History and terminology
Sexual play involving pain and power dynamics have been documented since the third and fourth centuries and the practice has many names including bondage and discipline and sadism and masochism (BDSM), domination and submission (D/s), sadism and masochism (SM), fetish or kink. BDSM and fetish professionals may play the role of a dominant, submissive or switch (a person who plays both roles). Both men and women (including transgender men and women) may work as professional dominants, submissives or switches. Within the industry professional dominants are often referred to as “pro doms” which can include men (Masters) or women (Mistresses). Respectively, professional submissives and switches are referred to as either “pro subs” or “pro switches”.
Professional domination and submission are often said to have come out of the sex games played in brothels. One professional dominant, Theresa Berkley is among the first noted for running a house of “discipline and flagellation”. Historical evidence suggests that her establishment was especially popular with male and female aristocrats of the 19th century.
Many professional dominants, submissives and switches begin their career by working in a “house of domination” similar to a brothel in structure and often referred to by industry professionals as a “house”. A house is typically owned and operated by one person, usually a dominatrix, called a “Head Mistress”. A house is often equipped with a number of themed rooms which can include a main room resembling a medieval dungeon equipped with cages and a flagellation station called a Saint Andrew’s cross, a classroom and a medical examination room. The Head Mistress is typically in charge of hiring, training and mentoring a stable of fetish professionals, managing online and print marketing and advertising, ensuring proper safety protocols are followed, booking appointments and generally maintaining the work space and business. Kink professionals refer to the fantasy play appointment with their clients as “sessions”.
Professional BDSM workers need to learn basic safety including how to safely perform “bondage” (tying a person with ropes or leather restraints for the purpose of immobilization), how to correctly use many of the tools of the trade (i.e., whips, cane) in a way that excites the masochist and satisfies they’re desire for erotic pain but does not cause permanent damage or serious injury. Many of the activities offered by professional dominants are inherently risky and most BDSM professionals are trained in basic first aid and CPR.
Another type of play that is common is known as “sensual domination”. This kind of play has less emphasis on corporal punishment and discipline and is more about sensory deprivation and over stimulation and may be referred to as “sensation play”. A professional dominant or switch might put a client into a comfortable bondage situation and then provide a number of sensations like rubbing their skin with a fur mitt, pouring warm oil or foods onto their body or flogging lightly (flagellation) with a soft implement like a deer skin flogger which many people describe as “feeling similar to a massage”. Another common type of sensual domination is a type of play referred to as “tease and denial”. This type of play is centered on teasing the submissive person with the possibility of sex or sexual release and then denying them the opportunity to have an orgasm. Another type of sensual domination is what is referred to as “body worship”. In a body worship scene the submissive person may kiss, lick and “adore” one part of the dominant’s body. Popular body parts for “body worship” include feet, legs, armpits and butts.
Another type of play that is very common is “strap on play”. Many men and women (including straight people) enjoy anal play and may have difficulty asking their partners to penetrate them anally. Many professional submissives and dominants are experienced and knowledgeable in anal play and penetration and can provide an experience for their client that is safe and is not painful. Many kink professionals will “top” clients anally (penetrate their clients with gloved hands or sex toys) but will not bottom (allow themselves to be penetrated or stimulated) to their clients.
In addition to domination and submission role play BDSM professionals may also cater to clients with specific sexual fetishes. Common sexual fetishes include foot, high heel and boot fetishes and big butt fetishes. Most fetish workers do not offer “traditional” sexual services like penetration, oral sex or manual stimulation (i.e. hand jobs) although most fetish and BDSM providers will allow their clients to masturbate themselves.
A client who plays the dominant role and pays to see a professional submissive is likely to have less experience, practice and training than a professional BDSM provider. Although a professional submissive may not use rope bondage or implements like canes or crops on their clients they must be knowledgeable about how to use the tools correctly and safely so that they are able to advocate for their own safety. They may also provide instruction and guidance to their client including safe techniques for bondage and tool usage. BDSM and fetish providers must also be experts at communicating and what is called “negotiation”. Negotiation refers to the conversation that occurs before a BDSM “session” or “scene” and details each player’s personal limitations and expectations of one another.
Fetish clothing which may include latex, leather and corsetry are very expensive and the start up costs (web sites, advertising, space rental, clothing and equipment) for becoming a dominatrix are great so another advantage of working for a house is that you are permitted to use their equipment (usually not clothing) like rope and other implements.
Other times a dominatrix may choose to work as an “independent” which means that they provide their own space to work in; they may rent a space from a “house” for an hourly fee, work out of a converted space in their home, hotel room or even visit their client’s home. An independent dominatrix typically runs her own web site, screens her clients, books her appointments, does her own online and print marketing and may or may not employee a driver or security guard. An independent dominatrix may also supplement her income by producing short videos or “clips” to be sold on the internet, providing long distance “training sessions” via telephone, email or web camera. Many professional dominants find that some markets in major cities are over-saturated with professional dominants, other city’s economies may be more favorable or because some women of certain niches do better in different geographic locations many independent professional fetish workers go “on tour” traveling to different cities domestically and internationally.
Professional dominants cater to many fetishes, which are often considered strange or unusual by sex workers who are unfamiliar with BDSM and fetish culture. Some people may for example have a fetish for tickling/being tickled, urinating/being urinated on, adoring pretty feet/having their feet adored, popping balloons or being treated as a child/treating an adult as a child. Often the common theme in many role playing fantasies include playing with power dynamics that are rarely acknowledged or discussed in every day life such as child/parent, employee/employer, student/teacher and the like. Other clients are often the sexual aggressors in their day-to-day relationships and seek a dynamic where they are permitted to give up control and responsibility.
Because most fetish workers offer erotic services that do not typically include traditional sex the majority are often reluctant to identity as “sex workers”. There is an internal hierarchy within the sex industry and professional dominants seem to have found their place squarely at the top. Given the mystique and glamorized images of “high class” professional dominants and the stigmatization of prostitution it should come as no surprise that kink professionals wish to distance themselves from escorts. It is unfortunate as individuals in both professions share many of the same legal and safety concerns.
Labor, legal, and other issues
While there is safety in numbers and dungeons often provide security and training there are clear disadvantages to working for a house as well. The most notable is the fact that the house or head mistress typically collects half of the professional dominants earnings. Another disadvantage is that fetish workers do not earn an hourly wage and are only paid for the clients they see. Some new BDSM workers can show up to the house diligently for months and never earn a penny. They are still contract workers with no health benefits and because the work is often considered illegal they have no legal protection from potential abuse from clients or employers. Another disadvantage for some professional dominants is that many houses require that you begin as a professional submissive and quite literally “work your way to the top”. So someone who is not a masochist or sexually submissive may have to begin working as a professional submissive before they are “promoted” to the role of professional dominant or switch. Professional submissives and switches often earn more money for submissive sessions as they often include physically demanding work such as holding strenuous positions for long periods of time, being bound or being struck. It is inherently more dangerous to fill the submissive role as it is often impossible to gauge the skill level or trustworthiness of a dominant client.
The criminalization of prostitution in many cities makes working as a fetish worker risky. Laws vary from county to county but in some counties soliciting money for any kind of touching that elicits sexual gratification (including spanking) is enough to get someone prosecuted for solicitation or prostitution. When charges are brought against professional dominants it is often for offering, “strap on play”. For this reason many kink professionals do not offer anal play or if they do will not discuss it on the telephone for fear of entrapment by law enforcement.
Common myths and misconceptions
Only rich and powerful men see professional dominants.
Men, women and couples (both male/female and female/female couples) see professional dominants. The clients are rich, poor and middle class. There is no one common thread that connects them besides the fact that they the sexual need to play the submissive role or have their desire or fetishes satisfied.
People who pay to see a dominatrix don’t have the social skills to find women who will do these things to them.
Clients see professionals for a variety of reasons, they may be partnered with someone who is not interested in BDSM, they may currently be single or they may not be invested enough in satisfying their sexual desires to spend the time becoming part of the larger BDSM community or they may fear being “out” as a kinky person could cost them their job or family. In many places some consensual BDSM acts are indeed illegal and this may be the case.
Professional dominants are in this line of work because they hate men.
Most people who work as professional dominants do so because they enjoy domination and submission in their personal life and can empathize with their clients’ sexual needs and desires. It is often said that sex workers double as “alternative therapists”. The stigma and shame around having taboo sexual fetishes or the desire to either dominate or submit to another person is great and many fetish providers council their clients in overcoming this shame.
Anyone can hit someone and yell and scream and call themselves a professional dominant.
There are many hours, sometimes years of training that go into being a fetish professional. Most professionals are mentored by another seasoned fetish professional and most career dominants, submissives and switches continue to learn by going to specialized kink and fetish workshops. Many kink professionals also attend professional development conferences, which occur all over the world. Besides first aid and CPR certification professionals may take classes in rope bondage, spanking, flogging, using whips, caning , flogging and maintaining safe and clean working environments and preventing the spread of blood born pathogens. The most respected kink professionals have a lifelong commitment to learning new skills and sharing that knowledge with others.
Professional dominants and their clients are sick in the head.
Many people throughout history have engaged in consensual power exchange as well as sadism and masochism. Playing with power dynamics and acknowledging differences in power in our society is healthy. Pretending like these systems are not in place in our day-to-day lives is not.
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