It’s Monday at noon and a man paces in front of a Subway sandwich shop in the Financial District. As he treads the sidewalk in his burgundy, tasseled loafers, he wrings his hands, breathing heavily. Maybe he’s just lost it all in the market, another trading deal gone bad. No, that’s not what he’s worried about.
Within seconds, a buzzer sounds, granting him entry into a private space perched above that fast-food joint. He’s not there for the second-floor Chinese massage parlor, with its dull sign that reads "body work." Buzz, click, push: the door opens. The man plunges in and walks up the fleshy-pink-colored stairwell and heads upstairs to Jezebel’s Wall Street Dungeon for some mid-day domination. There’s no telling what marks from his session he’ll bring back to his office, hidden with stealth underneath his freshly pressed gray slacks.
Kitty, a former senior at Sarah Lawrence College (and not her real name), lounges on a futon in Jezebel’s break room. Miss J, another dominatrix and a New York University graduate, rushes over to show Kitty pictures of a man’s lacerated backside on her camera phone, a Wall Street client she visits weekly in his office. Another woman does her biology homework in leopard-print underwear, waiting for her next client to arrive. Miss J is busy shoving a boob into a corset while Kitty admires the man’s injuries. His bruises look like purple zebra stripes. She’s absolutely impressed, Kitty says, but Miss J is in too much of a rush to gloat because the nervous suit who’s been pacing downstairs is her next client.
Leda, the head mistress, pokes her head in the room. Her pierced right eyebrow arches and Miss J understands: It means run. Miss J is out the door. Leda barely clears Kitty’s shoulders, but what she lacks in size, she makes up for in authority. Toned muscle is visible underneath Leda’s polo shirt. She’s not in fancy gear and wears baggy jeans and sneakers. Her short black hair stands in spikes, styled with gel. As she goes over the day’s schedule, the girls freeze at attention, like military recruits. "This is a job," Leda says. "We come here and we do our jobs. That’s all anyone really needs to know." Though unwilling to say much, she does let on that plenty of Jezebel’s resident dommes are college students, like Kitty.
Kitty, 22, was a theater major at Sarah Lawrence before falling grades and depression led her away from that educational facility and into another. As head mistress at Jezebel’s Wall Street Dungeon, Leda taught her to properly swing a whip, for free. Compared with tuition at Sarah Lawrence, the most expensive educational institution in the United States at $60,000 a year, this dungeon discipline may garner more profitable returns for its student body.
Kitty is part of a growing group of college-going women turning to domination since the recession to make a quick buck. Older dominatrices, who spent years honing their craft, warn that the psychological strain of being a dominatrix may drive the money-minded back to nannying. And the looming question may be why some young women, many college-educated at the best schools in the country, are so determined to master what may be their own form of masochism.
"They don’t appreciate the art of it," says longtime domme Nina Payne. She speaks in a soft tone that would be just as appropriate for reciting poetry. "Since the recession, people are looking for ways to keep their heads above water, so tons of new girls are coming in and changing the scene." Payne has been working as a dominatrix for the past eight years in Tokyo, London, Australia and the United States. In Australia and London, she says, the average dommes are in their early thirties. Here, her students and colleagues are in their early twenties.
According to Danielle Lindemann, who received her PhD in sociology from Columbia University and wrote her dissertation on dominatrices, long-time dommes all over New York City fear the demise of their craft at the hands of the inexperienced.
"They talked about the difference between real dommes who appreciate it as an art form and undergo training, and the young dommes who see it on the Internet as an easy way to make money," Lindemann says. She didn’t approach anyone with this question in mind, but the subject kept coming up. And in Nina Payne’s classes, the divide between the experienced and fledgling reveals itself fully.
Payne’s students squirm in their chairs like school kids waiting to hear the bell for recess. In her class at CoCo De Mer, an upscale lingerie and sex shop in Nolita, pupils are dressed for the part in Dolce & Gabbana corsets and trench coats. When her students take the reins—or rather, the whips—they’re unable to wield them properly. The man hired to work as the night’s submissive (another subset of the dungeon economy) winces as a woman in thigh-high boots loses her balance on the upswing, snapping the tip of the whip into his tail bone. "Very dangerous," Payne says. Striking the spine the wrong way can result in serious injury. "It’s not as easy as it looks, right?" she asks. There is a sense that confirming this point is a part of the lesson plan. It seems there is a lot to be learned about the dungeon discipline.
Some of the popularity of the profession may be the upsurge of interest in mainstream popular culture. Melissa Febos‘ memoir Whip Smart, published last year, detailed her many experiences in a Midtown dungeon, and it’s not uncommon to see images of women in television, movies and magazines dressed in corsets and ready to use kinky leather and latex implements to satisfy sexual partners.
Lindemann began her research on the subject in 2007 and has written a book, Dominatrix: Gender, Eroticism and Control in the Dungeon, about dominatrix life in New York City and San Francisco, set to be published next year. She says very little research has been done to explore domination from sociological or psychological standpoints. Of the 50 dommes she interviewed in New York, 39 percent had gone to graduate school, including three who attended Columbia University. "This isn’t a job you turn to as a last resort," she explains.
In her August 2010 article from Sociological Forum titled, "Will the Real Dominatrix Please Stand Up: Artistic Purity and Professionalism in the S&M Dungeon," Lindemann explains that experienced dommes tended to resist the claim that they’re motivated by money. Some looked down on younger women who turned to the trade specifically to put themselves through school, asserting that authentic dommes don’t work for the money. She also found that the bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (or BDSM) world has grown since the 1980s, and continues to grow younger and younger with each passing academic year.
According to veteran dommes, younger women have made up much of that growth in the past few decades. Michelle, 27, says the population of twentysomethings at fetish parties—as both dommes and clients—has steadily risen in her Midtown dungeon. Nine out of 10 college-aged women who want to work at Le Salon DeSade, where Michelle has worked for four years, don’t last more than a couple of weeks. "Almost every one of them comes and falls off right away," Michelle says. "They come because they think it’s a way to make money that’s easier than stripping, but they get scared and they’re like, I’m out of here." The fear, she says, comes in facing the necessary training, as well as the reality of being alone with a client.
Some dommes, however, disprove the claim that all newcomers are ill-equipped
for the trade. Miss J,
who graduated from New York University in 2007 as a communications
major, represents an ultra-confident new domme. She didn’t go looking to
enter this lifestyle, but once she did, she found she was a natural.
She was working in a clothing store in Manhattan, she explains, when a
tall blonde came in looking for a corset. When Miss J (who didn’t want
to use her real name for this story) asked what it was for, the
conversation became a job offer that Miss J accepted on the spot.
pays her bills and is allowing her to save money to go back to school
to become a teacher. But she doesn’t work in the dungeon for the money,
she says. She could make money somewhere else. "It’s a wonderful
sociological experiment," she explains. "When I’m 80, I’ll know I did
something exciting in my life." For Miss J, the talent for whips comes
easily—and the money even easier. She chose domination over retail sales
because it offers what she deems valuable experience, where retail
falls short. Inside Jezebel’s five rooms—packed with torture devices
ranging from the stainless steel to the medieval—Miss J is the boss.
25-year-old Alice, another dominatrix at Jezebel’s, working as a domme
is an act of reclaiming the power that her work in the professional
world stripped from her. She started at Jezebel’s about six months ago
when she went back to school. Alice is a master’s student in
international relations at the New School and, unlike some dommes, she
views herself as a sex worker. She volunteers at the Sex Workers
Project, which furnishes men and women involved in the sex trade with
legal counsel and advice. She thinks people are as unnerved by powerful
women as they are by sex work.
about women seeming powerful is uncomfortable to lots of people," Alice
says. She says she uses her income, plus loans, to pay for school, but
she’s also "not in it for the money." Before she started at Jezebel’s,
she worked at a high-level philanthropic organization, but she quit
because her superiors verbally abused her. Her selfworth shriveled to
near nothingness while she was working there. She’s even impersonated
her former boss in domination sessions with clients who request extreme
emotional debasement. The New School is preparing Alice to enter that
world again and, with every flog, whip, cane and spank she delivers
inside the dungeon, so is Jezebel’s.
to Miss J in the break room, Kitty is an eager participant in
conversations praising the trade. She exudes selfassurance and seems
absorbed in her vocation. But outside the dungeon, she’s not so sure.
Although there are plenty of private places at Jezebel’s, Kitty isn’t
comfortable talking openly at work about the way her occupation makes
her feel, so we head to the John Street Diner.
herself for an afternoon breakfast, Kitty twists her blond hair— so
blond it’s almost white—into a ball and wraps a band around it. The hair
is natural and matches her pale, translucent skin. Wearing a
boatneck-striped shirt, she looks more like she belongs to a yacht club
than a BDSM dungeon, but Kitty’s ready to discuss her business like a
describes a familiar array of instruments—stethoscope, dental tools,
tongue compressors—that are lined up on a metal tray in what is called
the "Medical Room." They are there along with a paddle, whip, ball-gag
and flogger. Versed in each instrument’s functions, Kitty knows the
intricate figure-eight motion in which to swing the flogger, which is
like a whip with multiple strands, to maximize impact and minimize real
injury. She isn’t into the lifestyle, like Miss Payne or Miss J, because
she does not engage in BDSM in her personal life, but she knows how to
went to Sarah Lawrence to study acting, and although she’s taking
mandated time off, she practices her craft on a daily basis. For
example, in the Medical Room, Kitty is a nurse, performing routine
physicals, complete with "Say ahh" and "Does this hurt?" promptings and
kinky reflex tests. The only thing missing is the clichéd "Turn your
head and cough" order, since any genital contact between this pretend
nurse and patient is illegal in the state of New York. Even so, Kitty
says this is a popular lunch hour session for the Wall Street clientele.
room’s meaning changes with each client—and so does Kitty. On other
days the medical room becomes a mortuary and Kitty the grieving wife:
the death fantasy. Sometimes she weeps by the client’s side or holds his
limp hand, often wearing a wedding ring, and begs him to come back to
her. Sometimes she may sternly pronounce him dead and begin a
I have my acting hat on, and I talk to someone not in my voice," she
explains. "I can hear myself and it’s not my voice." Like old movie
stars whose precise diction can sound stilted, Kitty’s voice is lilting
and elegant at times. Even when paired with the verbiage uniquely
available to workers of her trade, her voice can sound musical.
flog, whip, cane, paddle and play mind games," she says. "I’m really
good at this. I know I am good at this." But Kitty’s mother worries
about her, insisting she doesn’t belong at Jezebel’s. "I guess that’s
probably normal," Kitty says.
Wall Street dungeon is discreet, completely invisible from the street.
But Kitty isn’t so inconspicuous. She doesn’t keep her job a secret from
anyone, including her family back in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Kitty’s parents are successful: Her stepfather is the CFO of an
environmental organization, and her mother is a neurophysiologist. Kitty
told her mom she was going to quit her job as a nanny to work in a
dungeon around the time she came out as a lesbian. "The dominatrix thing
was way harder," she says. "My mom took me out to breakfast at our
favorite spot, and we were having this really great mother-daughter
talk, and then I told her. She doesn’t think it’s healthy—and in a lot
of ways she’s right." The waiter interrupts to ask if she’d like the
regular: a bacon-cheddar omelet, deluxe, with French fries and buttered
wheat toast. "I live on cheap greasy omelets, really," she says.
sticks to omelets because she’s on a tight budget. She doesn’t make
much money in domination, but she feels successful in other ways. When
Kitty left Sarah Lawrence, she was depressed and says she could barely
bathe herself. Back on the West Coast, she checked herself into a
one-month outpatient hospital program, "to be myself again," she
explains. Whether or not her parents approve of the dungeon, she
believes they’re proud that she’s living on her own and supporting
herself, and that’s precisely why she does it. She fits the image of the
beginner looking for financial independence that older dommes say is
encroaching on the purity of the craft.
Miss J, Kitty says she is ambivalent about the dominatrix lifestyle.
But she isn’t easily defeated, despite her failure to rake in the big
bucks. Kitty says she makes around $1,000 a month, where some dommes
make five times that.
According to an office
manager at Fetish Fortress in Chinatown, most women there average $500
to $1,000 a week, depending on how many hours they work.
says she is never chosen when walk-in clients select a mistress from a
line-up of women, and she relies almost solely on business from her
regulars who aren’t in the market for leather-clad, black-haired vixens.
"I’m too vanilla," she explains. "I’m Suzy Connecticut. And it makes me
figures may be low, but she’s not looking for other work quite yet.
She’s determined to be a successful dominatrix and stays to prove this
to herself, her colleagues and her parents. It’s the glimpses of
clients’ real lives, however, that can make the work so difficult.
sometimes offer evidence that they’re normal, Kitty says. They fear
judgment, even in the small, dimly lit chamber at Jezebel’s where, with
the door shut and the blinds closed, there’s little to remind them of
life outside. "One guy I see a lot has a wife and son. And he’s telling
me all this stuff about his wife, then he takes out pictures of them,"
Kitty says. "That’s when I feel guilty. I hate being the one they
confide to because I’m not a real person to them. I wish they could tell
their wives… Men feel the urge to explain to me why they are this way
because they spend a lot of time wondering themselves.
has an entire chapter in her upcoming book dedicated to the dominatrix
session as a type of therapy for the client. She says many dommes view
these moments of intimate revelation as integral parts of the role, as
much as the flogging. "They get to express those dark secrets with me,"
Kitty says. "Then they explain it away like I am going to judge them.
And I might."
fact, she says she’s met a few men who made her want to quit. Her worst
experience came in a session with a client she nicknamed Neo-Nazi Tom.
He told Kitty that she closely resembled an old girlfriend of his who
died. During their meetings—they met only twice despite his daily calls
asking for her—Tom wanted Kitty to listen to sadistic stories that
frequently involved killings and beatings. She was supposed to pretend
to be sexually aroused. "He’s scary in a way that made me almost want to
leave," Kitty says. "After I had this weird violent session with him,
he tells me he was abused as a kid." Although the session made Kitty
feel sick to her stomach, she still returned to work the next day. She
claims she stays because the confidence she’s gained knowing that men
will pay to spend time with her outweighs disturbing sessions. She says
she’s confident in her real life, every day.
she eats, Kitty rides the subway home from John Street to her home in
Washington Heights. She balances on the moving train car in high heels,
her left side
down by a tote bag containing platforms that weigh nearly 6 pounds
each. At 5-foot-10, she seldom wore heels in public before because she
never liked drawing extra attention or being the tallest person in the
room. "Suddenly I’m not afraid to look like a woman," Kitty says. This
self-confidence, cultivated in a violent exchange that is both
completely artificial and sometimes harshly real, is coupled with
discomfort. "There aren’t a lot of us who go around bragging," Kitty
says. "As a little girl it’s not who you imagine becoming. This isn’t my
is beginning at noon inside Jezebel’s Wall Street Dungeon, but its days
are numbered. It recently moved and several of the women working there found other spots to ply their trade (Kitty ended up at Pandora’s Box in
For Miss J, the dungeon life is simple: It’s
about feeling alive. But for Kitty, shouldering the weight of her
clients’ lives distracts from the feelings of empowerment the job can
offer. Before her session, Kitty sips water from a wine glass in the
break room, already wearing a red halter top and patent leather hot
pants. She empties the glass, tipping her head all the way back. She
says she can’t be sure whether she’ll be damaged by working as a
dominatrix. She only knows that she sees the world differently.
the dungeon, she sees Wall Streeters, vulnerable in their underwear,
displaying wallets full of family photos at her feet. Before she came to
work at Jezebel’s, Kitty felt preyed upon by the sound of a man’s voice
making passes at her on the street. Now she feels unfazed, like someone
who has been behind the scenes and knows the special effects for what
they really are.
used to make me question my self-worth," she says, untangling the
leather strands of her flogger. "This job makes me feel like I’m getting
admits her job is rife with potential disturbances. At the moment,
however, she is the protector of a million borrowed secrets that remind
her she’s not weaker than even the most prominent Wall Street trader.
Though she worries about the psychological damage older dommes warn
about, her plans to save her money to go to grad school to study theater
are more important. "This is how I’m going to have money to get a
little nest egg," she says, fixing her gaze on her pointed toes.
"There’s nothing bad about that."
Correction: This article, published March 2, erroneously stated that Jezebel’s NYC, closed. The
dungeon has, in fact, moved from its location at John Street to its
original location near the South Street Seaport.