The Freeing Feminism of Sex Work
First things first (i.e. a disclaimer, before we get started): there’s a lot more to sex work than the uninitiated may think. Besides escort services, strip clubs, and webcam models, there’s a market for pretty much everything—if you can think of it, someone, somewhere, is probably getting off to it. Trust me.
After working as a professional dominatrix (or, in the parlance, pro-domme) at a dungeon in a major U.S. city for the better part of a year now, I’ve seen and participated in scenes that I’d never imagined before. A scene is essentially an improvisational BDSM performance—whether for an audience or just for the players. Where I work, scenes generally last either a half hour or an hour, though some clients do prefer longer sessions.
Working at a sex dungeon
Working at the dungeon isn’t always as exciting as many people expect. Of course, sometimes it is. But there’s a lot more actual labor involved than just spanking someone and collecting a tip. Before you get started, you must negotiate the scene with your client—what are his kinks and what are his limitations? What, if any, props does he want to play with? is he okay with your limitations? If not, is there another dominatrix available who may be a better fit?
When I first started this job, I wasn’t sure what to expect, not least of all from my co-workers. The women I interact with here come from all walks of life, from diverse enough backgrounds to fill a college brochure. But they are all powerful, beautiful, confident women, happy to use their prowess and open-mindedness to pay the rent. Many of us are students and/or single mothers; and there are few, if any, other jobs a woman can work part-time and make as much money. “As a single mom, I get to call out if my kid’s sick without worrying I’ll get in trouble,” says Nox, 33, who has been a pro-domme for five years. “I leave at 4pm because I have to pick my kid up after school and not a lot of jobs will allow you that flexibility.”
If someone needs to adjust their schedule for childcare or health reasons, there is support to a degree I’ve never experienced anywhere else. As for my own experience, I suffer from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which has been a hindrance working at many traditional jobs. The ability to rest between sessions or adjust my schedule according to my health needs, without fearing penalty, helps my pro-domme as well as my other work because I’m happier and healthier.
Motivations and desires
Men (and yes, it’s basically all men, with the occasional straight couple) come to the dungeon to fulfill any number of desires. The main thing they all have in common is that, to some degree, those desires subvert traditional masculine sexuality. While prodommes, at least in the U.S., don’t have intercourse with their clients, pegging—when a woman has anal sex with a man via a strap-on, so-named by Dan Savage’s readers back in 2001—and other anal penetration is very popular.
The act of a woman penetrating a man has a different connotation, as Margaret Corvid writes in The New Statesman: “although society grants him far more leeway in regards to sexuality than it does a woman, a man is expected to be virile, sexually active, and uncomplicated in his tastes. He is allowed to penetrate, but not to be penetrated; to control, but not to surrender; to enjoy the grace, sensuality, and sex appeal of a woman, but never to wish to express these traits himself.”
Pros and cons of working as a professional dominatrix
That subversion exists for us, too. To be sure, doing this type of work has its ups and downs. We essentially get paid on commission, which means that it can be hard to predict your income from one week to the next, especially when you’re first starting out and don’t have regular clients. And, yes, as a feminist, sometimes I feel uncomfortable presenting myself as a sexual object.
When I’m at work, I cater directly to the male gaze in the way that I dress, talk, and generally present myself. Perhaps I do, on some levels, to some men, reinforce the feeling that men are entitled to the attention and bodies of women. But at least I’m making roughly $100 an hour doing it. And my femininity is anything but subservient.
Due to the finances altering the power dynamics, more often, I feel like a powerful, sexual being. The exaggerated femininity plus the hint of danger presented by a dominatrix feels like undermining the system from within. For The Dangerous Women Project, Liga Strangelove writes, “Feminine sexual power, and our ability to reclaim that in whatever way we choose—be it for pleasure or monetary gain—has forever been a threat to the establishment.”
This point is one that is often forgotten in much of the discourse around sex work and feminism. The conflation of sex work and sex trafficking is an easy, even understandable, jump to make, but a deeply incorrect one.
Community amidst the taboos
The women I work with are much more than their dominatrix personas; they are activists, artists, mothers, and students. Support flows from all the women here, whether it be lending a lipstick, teaching a new rope trick, or talking through personal issues. I can still pursue my passions without having to use paid time off, and my chronic illness or chronic wanderlust can both be taken care of without risking my job.
The taboo around sex work still exists and I’m careful about who I tell the truth about my job. But for me and many of my peers, the benefits of the work and the schedule empower us to live the lives we want.