on being a dominatrix in the name of black feminism

I’ve already written about how pernicious it is when submissive women make tortured arguments about the how empowered they feel as beaten, tied up cumbucket slaves. The arguments of dominatrices are just as much in bad faith.

Salon just published an article about dominatrices and #MeToo. The author is Natalie West, described as a dominatrix with a PhD in gender studies.

She opens by describing a guy handing her an envelope with $300 and asking if she comes here often (lol get it?).

A sly smirk pulls at his mouth. “I would love to see you come,” he says, and takes a sip of his drink. He stares straight ahead, surprised at his own audacity.

A moment passes. I straighten my dress, feigning shock, and yell loudly enough for the entire bar to turn, “I wouldn’t have sex with you if you were the last man on earth!”

I stand to go, watching his cheeks flush hot with shame, the feeling for which he has paid me. I consider pouring my drink on his crotch like they do in the movies, but I don’t want to make a mess for the bartender, who didn’t agree to participate in this humiliation scene in the first place.

“Wait, I’m sorry, I —”

With a firm “no,” I raise my hand to his mouth to prevent him from protesting, storm out of the bar and into the unseasonably warm night. I count again — three hundred dollars — on the walk to my car. In traffic on my own commute home, I think of a conversation with a friend the week prior, in another dim-lit LA bar. She recounted the frustration of dating straight men from Tinder, the hours she’d spent that weekend, locked in tedious conversation with an unkempt man who looked nothing like his profile photo. I ask why she didn’t just get up and leave. “I couldn’t,” she says. “I was afraid.” I sit in traffic, feeling like I’ve gotten away with something. It isn’t just the money. It is that I am able to say “no.”

Except that the reason she kept the $300 is that she actually said yes.

The dominatrix is the id of American femininity. She is primary, dark, primal. She says the words that other women wish they could say, but often find themselves frozen. “No” is principal among them.

In a recent Atlantic essay on #MeToo, Aziz Ansari and “the paradox of no,” Megan Garber claims that women today still face the demands that have always been placed on femininity: that women be nice, pleasing and compliant. “No” is the utterance that disrupts these demands. It is the failure of femininity. To interrupt male desire with the word “no” is to disrupt femininity itself. The dominatrix, then, is a paradox: both feminine and dominant, she is a woman paid to refuse men.

The dominatrix is a fantasy written by Masocher. How empowering that your very id is the fantasy of some dead white man!

She says the words men put in her mouth.

“Mistress Natalie West is a beautiful Lesbian Dominatrix who receives no pleasure from male subjects, except when they are at Her feet in humble service, or on the floor, begging for mercy, where they belong.

Can we admit that that’s corny and sounds like it was written by some dude while jerking off? That’s how the lesbian id talks? If you say so…

Every “no” I speak is not uttered in public, at happy hour, with a bar full of hipsters watching, where I feel relatively safe from any potential backlash. Most of the time, when I refuse male advances, we are alone, in private dungeons or hotel rooms, and the men who hear “no” follow it up with protests: “Please, Mistress, please . . .” They beg, make promises and often refuse. Sometimes these refusals are pre-negotiated, part of the fantasy; often they are not. Before #MeToo revealed the frequency at which professional relationships between men and women have been marked by the breach of consent, I thought these clients simply considered my refusals part of a kinky game: rules that were made to be broken because they were made in a dungeon. Now I see these men differently. I imagine them hearing “no” at work, pushing their female co-workers toward the “yes” they are confident that can receive if they persist. I imagine them boasting to friends: “At first she was reluctant, but then I convinced her.” Often, they tell me stories of refusing to take no for an answer, how it’s a skill that has helped them succeed in business. I wonder how often it’s helped them succeed in sex.

Yes, Andrea Dworkin observed that in sex we express our deepest emotions about life. The personal is the political.

Think about the level of denial needed to get a PhD in gender studies and not see the deeper issues with paying a woman not to have boundaries, at least not the ones you’re interested in violating, and then not respecting the pretend boundaries agreed upon in advance. “I just need to beat this slave a little harder tee hee hee!” It’s like Monica Lewinsky only recently discovering the existence of power imbalances.

Clients tell sex workers their deepest fantasies, which most would never reveal to their wives and girlfriends. I have helped countless men who have been shamed for their feminine sides to embrace them, dressing them in lace and introducing them to the tender caresses they believe only women can request of their lovers. For others, I provide the pain that they crave, when their partners see them too clearly as husbands and fathers, making it unbearable to watch them bleed. Most of the time I welcome this, and consider vulnerability an alleviation of the pressures of masculinity, pressures that often lead to its toxicity. Sexual aggressiveness, domination of others and misogyny — these qualities coagulate into a strain of masculinity that is unable to form connections with others, especially women, ultimately hurting the men who engage in this toxic form of masculinity. So when I encounter men with deep-seated kinks and fantasies that complicate the dictates of toxic masculinity, I encourage them, hoping that access to submissiveness in their fantasy lives might positively influence their day-to-day.

How is doing kinky shit with other people’s husbands and boyfriends helping the sisterhood achieve body positivity or whatever? She’s no doubt making other women feel like shit about themselves. She’s accepting money to help rich men do cruel things to their partners. It’s very painful to know that your partner shares deeply personal things with someone else instead of you.

How sad are her client’s relationships that they can’t ask to be caressed? And she’s in fact reinforcing the idea that being gentle is a bad, shameful thing you should be humiliated for, where its pleasure lies in deviance and not decency.

If she’s making other women’s partners bleed, surely they see the marks and die a little inside.

Paying a dominatrix and pretending to be vulnerable in a space boxed off from the rest of life is avoidance. It’s not coming to terms with your desires and becoming a well-integrated person. It helps to uphold toxic masculinity in the rest of life by making it bearable.

Look how much more real this writing is than the copy on her website:

And yet, vulnerability implies a close relationship to the truth, and the truth is that men often violate women. The same culture that produces men ashamed of their desires to put on a dress and feel pretty for the evening also produces the man who excitedly recalls spending weekends traveling to far-flung queer bars, waiting in parking lots and drinking vodka in his car until he sees some lesbians emerge, calling them “dykes,” “man-haters” — hoping one would be offended enough to assault him. Now, he calls me — a self-identified lesbian dominatrix — and pays me to kick him in the balls. Am I the safety valve our culture requires, protecting other women from his homophobic attacks? The emotional toll the word “dyke” takes on me is no different that the toll it takes on other queer women who have also been on the receiving end of the insult since adolescence. I no longer feel the hurt bubbling into my throat when I hear the word today, but on the lips of a straight man, it still ignites something deep in me, and I channel the sting of it toward the task at hand. I count my money and weigh the consequences.

Over dinner, a client tells me the story of his most memorable sexual adventure: when he walked down the Vegas strip in thigh high boots and a trench coat, opening it to reveal his erect penis to a mother and daughter. The shock on their faces, and the way the mother covered her daughter’s eyes, is still the material to which he masturbates, years later. He presents the qualification that the daughter looked of age, as if that exonerates him. I listen to his story and say nothing. I tell myself that he is baiting me, waiting for a reaction that I refuse to provide. But the truth is I can’t afford to lose him as a client. I’m no one’s safety valve.

She’s helping those men get off and intellectualizing that fact away. She’s not actually doing the world a favor teaching men to be more sensitive or something.

And then came this tour de force:

Sex workers are not immune to the (often violent) persistence of male desire, and yet we are on the front lines of the battle against toxic masculinity. Chicago Dominatrix Mistress Velvet demands that white male clients read classics of black feminism — Audre Lorde and Patricia Hill Collins — in order to remain on her client list. Others, like myself, try simply to engage in clear negotiations, modeling the acquisition of active and ongoing consent that we hope teaches these men how to behave beyond the dungeon. And yet, as much as the so-called “vanilla” world stands to learn from BDSM models of consent, we are also marked by cultures of abuse. I’ve heard numerous stories about pro-dommes pushing client boundaries, from the unwanted slap in the face to full blown sexual assault. Some of these clients have specifically turned to me — a lesbian dominatrix — because they consider it a safer alternative: no sex to get in the way, as if sexual violence were about sex and not power.

Despite my due diligence in screening clients — requiring references and refusing to schedule anyone who seems erratic or disrespectful — and despite the stereotype that submissive men are safe, a client has reached around my waist, pulled my panties to the side and shoved his fingers inside me. These are not the roles we agreed to play. I said nothing in the wake of this assault, freezing in his presence and then for years in its aftermath, silently blaming myself.

You see, this sordid shitshow of mistreatment is happening in the name of black feminism! I guess Mistress Velvet is her Black Friend, working out this shit (from Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism):

Williams takes pleasure, not in her blackness, but rather in the seductive aspects of whiteness and debasement. She describes how as a child watching Roots, the television miniseries on slavery, she began to fantasize about the master: “I wondered if, possibly…just maybe…it wouldn’t be so bad if your master was…nice…And if he was handsome, then that would be kind of neat, too!” This admiration of the Other manifests itself in her other fantasies as well, yet it is always mixed with bad feelings on her part.

Let’s change focus to Mistress Velvet.

How did you get started as a dominatrix?

I got started a couple years ago when I was working full time. I was like, I need more money, or I’m going to get evicted. I had a friend who had done it for six years, and it seemed really interesting. I asked her more about it, and I thought, well this could be something really fun, and also it’s a lot of money, so why not try.

I was not good at it at all. My first client ― he was so nice. After a few attempts, he said, “Honestly, you will never be a Domme,” because I would apologize every time I hit him.

I think that him saying that ― it kind of felt like a challenge to myself: I can be a Domme, I can do this.

In other words, some white man bullied her into self-mutilating her natural kindness, as white men do.

Can you elaborate on that? When did you start to introduce theory about power dynamics into that power dynamic?

I would say, first and foremost, that I describe it as a form of reparations ― not in a systemic way like we’re getting land back, but definitely on an individual level, it provides me with an emotional sense of reparations. That’s because of the nature of the dynamic ― that [my clients] usually are white men, that they’re straight, and they’re usually pretty well-off to be able to sustain a relationship with a Domme.

I started to think more about my relationship with them. A lot of them were asking questions. Some people were saying, “This is really impacting me in terms of how I think outside of our sessions.” A client said he started to notice he would only hold the door open for black women. One client started an organization for black single mothers in the South Side of Chicago.

It made me think. I am now given this platform to make white, cis men think about things in certain ways. Just allowing them to be submissive doesn’t always allow for the more drastic shift in the framework and thinking that I want. So I have to bring in my girls, like Audre Lorde and Patricia Hill Collins, and make these men actually read about black feminism. Then, it’s moving from them simply fetishizing black women, to realizing: This is a systemic issue I’m contributing to by the virtue of being a white man and being rich.

If she was getting through to those men, they would stop coming back. Invoking Audre Lorde is especially egregious because an interview with her appears in a book called Against Sadomasochism.

Leigh: How do you see the phenomenon of sadomasochism in the lesbian community?

Audre: Sadomasochism in the lesbian-feminist community cannot be seen as separate from the larger economic and social issues surrounding our communities. It is reflective of a whole social and economic trend of this country.

Sadly, sadomasochism feels comfortable to some people in this period of development. What is the nature of this allure? Why an emphasis on sadomasochism in the straight media? Sadomasochism is congruent with other developments going on in this country that have to do with dominance and submission, with disparate power—politically, culturally, and economically.

The attention that Samois (the San Francisco-based lesbian s/m organization) is getting is probably out of proportion to the representation of sadomasochism in the lesbian community. Because s/m is a theme in the dominant culture, an attempt to “reclaim” it rather than question it is an excuse not to look at the content of the behavior. For instance, “We are lesbians doing this extreme thing and you’re criticizing us!” Thus, sadomasochism is used to delegitimize lesbian-feminism, lesbianism, and feminism.

Leigh: So you’re saying that the straight media both helps amplify the phenomenon within the lesbian community and that they focus on lesbians in particular as a way of not dealing with the larger implications and the very existence of the phenomenon in the world?

Audre: Yes. And because this power perspective is so much a part of the larger world, it is difficult to critique in isolation. As Erich Fromm once said, “The fact that millions of people take part in a delusion doesn’t make it sane.”

Leigh: What about the doctrine of “live and let live” and civil liberties issues?

Audre: I don’t see that as the point. I’m not questioning anyone’s right to live. I’m saying we must observe the implications of our lives. If what we are talking about is feminism, then the personal is political and we can subject everything in our lives to scrutiny. We have been nurtured in a sick, abnormal society, and we should be about the process of reclaiming ourselves as well as the terms of that society. This is complex. I speak not about condemnation but about recognizing what is happening and questioning what it means. I’m not willing to regiment anyone’s life, but if we are to scrutinize our human relationships, we must be willing to scrutinize all aspects of those relationships. The subject of revolution is ourselves, is our lives.

Sadomasochism is an institutionalized celebration of dominant/subordinate relationships. And, it prepares us either to accept subordination or to enforce dominance. Even in play, to affirm that the exertion of power over powerlessness is erotic, is empowering, is to set the emotional and social stage for the continuation of that relationship, politically, socially, and economically.

Sadomasochism feeds the belief that domination is inevitable and legitimately enjoyable. It can be compared to the phenomenon of worshipping a godhead with two faces, and worshipping only the white part on the full moon and the black part on the dark of the moon, as if totally separate. But you cannot corral any aspect within your life, divorce its implications, whether it’s what you eat for breakfast or how you say good-bye. This is what integrity means…

Leigh: How do you think sadomasochism starts? What are its roots?

Audre: In the superior/inferior mold which is inculcated within us at the deepest levels. The learned intolerance of differences.

Those involved with sadomasochism are acting out the intolerance of differences which we all learn: superiority and thereby the right to dominate. The conflict is supposedly self-limiting because it happens behind bedroom doors. Can this be so, when the erotic empowers, nourishes, and permeates all of our lives?

I ask myself, under close scrutiny, whether I am puritanical about this—and I have asked myself this very carefully—and the answer is no. I feel that we work toward making integrated life-decisions about the networks of our lives, and those decisions lead us to other decisions and commitments—certain ways of viewing the world, looking for change. If they don’t lead us toward growth and change, we have nothing to build upon, no future…

Leigh: What about how Samois and other lesbian sadomasochists use the concept of power?

Audre: The s/m concept of “vanilla” sex is sex devoid of passion. They are saying that there can be no passion without unequal power. That feels very sad and lonely to me, and destructive. The linkage of passion to dominance/subordination is the prototype of the heterosexual image of male-female relationships, one which justifies pornography. Women are supposed to love being brutalized. This is also the prototypical justification of all relationships of oppression—that the subordinate one who is “different” enjoys the inferior position.

The gay male movement, for example, is invested in distinguishing between gay s/m pornography and heterosexual pornography. Gay men can allow themselves the luxury of not seeing the consequences. We, as women and as feminists, must scrutinize our actions and see what they imply, and upon what they are based.

As women, we have been trained to follow. We must look at the s/m phenomenon and educate ourselves, at the same time being aware of intricate manipulations from outside and within.

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