Top to bottom

A writer experiences the pains and pleasures of being both dominatrix and slave during a month-long dungeon dive.

THERE'S A PHOTO OF ME taken at a trendy nightclub. I'm perched on a platform, crouching forward like a hungry tiger, teeth bared. I'm wearing a lace bodysuit with a low neckline, a brief PVC skirt, fishnet stockings, and 5-inch pumps. I have a whip in my hand. My expression is fierce, but my eyes are lifeless. The photo was for the Web site of an S/M dungeon for which I was about to start to work.

Sitting on the harpsichord in my mother's house is another photograph. It's a sepia-toned black-and-white picture of me and my younger brother as children. I remember that I was wearing a dark red velvet dress with a white lace collar. I look pretty in my party dress, but my eyes have the frightened look of the shy child I was.

Several years after that photograph was taken, my father died, and I buried the child in the red velvet dress along with my father. I deadened all of my emotions: my sadness at his premature death, my anger at his desertion of me. It seemed better not to feel anything. Above all, I wanted to ensure that I would never be abandoned again.

As an adult, whether consciously or not, I sought control over my relationships with men by exploiting my sexual skills. Sex has been my tool and my weapon.

That, I suppose, goes some way toward explaining how I wound up at the Royal Fortress. Though I had no real experience or personal interest in the S/M/B/D world, using the realm of sex as a place to explore the "exchange of power," to use the S/M parlance, was familiar territory. Masquerading as a dominatrix to write the inside story of a dungeon seemed like an opportunity to inhabit a strong, fearless alter ego whose power over men was scripted and obvious in the most blatant, physical ways. As I joked with friends, it would be the ultimate assertiveness training.

When I conceived of this story idea, I had more than one motive. I wanted to write an article, yes, but I also wanted to find out something about myself. To find out how far I could go. And maybe to see if anyone would stop me. Naturally, I thought I could handle anything that happened.

After answering an ad, I was quickly hired at a female-run dungeon. If I had not kept a diary of this period, many of the episodes would have become a montage of nameless, faceless clients and the vaguely unsavory services performed for them. At times, the experience became almost mundane, so I was unprepared for how I ended up: naked and sick, kneeling on a cold tile floor and vomiting into a toilet.

Wednesday, September 2

"Can I help you?"

The ad had said "female-run dungeon," "will train." I tell the vaguely hostile voice on the other end of the line that I'm answering the ad, and I set up an appointment to see Mistress Crimson, who co-owns the business with her husband. I'm given a time and told to go to a certain street corner to call from a pay phone. I feel like 007.

After making the call and being directed to a building a few yards away, I enter a dingy, dimly lit hallway and see an office a few feet away. Mistress Crimson turns out to be a tall, pretty woman with wavy auburn hair dressed in a loose black cotton dress. Later, when I see her picture in an S/M magazine, dressed in full leather regalia, I can understand why she's the headmistress. Now, though, she seems unthreatening and somewhat distracted.

She goes into a no-nonsense explanation of the job: There is no sex involved; if she finds out that someone is either performing sexual favors or doing drugs, she'll fire her. (I find out later she's a nonpracticing attorney.) However, she admits that sometimes they'll do dildo training, but if the guy is there for the first time, they make him insert the dildo first. (Penetration is illegal.)

She explains the fees, $150 for an hour, $90 for a half-hour. The girl gets half if dominant, $10 more if submissive. Girls must go through 20 training sessions with another mistress before they can take sessions alone. Everyone except her and Raven, the supervisor, must be switchable—be both dominant and submissive. Slaves are generally expected to remove at least their tops.

She checks for my reaction. I merely nod.

There are no security guards, but she says they've never had any problems. As she's walking me out, she says she's looking to hire many different types of girls. I take this as code to mean that she wants to hire an Asian. Sure enough, shortly after I get home she calls to ask if I'm interested in the job.

Saturday, September 5

I go over to my boyfriend's and we watch Ultimate Submissives, Vol. 7, and Chronicles of Pain, Vol. 2, which he's rented for my edification. My boyfriend is older than I am, a reporter I've been dating a few weeks. He has generally been a stabilizing influence on me in the period since I was fired from my job as an editor shortly before I met him.

After we watch the movies, David says he's starting to get jealous thinking of guys spanking me. I laugh.

Tuesday, September 8

My first day. I've chosen a nom de guerre, Jade, which emphasizes my Asian heritage in a B-movie sort of way. I change into a leather miniskirt, fishnets, and pumps in "the corral room," which doubles as the dressing room. (The headmistress, Crimson, doesn't want anyone going into or out of the building in bondage clothing.) In the closet of the corral room are some bedraggled costumes—a schoolgirl's plaid skirt and white shirt, a French maid's outfit—but most people bring their own clothes.

I'm nervous, but as a trainee I figure I won't be expected to do much today.

My first session is in "the medical room" with Mistress Rose, who is overweight and wears glasses; she wears rubber surgical gloves and a white lab coat over a leotard. The client is "the Boy with the Toys," who is reclining on an examining table. He's brought with him $1,000 worth of dildos in a gym bag.

I can tell right away Rose is not doing things quite right. She very clinically hands the guy lube and tells him to use one after the other of his various dildos on himself. I feel emboldened to take some initiative. I ask the guy, who's chubby and naked except for a pair of tinted sunglasses, what his favorite sessions in the past have been like. He seems reluctant to make suggestions but finally says he likes it when he's walked in on by his "mother" and "forced" to use his toys.

We oblige. Rose is his mother and I'm his aunt. We walk in and pretend to be horrified to find him fucking himself with a dildo. We then force him to use larger and larger dildos—there's one Rose calls "the baby arm"—until he starts to bleed. He says he's out of practice. Nevertheless, he becomes very aroused and jerks himself off at the end of the session, while simultaneously taking a dildo up the ass.

Rose hands him a towel and we chitchat while he cleans himself up. He explains he's married but can't tell his wife about his fetish.

As we walk out, I'm relieved I've managed my first foray and surprised that I even became slightly aroused. Rose tells me about sessions in which she gives the client an enema. I hope I never have to do one of those.

We join the other women. Sitting around a small TV in the office, the mistresses call out the answers to Jeopardy! questions or watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Someone is reading Martin Amis' Dead Babies. I like the other women a lot. Most of them are smart—some are in college or grad school—and I can imagine being friends with them under different circumstances.

When they're not watching TV, they lounge on the carpeted steps across from the office, eating, playing Uno or Scrabble, painting their nails, and chewing the fat. The all-female atmosphere reminds me of what I imagine a harem or a brothel must be like.

It's all very strange but not completely unfamiliar.

When I get home I calmly call my boyfriend and tell him about the day's adventures. He's amused and also titillated, I can tell.

Thursday, September 10

The first time I see Justine, she's sleeping on a couch. She looks angelic with her cap of wavy blond hair and plump lips. She's wearing a PVC jumpsuit with a black lace bra visible underneath. Later, when she comes out of a session, she tells a group of us with obvious relish how hard she fucked a guy with a strap-on. Someone tells me Justine has a child at home.

I join a session with Mistress Carlotta, a Goth with one side of her head shaved. She orders the client, a guy with sandy hair and a mustache, to don a red negligee and fishnets. She turns on the radio and makes him dance.

"Show me how sexy you feel," she says. She and I laugh as the guy prances around in his sheer nightie.

This is kind of fun.

Friday, September 11

I practice inexpertly with the whips in "the coffin room," which, yes, has a coffin, a fake electric chair, a stock, and a large wooden cross that you can strap clients onto and spin upside down.

Though, in a sense, the mistresses are all competing for clients—when a new client comes in, we each have to go in and introduce ourselves so he (all clients are male) can take his pick—the atmosphere is pretty collegial.

Anne, one of the older women, who has become sort of a mentor, offers to show me how to use the various whips, paddles, ropes, candles—even a spatula. I take a studious approach to the new information. Somehow my scholarly attitude counteracts the weirdness of the situation. I ask her to use the implements on me so I can see what it feels like. She does so lightly and also lets me whip her.

I take a fancy to the bullwhip, which is very dramatic.

Wednesday, September 16

Marie, who has a girlish personality and Rubenesque looks—dark ringlets and a voluptuous figure—specializes in playing dirty little girls who need to be spanked. The client today, a short, troll-like guy with a mullet haircut, is a switch. Sometimes he has Marie be submissive to him, but today he's submissive. Marie tells me that when he's dominant, he makes her answer the question "What is the purpose of a slave?" with "To fulfill the erotic and dominating urges of her master and to worship his voluptuous body." So today she makes him say the same to her (with the appropriate gender switches).

She smiles at me every time she forces him say something ridiculous. Then she puts on a strap-on and makes him suck her cock. I taunt him by saying, "You're a hungry little bitch. I want to see how deep you can put that in the back of your throat." (How quickly I've learned the parlance.)

He requests that Marie fuck him with the strap-on, but there isn't enough time. (So many of these guys want to be "forced" to take dick.) Instead, he masturbates lying on the ground, grabbing Marie's cock, while I tell him how we would take him to a nightclub and force him to suck the cocks of other slaves. He likes that a lot. Afterward, Marie praises me for being able to talk dirty.

Tuesday, September 22

I borrow Lindsay's boots to stomp on a trim, middle-aged guy in aviator glasses. I get a $20 tip for that. My cheap Payless fake-suede pumps are getting ruined from slaves licking them.

It's funny how the women here talk about the men as pervs and weirdos. Though they're fond of some of the clients—like the cleaning slave who vacuums the dungeon in the nude—most they regard with distaste. For me, already the clients are starting to blur together.

Raven, the supervisor, says that working at the dungeon makes her feel that her life isn't going anywhere. Crimson always laments that even though she's got a law degree, she's just a mother who's getting fat and working in a dungeon. She complains that she can't fit into most of her "work" clothes anymore. But sweet-natured Marie, who has a day job at a nonprofit, tells me this is her most satisfying job ever.

Wednesday, September 23

It's a slow day, so Rose, Lindsay, another trainee, and I sit around talking. I ask Rose about her favorite role-playing session. She says her best one was when she played Monica Lewinsky and another mistress was her mother. The client played Kenneth Starr, who interrogates Monica's mother. He tells her about her daughter's exploits with the President, so she has to spank Monica. Then she spanks Kenneth Starr too.

Some fantasies are so minutely dictated by the client that you can see what people mean when they say that the submissive tops from the bottom.

Thursday, September 24

Wearing her PVC outfit, Justine walks over to where the client is kneeling, naked, in what I call the throne room. After a little warm-up, she blindfolds him, puts a ball gag in his mouth, puts on rubber gloves, and lubes up a dildo. I try to scare the client by saying the dildo she's about to use on him is huge. She takes off the blindfold, and I whip and flog him.

When it's time for him to get off (there's always a knock on the door when there are ten minutes left to the session), Justine has me sit on her lap and we stroke each other's legs, pretending to be lovers. I've never caressed a woman like this before, but the fact that it's something I have to do for my job seems to make it all right.

The client's penis looks as if it's never going to get hard, so I touch my breasts and tell him how excited I am. Ordinarily, I'd be embarrassed to enact these porn cliches, but here they seem both necessary and appropriate. Justine gets up and hands the client a paper towel. Miraculously, he suddenly gets hard and ejaculates.

Next I have my first submissive session, with Lindsay. Lindsay is a college student, a lesbian who wears her hair in two ponytails high on top of her head, which painfully emphasizes her youth.

I'm not sure what to expect. Though the girls talk openly about the intricacies of being a dom, they are mysteriously closed-mouthed about being a slave. I don't understand why—I figure it's all playacting anyway. It's a half-hour session with a middle-class, white-haired guy, not bad-looking. He has us remove everything but our underwear and shoes. Suddenly completely exposed, I feel vulnerable, too vulnerable. My palms are sweating. I have an almost uncontrollable urge to sock him in the jaw.

I'm finding it hard to call him "master" with a straight face. I start smiling or even laughing when I look at Lindsay but do my best to play along. Afterwards, he gives me 10 bucks as a tip. I feel like spitting.

I remember Lindsay telling me that it was only when she did her first submissive session that she felt like a sex worker.

Monday, September 28

Mistress Raven is close to six feet tall with long, dark hair. She is without a doubt the scariest woman in the place. The client, John, one of her regulars, is a talkative, clownish twentysomething construction worker with a shaved head. He says he has recently been in a motorcycle accident.

Towering over his naked body in her black patent leather stilettos, Raven strings John up by his ankles so he's hanging upside down. She whips him, applies nipple clamps, pours hot wax on him—the usual. She's clearly bored. Then she gives me a wicked look. She wants to show me something new. She announces she's going to pierce him. She gets out a few long, thin silver needles. John yells his code word, "Mercy." But Raven ignores him.

"You don't have a code word today," she says.

Some of the other mistresses haven't seen a piercing either, so one by one, five other women poke their heads in the door. Every time a new woman enters, Raven makes John meow and say, "I'm a pussy." As she gets out alcohol and paper towels she threatens to pierce his balls.

"No, anything but that," he yells.

"Then I'll pierce the shaft," she says.

He howls.

But Raven is not as maniacal as she pretends. She satisfies herself by simply piercing John's nipples and spelling P-U-S-S-Y on his belly in blood. Then she unties him and says he's been a good boy. He lies flat on his back, limp.

The mistresses find John's misery hilarious.

I'm almost at the end of my training. Later, the headmistress, Crimson, tells me some clients, including John, have already been requesting me. I'm not at all sure that I'm ready.

Thursday, October 1

I'm in a submissive session with Justine; I'm completely naked, as are Justine and the client. I tried to resist removing my underwear and then thought, what difference does it make?

Justine offers no help. She seems deflated and anxious.

From the moment the client sees me, he's fixated on me. A well-groomed middle-aged man—let's call him Mr. White—he tells me how beautiful I am, but there's something oddly vacant about his stare. I get the uneasy feeling that I'm fulfilling his fantasy about submissive Asian women. He suspends my arms above my head, my wrists in leather cuffs. Tottering in my 5-inch heels, I wonder what I could do if things get out of control.

He fondles and kisses my breasts, buttocks, thighs. His fingers are everywhere. I manage to prevent him from touching my groin by saying, "My mistress wouldn't like that," referring to the headmistress. I feel like a prostitute.

I try not to recoil from his touch, but can't help turning away when he tries to kiss my lips. I use my code word, "Red." A kiss on the lips seems more intimate than anything I've done so far.

Mr. White flogs me. He asks me if I like it, and I have to say yes.

"Yes, master."

He has Justine bend over and spanks her. After a while I lose track of what's going on. I'm starting to feel dizzy. I can't hear anything except a rushing noise. I try to take deep breaths. I'm going to vomit.

When I can't control the nausea anymore, I tell him I'm going to be sick. He releases me and I run out of the room to puke. I intend to go back into the session, but instead I have to lie back on the tile floor in the bathroom for a long time, until the feeling passes.

My naked dash across the hall apparently didn't go unnoticed by the other women. Anne knocks on the door and asks if I'm OK.

I muster a reply.

When Justine hands me my clothes and tip after the session, I ask if the guy freaked out because I got sick. Hate contorts her sharp features and she says, "Are you kidding? Did you see what he was like?" Then she makes a guttural sound of frustration, the kind of noise a child might make.

I find out later that Mr. White is one of the most aggressive clients and universally loathed. Someone also explains that if you keep your arms suspended above your head for too long, you get dizzy. And perhaps I also had a touch of stomach flu. I try to soothe myself with the idea that my nausea was just a reaction to these factors.

After I get home, I call my boyfriend and tell him what happened. I think I'm calm, but then I start crying uncontrollably.


I never went back to the dungeon. One year later, I've returned to work as a writer and editor. I'm still trying to sort through my experiences there.

My boyfriend and I broke up not long after my last night at the Royal Fortress. I think I blamed him for not having stopped me earlier, for not having saved me from myself.

Despite everything, however, I can't deny that there were parts of my month-long apprenticeship that were pleasurable. As Mistress Jade, I discovered the high you get from whipping someone until he begs for mercy or stomping on a prostrate man. There were nights I walked home from the dungeon feeling elated. I began to worry about myself.

I also discovered there's a delicate balance between fantasy and reality that a dominatrix has to negotiate, not only with the clients but with herself. The dominatrix's fantasy of being an all-powerful woman, with men as her slaves, is a precarious one.

The thrill the women at the Royal Fortress got from being dominant was probably proportionate to their anger at how subjugated they felt in the real world. The dungeon's stipulation that they had to be both dominant and submissive—sometimes in the same session—was a complete mindfuck. In a switch session, the women always wanted to be submissive first because it would be too humiliating to go from being a glorious, powerful dominatrix to being a simpering slave. When they had to be a sub, that was when the women started describing themselves as "whores."

There's always the question of who is on top—in the dungeon and in life. When I chose my dungeon name, Jade, I knew it would call up hackneyed stereotypes about Asians (dragon lady/geisha girl). And I knew the connotations of my tight black garb and high heels. Was I being a postmodern gal, knowingly, winkingly exploiting myself for my own gain? Or was I being exploited?

In the dungeon, at least, where men pay to have their fantasies fulfilled, I found that it's the dominatrix who serves the slave.

I ran into Raven several months after leaving the dungeon. She was working at an Urban Outfitters—it was odd to see her there—and said she had quit the dungeon and couldn't be happier. Then I ran into her again, recently, on the street. She said that Crimson and her husband (whom I had rarely seen) had split, so Anne was running the dungeon now. Most of the other girls had quit too.

I saw Anne the other day, from across the street. She was standing outside the nondescript building the dungeon is in, smoking a cigarette. She looked tired and pale. Before I could wave, she ground out her cigarette and went back inside.

All of the names in this story have been changed.

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