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Inside the L.A. Dominatrix Industry

Mistress Justine Cross has a B.A. in Literature and a B.S. in Psychology. Reading 50 Shades of Grey saddened her "as an academic and intellectual."
Mistress Justine Cross has a B.A. in Literature and a B.S. in Psychology. Reading 50 Shades of Grey saddened her "as an academic and intellectual."
James, Pet Productions

This piece is part of our series on the L.A. dominatrix industry. See also:

*How a Dominatrix Does Her Taxes

"Chains and whips excite me," Rihanna sings. "You're a dirty little whore, and I'm going to send you home to your parents covered in cum," Lena Dunham's love interest tells her on "Girls."

And in Hollywood, a bidding war over the film rights to E.L. James' bondage-laced romance novel, 50 Shades of Grey, which has sold 31 million copies worldwide, ended with Universal Pictures plunking down $5 million: more than was paid for Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code or The Hunger Games.

But even as 50 Shades and other mainstream representations of BDSM (bondage and discipline; domination and submission; sadism and masochism) broaden the sexual horizons of middle-aged women everywhere, the Angelenos who have spent years and careers "playing," or participating in kinky encounters in dungeons and at fetish parties, are rolling their eyes at the book's popularity, scoffing at how prude we all are.

Spanking? Puh-leez. Try scrotal piercings. Try glass rods inserted into the urethra. Try tying your genitals to a pulley system and using the rope to slowly yank your body off the ground. Numerous professional dominatrices (or "dommes") call the erotic bestseller "vanilla" and "entry-level"; one compares the trilogy to a grown-up version of The Babysitter's Club.

So if the book that's scandalizing readers profoundly disappoints those truly in the know, what is L.A.'s professional BDSM world really like, in 2012? What kind of people get paid hundreds of dollars an hour to flog, gag, interrogate and tease willing clients?

Over 200 women (and fewer than five men) in greater Los Angeles work as professional dommes or submissives, whether out of one of the city's two large commercial dungeons, Dominion, in Hollywood, and Sanctuary, near LAX, where the house takes a hefty cut from individual income and most clients are walk-ins; at smaller, appointment-only dungeons like Mistress Lexine's Irongate in Reseda and Mistress Justine's Dungeon West in West L.A., where clients are pre-screened and the owner will rent out rooms to other dommes; or out of spare rooms and garages in private homes.

Most professional dungeons are equipped with thrones for foot worship, doctor's chairs for medical play, wooden St. Andrew's crosses, steel cages, chain-link spider's webs, stocks, gallows and an endless variety of bondage furniture, much of which is designed and created by a man called Downtown Willy, who also works on vintage cars. Closets and chests of drawers will store an arsenal of toys, including the usual ropes, gags, chains, paddles and handcuffs, but also metal and bamboo canes, rectal scissors, feather ticklers, equestrian riding crops, gas masks, blindfolds and earplugs, collars and leashes, binder clips, clothespins, saran wrap, the electric shock-inducing Violet Wand and the incredibly popular vampire gloves, which are dotted with small spikes.

Many dommes are fierce feminists and highly educated. One commutes to her dungeon downtown from Claremont, where she is working on her PhD. Another, Empress Himiko, a sadist who loves kicking men in the testicles (ballbusting), attended an Ivy League university on the east coast and volunteers regularly at her Gnostic church.

Each domme, sub or switch (someone who is happy giving or receiving orders, depending on the client) specializes in a few specific fetishes and techniques. Mistress Lexine, who runs Irongate, says she enjoys humiliating and smothering. Over at Sanctuary, Mistress Nina plays with knives, fire and enemas (not necessarily all at once), Busty Bijou shows off her 38H chest and Mistress Nikki attracts those looking for the natural, hairy look; shaving her will set you back $300-$500.

Up next: Goddess Sativa's transformational make-up magic

Goddess Sativa, who has been in the industry thirteen years, is known for her transformational make-up magic, turning men into beautiful women, and for her collection of over 100 fetish boots, including custom-made purple leather crotch-highs with a 12-inch heel and a 6-inch platform. Like many dommes, Sativa has a few personal submissives who are so happy to serve that they cater to her non-sexual whims and desires outside the dungeon as well. One, a cross-dressing slave in a tutu, pays some of her bills, occasionally wears a pig nose in public and role plays as Sativa's 12-year-old daughter. "We call it like an ongoing art project," she says. Sativa is also a yoga instructor, which keeps her "balanced and humble."

Some dommes sport black leather head-to-toe, never display a chipped nail or split end and refuse even to strip down to lingerie. Others wear little makeup, greet you in jeans and a t-shirt and session in the nude, unaware of the elaborate old guard protocol that establishes black as the most powerful color and stipulates, for example, that anyone wearing an orange handkerchief in public is announcing he would allow anyone to do absolutely anything to him. Most girls aren't aware of these rules, however, as the BDSM landscape has changed drastically in the past decade from a tight-knit underground community in which everyone knew each other to a porous, highly visible subculture accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

As the economy worsened and the web made selling personal photos and video clips easier and more lucrative, more dommes began slip sliding towards pornography, some with nudity and penetration (which all dungeons I spoke with do not allow in sessions, not even a finger in a mouth) and some without. At the same time, more escorts and adult film stars have tried to branch out into the fetish world. Some women, called "hybrids," have separate websites with separate names for their escort career and their domme career.

Goddess Sativa is particularly offended and upset by the blending of what used to be three very distinct strands of LA's booming sex industry. "Ten years ago [people who dabbled in porn or prostitution] were shunned," she says. "I got emotional the other day because I saw a magazine with some of my friends in there, and they're totally just doing porn. That's taking away the mystery of the domina! I hold myself sacred, on this pedestal."

But if BDSM becomes more widely accepted and even vanilla housewives lose their bedroom inhibitions, will pro dommes continue to serve as the same kind of necessary outlet? A man will hire a dominatrix to express desires that aren't socially acceptable or that he can't admit to his partner, but most dommes say they wish more wives would be open and non-judgmental about satisfying their husbands' kinky needs. Partially inspired by the success of 50 Shades of Grey, a few dungeons offer or plan to offer beginners' classes for couples in everything from spanking (cup your hand; avoid the kidneys and tail bone) to Japanese rope bondage (allow yourself plenty of time to do the complicated knots).

Mistress Lexine says she even plans to start throwing fetish parties at Irongate designed specifically for newcomers.

"There's something about it that piques everybody's curiosity," she says. "Something I guess about it being naughty."

Follow me on Twitter at @adelaidelaments, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.


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