can't trust people," says Georgia, citing friends who have been served and accused of running prostitution dens.
Georgia is a lifestyle domme (meaning sadism and masochism are her personal sexual practices), as well as a professional one. She loves her job, but many other professional dominatrices are in it for the money.
"There are a lot of people out there who just want to make a buck off of it and just get out of the scene," Georgia says of wannabe dommes. "That's probably the majority of people."
Danielle thought she was set when Steve signed the contract.
She had researched BDSM for months before moving to New York, where her goal was to enter a Total Power Exchange. In an exchange, a man gives a dominatrix control over all aspects of his life, from computer passwords to credit cards to diet.
About a year before she met Steve, Danielle, who asked to use a pseudonym, had posted a Craigslist ad, hoping to make a few hundred dollars cleaning apartments. One response took her aback: It came from a man who turned the scenario around and offered $100 for the honor of cleaning her house.
She realized there was money to be made in the BDSM scene, but she didn't know how to go about making it. Petite and full figured, Danielle's attractive in a cute way, with a moptop haircut and big brown eyes that sometimes turn hazel in the sunlight. Although she's 22, her uniform of band T-shirts and Doc Martens makes her look like a high-school kid, especially when she's lugging the hulking backpack that stores her Go-Phone, some comics, and a couple of doodle-filled notebooks.
Danielle decided to take on the role of an assistant for reasons that are both practical ("I don't want to get my hands dirty; I'm better behind the scenes."), self-interested ("I couldn't do it day-in and day-out. It would eat away at me.") Plus, she confesses, "I'm too shy."
Keeping in mind her physical and temperamental limitations, Danielle searched for women in her Florida town who were assertive, tall, attractive, and willing to help her lure men. After a few false starts, she put her entrepreneurial ambitions on the backburner until she could visit New York last summer.
She located Emma, a stunning redhead, on the dating website OkCupid and sent her a proposition: Be the avatar for an online profile, and I'll be the brains. Of the 40 or so women that Danielle messaged, Emma was among three who replied. They met for coffee in SoHo, where Danielle noticed 18-year-old Emma's strong sexual allure. She had to feign experience to persuade Emma into becoming her partner.
"In reality I was just as much of a newcomer as her, but I didn't want her to know that because I wanted to assure her it was a safe thing to be doing. After I told her she was going to be making $250 an hour—which was pretty much what she made in a week—she was just instantly convinced," Danielle said.
So they created a profile on the fetish site CollarMe, and Danielle began the search for slaves. Steve, a 44-year-old businessman from Long Island, lived with an ex-girlfriend. The romantically inept duo maintained a semi-platonic arrangement: They had sexual contact about twice a year, and in the meantime his ex let Steve live out his BDSM fantasies by meeting dommes online. Danielle and Steve started texting daily and eventually met at a juice bar on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. Danielle filled Emma in on the conversations that she was supposedly having with Steve, and Steve totally bought it.
Steve wrote up a lengthy contract: Emma would be his new owner. He'd pay her a $120 weekly fee and turn over use of his credit card. She would always ask permission to buy a burger or see a movie, but he would always say yes. He didn't know that the money was going to Danielle, who would then fork over a portion to Emma for lending her beautiful face to these in-person meetings.
It all worked smoothly until Steve ran out of money. He was paying for Danielle's apartment and meals, on top of the $120 due each Monday, and he ran through $6,000 in two months. Although they'd agreed to a $2,000 fine for breaching the contract, Danielle gave Steve a break and let him go for free.
"It was my first taste of a TPE relationship, and I didn't know how to ration myself or ration his contributions," Danielle says. Still, she justifies her behavior. "He's been in these kinds of relationships his entire life, and that's what worked for him, that's what made him happy."
Although a Total Power Exchange might satisfy Steve, psychologists debate whether such men suffer from mental disorders.
The American Psychological Association defines a mental disorder as a "clinically significant behavior" associated with "present distress, disability, or a significant increased risk of suffering." The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, a compendium of these disorders, is the text American psychologists use to diagnose patients.
When the DSM was first published in 1952, it included "sexual deviation"—a category that included transvestism, pedophilia, homosexuality, fetishism, and sexual sadism. The second edition included masochism. The all-encompassing term was changed to the less-pejorative "paraphilias" in the third edition. When the fifth edition comes out in May, people who practice BDSM and feel distress about it will have a "paraphilic disorder."
This distresses the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, an advocacy group which considers DSM revision a "key project." "We want to make sure that distress from society doesn't mean a mental disorder," says National Coalition of Sexual Freedom spokeswoman Susan Wright.
The DSM listed homosexuality as a sexual disorder until 1973, when extensive empirical evidence concluded that homosexuals performed no differently on psychological tests than their straight counterparts. Five different studies conducted on masochists since 1977 point to high functioning—measured by high educational level, income and occupational status—compared to the general population. Furthermore, other studies show there is no link between masochism and past abuse. Why should one atypical orientation be treated differently than another?
Charles Moser, a California researcher who asks exactly that, has emerged as the psychologist most active in advocating for BDSM's removal from the manual. In an article co-authored with Peggy Kleinplatz this year, he wrote: "The situation of the Paraphilias at present parallels that of homosexuality in the early 1970s. Without the support or political astuteness of those who fought for the removal of homosexuality, the Paraphilias continue to be listed in the DSM."
No characteristic unifies paraphiliacs other than their sexual interests, he points out, just as no single trait is shared by all homosexuals besides same-sex attraction.
On the other hand, Richard Krueger, a Columbia University researcher who was part of the workgroup that authors the paraphilias section, is among those favoring retention. He cites people like Richard Benjamin who asphyxiate for sexual excitement: "There are people who hang themselves, and we felt universally that dying that way is very different from accidentally hanging yourself in the process of becoming sexually excited." Indeed, a study conducted in 1972 found 50 people died each year in the United States from this practice. Thus the reasoning: Homosexuality isn't innately dangerous; some forms of masochism are.
Although Georgia and other professional dommes stress safety, Steve wrote in his contract for Danielle: "The slave understands that physical or mental injury and/or sickness are possible. The slave understands that physical and mental training are part of his training and often in his best interest even if this injures the slave." Still, out of the hundred of thousands of Fetlife users, less than one percent list asphyxiation as among their sexual interests.
How dangerous is BDSM? "It is said that the most common reason for an emergency room visit in New York City on Sunday mornings is a hand laceration from cutting a bagel," Moser says. "I can find essentially no emergency room visits related to S&M injuries in the professional literature. So if danger or injury is your criteria, then cutting a bagel is the sign of a mental disorder, and S&M is healthy."
One thing Moser and Krueger agree on is the lack of studies on BDSM. Michael W. Wiederman's 2003 article "Paraphilia and Fetishism," which appeared in the Family Journal, argues that this lack of research could stem from the misconception that sexuality researchers study topics of personal relevance which makes them want to avoid taboo subjects. Meg Kaplan, a psychologist who also happens to be Krueger's wife, says she frequently receives referrals from other doctors who are either unable or unwilling to discuss BDSM fantasies with clients.
"There's very little money for studying typical sexual behavior, nevermind atypical sexual behavior," Kaplan says.
Steve's least-favorite foods are tuna fish and cottage cheese. Inside a Prospect Heights apartment borrowed from Danielle's friend, he removes his puffy coat and his New York Jets cap and gets down on all fours. Then he's instructed to eat both, and quickly.
Before long, he will vomit into a plastic trash bin placed beside him by Goddess June, Danielle's new protégé. Danielle ordered Steve to bring hard-boiled eggs, too, but he brought them uncooked instead. As he laps up the disgusting mixture, Goddess June and Danielle crack the eggs over his grey, duck-tailed head.
"Why are you being punished?" demands Goddess June, the first-time domme presiding over the feast.
"Because I'm irresponsible and didn't follow Goddess Alina's commands," he responds, referring to his broken contract with Emma.
"And what are you?"
"A pathetic male slave," he gasps, egg whites dripping over his overhanging belly, turning his bunched-up Hanes and baggy jeans stiff.
Although Danielle originally forgave Steve for breaking his contract, she's giving the exchange one more try. Forging on without Emma, she located a tall, slender art student on OkCupid who had previously researched professional and financial domination, but never tried either. Although she had dreadlocks and the sartorial instincts of a raver who also listens to The Cure, June was still a beauty with a stone-cold demeanor—a perfect fit, Danielle decided, for the role of the exotic, commanding domme.
Steve ejaculates into a condom as planned, but falters as he tries to put on his newly-purchased $400 chastity device. After fiddling for 20 minutes, he gives up. Either the lock either isn't long enough to reach through the metal loop that presses his penis against his testicles, or he's lost all manual dexterity as sweat drips down his body and two women coolly watch him struggle. Steve has to meet his mother and aunt for a New Year's Eve dinner and can't spare more time, so Danielle and June agree to let him go without the lock. He departs in a rush, his eyes on the floor, blundering into a closet door before being shown the way out into the cold.
Georgia can have eight clients call one week and none the next. She would make $400 more a month if she saw clients one after another, as other dommes do. She doesn't think it's worth it, though, and requires 24 hours between sessions to clear her mind.
Although business has been slow for Georgia these past few months, she can always count on her regulars. Jesse, a 58-year-old transit worker, is probably her favorite; they often meet and chat about school and work before sessions. He even gets a discount from Georgia, who knows he's strapped financially. "Every paycheck, I take a little bit of money out and put it in an envelope," he says.
Today Jesse's brought red wine, a bottle of Georgia's beloved Powers, and an array of snacks—nuts, olives, meats and cheeses—just to be nice.
"Jesse's really gone all-out today, huh?" Georgia says between applying her make-up and pouring two whiskeys.
Unlike with David, she leaves her bedroom door open. Jesse even knows Georgia's real name.
Jesse has been married for nine years to a foreign woman he met online, and can't talk to her about his work or his interest in geopolitics, because she barely speaks English. Jesse won't divorce his wife, because he says she wouldn't be able to support herself, but "I'm not interested in anything she's interested in, and she's not interested in anything I'm interested in."
So it's nice for him to come chat with Georgia, whom he describes as both intelligent and beautiful. "A lot of people see this as prostitution, but I see it as therapy," he says.
Eventually Jesse removes his red and blue flannel shirt to reveal his hulking belly. Then he drapes his pants over a wooden horse, something clients kneel on to be spanked. "I see a little shrinkage going on," Georgia, who's wearing blank spandex pants, a black bra, and vertiginous heels, says. "Don't shrink in front of me. Don't you see how beautiful I look?"
She starts whipping him as Prince's "1999" comes a set of iPod speakers. By the time "Little Red Corvette" rolls around, Frank starts to show marks, and "Purple Rain" marks the transition from bruises to blood. "You never break skin this early, dude," Georgia says. "What's wrong with you today?"
A few weeks later, Danielle's working with an old friend from Florida who outperforms all her predecessors. Mistress Simone's a tall, attractive woman with a 666 tattoo and hair the color of Ariel's from The Little Mermaid. Although she's not in the lifestyle, she's able to improvise and requires little coaching. A veteran user of the sites Seeking Arrangement and Name Your Price, essentially escort services, she's confident and unashamed about sex work. The pair has done well, even clearing $1,800 on one particularly lucrative weekend.
But Danielle is having some trepidation about her new career. After Steve's last session with Goddess June, he e-mailed Danielle to say he wanted to end the relationship entirely. "Mentally I am not right and quite depressed which is unusual for me," the message began. Steve, who signs his e-mails "nitwit," cited trouble at work, a lack of communication with his family, and the financial strain Danielle has caused as problems he fears will lead to a breakdown. "If I don't do something soon, I will end up very sick or in a hospital," he concludes.
"I was pretty upset when I read it," Danielle says. "As opposed to what I believed, he wasn't actually enjoying himself and was distraught over what had occurred." She says she's thinking of enrolling in college somewhere upstate.
Later, on the J train, she notices a woman with icy-pale skin, lacey clothing, and an indescribable swagger. Danielle's eyes move from the woman's black leather boots up to her metallic red lipstick. The black-clad stranger wears fake eyelashes so long that they look cartoonish. They get off at the same stop, and Danielle starts bouncing on her heels and waving her arms.
"That was the most perfect-looking dominatrix woman I've ever seen," Danielle says as she chases after the woman and practices a spiel under her breath. "I really need business cards."
At first it seems Danielle will catch up, even though she's not sure what will happen when she does. Moments ago she was talking about quitting the sex industry, about how she's burnt out already and looking for steadier work. Now, she's giddy, enchanted, orgasmic, desperate. Suddenly she stops short, as if it's just occurred to her that she's shy. A second later, Danielle's dream domme is gone—headed through the turnstile and out into the night.
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