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Yes, I'm a Dominatrix

Not only do dungeons thrive in the East Bay; they're also largely above ground.

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In the old days — "old" meaning pre-Internet — members of the BDSM community had to find one another in newspaper personal ads, using heavily coded language. A hypothetical example: "Leggy blond trapped in body of middle-aged secretary. Really into The Story of O." Nowadays, bondage geeks meet on the web, do PayPal transactions, and even post "dominatrix" as a profession on their OkCupid profiles. Not to mention that some of them actually do subscribe to the term "geek." Many are even out to their friends and families.

The scene certainly isn't what it used to be, particularly in the sexually progressive Bay Area. For one thing, it's gone above ground. Although most BDSM workers still keep mum about the location of their services, they're at least easy to track on the Internet. Most reputable dungeons have websites, and some — like the long-running fetish playground Fantasy Makers — have their own e-stores and gift certificate packages. Many advertise in web portals Eros Guide, while others use local newspapers. Fetishists who want to play for free have an easy time going that route, too. A North Bay-based "daddy" who goes by the name "Big Poppa" said it's pretty easy to meet like-minded people at social events, and arrange play dates on the spot. Moreover, members of the BDSM community often meet through chat forums, Facebook groups, or online dating services, where it's now okay to be up-front about your proclivities.

BDSM work still exists in a legal gray area, since state law prohibits the selling of "lewd acts" — meaning physical contact with genitals, buttocks, or breasts. But many people in the scene have found ways to circumvent the law by prohibiting sex, using coded language, and keeping their brick-and-mortar addresses under wraps. Generally, they also vet the clientele fairly thoroughly, requesting references or a hefty deposit for first-timers. ("Police aren't going to put down $50 just to make an arrest," said one domme who does, indeed, have sex with her clients.) Such precautions have enabled them to render BDSM a viable cottage industry, and by extension, a visible subculture.

That's terrific for people like Tizz (not her real name), a 23-year-old art-school dropout who entered the subculture at an opportune moment — because it's now a lot more socially acceptable, she's "out" to her mother and most of her friends. Although she says her mom only grudgingly accepted the news, her friends approved and even applauded. It turns out that with the popularity of the movie Secretary and Rihanna singing bubbly pop tunes about sadomasochism, dommes have garnered a certain cachet. Not only is it permissible; it's also glamorous. "Everyone I've told has said, 'That's so cool!'" Tizz recounted, green eyes shining excitedly beneath her bob haircut.

In truth, Tizz fell into her profession by accident. She saw a Craigslist ad for "pro-domme" positions at a local dungeon back in August ("pro-domme" is BDSM-speak for "professional dominant"), chewed on the idea for three weeks, and discussed it with an older friend who knew the trade. At her friend's behest, Tizz decided to go in for an interview. She was hired on the spot. Since then, she's worked nearly full-time, doing everything from verbal humiliation to role-playing scenes to stuff that, in another context, might actually qualify as talk therapy. She has pretty strict rules against sex, golden or brown showers (urinating or defecating on someone), and unwanted touching in general. She says that, overall, patrons have been respectful — the dungeon has security guards to eject anyone who gets out of line. With a fair amount of a protocol in place to protect her, Tizz says she likes the work. Moreover, she's enjoyed the osmotic benefits of hanging around strong, powerful women all the time: "My self-confidence has gone through the roof."

In many ways, Tizz emblematizes the new wave of dommes to set up shop in the Bay Area, and the East Bay in particular. Contrary to the prevailing stereotypes on dominants and submissives, she's neither a rabid man-hater, nor an Ice Queen, nor a poor, exploited fetish object who's constantly warding off creeps. Nor does she abide by clichés: Her closet isn't stocked with nurse outfits, or secretary-like pencil skirts, or a cache of tools from Home Depot. "I have a couple of basic go-tos," Tizz said, offering an itemized list: a latex suit, six-inch heels, sexy boots, "some role-play stuff." But, she added, it's also fine to show up to work in sweats and no makeup. She's not a Mistress of Pain every day of the week. Most of the time, she's a playful, erudite, surprisingly maternal young woman. In a recent interview, she talked about contending with "the male gaze." When a homeless man approached her outside a bar on Telegraph Avenue, she called him "honey."

Tizz fits in well with the other nineteen employees at her dungeon, who range in age from eighteen to fifty (most have an easy time pretending to be younger), and represent a variety of body types, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Some have master's degrees or Ph.Ds, Tizz said. Many of them like to cook elaborate meals in the dungeon kitchen. Some have other jobs, but continue to do domme work because it can be a fairly lucrative profession — clients pay $300 an hour, on the lower end — and (surprise!) they really enjoy it.

It's not hard to see why BDSM might constitute a gratifying career choice in an area where the local sex shop has become a veritable household name, and the kink community is mainstream enough to hold storytelling events at The Uptown. In this type of environment it's also pretty easy to go it alone and cut your own cloth, said Kitty Stryker, a 27-year-old Oakland-based domme who runs her own business via a web storefront. Billing herself as a geeky, bookish, "evil-cheerleader-type," she promises to tie you up and slap you, then launch a protracted discussion on comic-book artist Alan Moore. Because she's both savvy and edgily attractive, Stryker runs a pretty successful operation. She can make her own hours, and choose to take long breaks if she wants.

"Obviously, the higher your prices, the less you have to work," Stryker explained matter-of-factly, during a phone interview. "And it depends on what situation you want to live in. I used to live somewhere that was just a step up from a squat, and I did sessions twice a month."

Having been a dominatrix for ten years, Stryker is happy to dispel a lot of the myths that surround her work. For one thing, it's not unsafe. She screens clients carefully, either requesting multiple references, or setting up a $50-an-hour "social" meeting to plan and discuss the session. For another thing, it's not the sole territory of people who are "damaged," or too clumsy to get their desires met in real life. Stryker admits that even she harbored those misconceptions at first. "I went into it thinking, 'I'm gonna have a bunch of ugly, socially awkward people,'" she confessed, with a sardonic laugh. "I think that people wish that that were true. It feels safer, doesn't it?"

In reality, most of the people who patronize Stryker's business are in their early thirties; about a quarter of them are couples, and a quarter are single women. Their reasons for hiring a domme vary widely, from being new in town, to having a very specific fantasy, and some extra disposable income. In some cases, Stryker said, they just want professional expertise.

Stryker is nervous about violating laws, and has moved her operation to the UK several times for exactly that reason. Yet she's also extremely forthcoming about who she is and what she does. Big Poppa said that with movies like Secretary providing a candy-coated image of BDSM for society at-large, the community may eventually cease being outré, allowing its members to work with impunity.

Even so, Poppa has a love-hate relationship with Secretary — he hates that the title character turned out to be a cutter, and that the happy couple abandoned sadomasochism after they got married and lived happily ever after. Nonetheless, he says it's a step in the right direction.

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