|Photo: Richard Chapman, Chicago Sun-Times|
This is one of my favorite columns, and I'm reprinting it today simply because I happened upon the photograph, and thought it might amuse you. I was savvy enough not to have had a picture taken of my own session with Mistress Lilith—didn't want THAT floating around the Internet—but this one, featuring one of her customers. He showed up because he was commanded to, and never spoke. The difficulty of finding customers who would go on the record about their experiences was part of the reason I decided to go through the process myself. I'd like to say it caused a commotion when it was printed, but it really didn't. I think I got three emails.
"How should I address you?"
"You may call me 'Mistress.' "
"Thank you, mistress. What would you have me do?"
"Take off all your clothes and put them in the basket."
Less than two blocks from the Thompson Center, in a small, older building in the North Loop, is a plain glass door facing the L tracks. Press No. 3 on the buzzer, climb a long staircase, and you will find yourself in the dimly lighted confines of the Continuum Dungeon, where Chicagoans of a certain stripe go to act out their fantasies. The main room is large, with a black floor and light gray walls festooned with chains and manacles. There is a floor-to-ceiling case displaying whips, riding crops, paddles and flails; a padded table with restraints at the four corners; an oak coffin; stocks, and various ropes, pulleys and leather devices.
"Kneel in front of me, slave. You may show your devotion by kissing my shoes."
"Thank you, mistress."
Within the dungeon, Lilith, 21, sits upon a wooden throne and issues commands. She is wearing a $400 black leather corset with steel stays, purchased for her by an admirer, a brief miniskirt, mesh stockings that stop at mid-thigh, and a dramatic pair of 8-inch stiletto platform shoes. She keeps her gaze politely in the middle distance. Her feet are faintly perfumed. Lilith is a student at Oakton Community College, where she is studying psychology.
"Now kiss each buckle."
"Thank you, mistress."
Domination is a variety of fetish -- a fetish being where people are sexually attracted to physical objects, such as shoes and leather, ropes and whips, or to scenarios -- the nurse, the teacher, the dominatrix. The Continuum has a small, faux clinic for those attracted to medical procedures, complete with a stainless steel tray of surgical instruments, and a special room for cross-dressers.
None of this is my cup of tea, personally. But the opportunity presented itself -- over Thanksgiving, ironically enough. I was standing in our kitchen, helping prepare the holiday meal, and my sister-in-law mentioned that an employee of hers is a professional dominatrix.
"Now that's an interesting profession," I replied, explaining that I once tried to find a dominatrix to interview, and phoned up a few. But none of them wanted to be in the newspaper.
"I'm sure she will," said my sister-in-law.
She was right.
"Come over here. Stand on this platform."
Lilith is waiting beside a large St. Andrew's cross, made of sturdy wooden beams, with hand restraints chained to eye bolts. She buckles me in place. There is a mirror, to the right, and I catch my reflection and smile -- strange job, this. She gives me a preliminary slap on the butt, and I flinch involuntarily. "Twitchy," she says, with a trace of bemusement in her voice, reaching for a paddle with leather on one side and fur on the other.
There are between 50 and 100 dominatrices in Chicago -- it isn't as if they have a union that keeps track. They are not prostitutes, generally, though as with so much on the periphery of human behavior, definitions tend to blur. Think of the profession as a spectrum, with one extreme being women who consider themselves priestesses, to whom being a "domme" is part of a complex lifestyle of tattoos, music and philosophy, blending into those whose focus is on the subculture's obvious theatrical aspects, and ending up with hookers with deep closets.
Lilith, her hips tattooed with snakes, considers herself on the priestess end of the scale. She is proud of the college paper she wrote, passionately defending domination as an appropriate profession for feminists, and views her work with a considerable professional pride, a work ethic I come to appreciate.
"People are always telling me, it must be a great job -- you get to take out your aggression on clients," she says, later. "But if you have that mentality, you're not going to be a pro domme. You're exploring a fantasy. You're not actually angry. If you're blinded by rage, you could seriously hurt someone. In order to be safe, you have to know what you're doing."
We began by sitting together on a Victorian sofa and talking about what I wanted -- since all of this was new, I ask for a Whitman sampler of the sort of things that people typically request. My only stipulations were that I don't want to be suffocated, don't want to be permanently injured, nor was I interested in her ridiculing me.
"I work at a newspaper," I told her. "I get enough of that already."
We established a safe word -- "yellow" if I'm feeling at my physical limit, "red" if I want to stop. There were no waivers or paperwork to sign, which is more than I can say about the paper.
"You requisitioned a $200 advance," a nervous secretary had said the day before, coming into my office. "You need to sign for that."
"Right," I said, signing my name. "I'm being beaten by a dominatrix."
"So I heard," she said. "What GSL code should I put for that?"
"I don't know," I said. "7410 -- research?"
"Lie on the table, on your back, with your head over here."
"Scoot forward a bit -- that's it."
"May I ask you a question, mistress?"
"What is that device?"
"It's a purple wand -- an expensive Tesla coil."
She arranges the electrical device, tucking a long metal probe into her decolletage, so that the blue sparks come from her fingertips -- the shocks are unpleasant but endurable. The dripped wax is also uncomfortable yet tolerable -- she holds the candle high, so that by the time it reaches my arms, it's not that hot. She is very poised and methodical, with one hand on her corsetted hip, occasionally giving an order, occasionally saying "Hmmmm," almost to herself, as if trying to figure out a puzzle.
Lilith became interested in domination when she was a student at Evanston Township High School. "She's just following in the family tradition," said her mother, 47, who decided to have children -- Lilith and her sister -- without troubling herself with a husband. "Her grandmother is an out lesbian. My grandfather -- her great-grandfather -- fought in the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. We're a family of revolutionaries."
Lilith's mother was born in Chicago but settled in Israel, where Lilith was born. Her mother -- who works as a quality auditor and so doesn't want her name used -- moved back to Chicago when Lilith was 7. As a girl, Lilith was, by her mother's account, of ordinary sensibilities. "She was very into Barbies," her mother said, speculating that her daughter was first attracted to the clothing of domination. "I think it was the wardrobe," she said. "She was making her own corsets in high school. She's always been kind of out there."
I asked Lilith's mother if she worried about her daughter being immersed in this lifestyle.
"I personally think it has been very empowering for her," she said. "She isn't normally a dominant human being. When she's not in the role, she's the opposite."
Lilith's mother is proud that her daughter has found this cause.
"She wants it to be more accepted," she said. "It's the next thing that society needs to get over, like racism was, once upon a time. It's a stigma, at the moment, but it's just as normal as anything else."
"Crawl across the floor to me."
"Get into the coffin . . ."
"Submissives get into an altered state of consciousness" said Lilith, later, and that sounds about right. It did not feel upsetting, nor humiliating, just a calm interplay of instruction and compliance.
I'm sure some readers might find it odd that I actually underwent this, as opposed to watching someone else do it, but I didn't see the harm, and it seemed the most effective way to absorb the experience. Of course I asked my wife ahead of time if she minded and, after a conversation that can be imagined, she set aside her objections.
Lilith's boyfriend of 18 months or so also looks askance at her profession. "He hates it," she said. "But he's not going to stop me from doing it."
For me it might be a lark — an interesting way to get out of the office on a Wednesday afternoon. But what about people who go to these places sincerely? Who are they? Lilith says that many of her clients are businessmen. "They have so much control in their professional lives," she said. "Here, they don't have control."
She won't go into specifics — confidentiality is very big in domination. But she said I would be surprised by her list of customers. ("The mayor?" I asked, hopefully. But she demurred).
"The type of people who come to sessions are the last people you expect to show up," she said. "The kinkiest people I know are accountants."
Sigmund Freud traces this phenomenon to early Oedipal urges, of course. In a 1919 essay, he writes about boys who, feeling guilty about their sexual impulses toward their mothers, welcome punishment as their just due and, later, grow to associate the pain of discipline with the pleasure they believe they are being punished for. It makes as much sense as anything else, and there probably is not one single reason anyway.
"It differs for every person who's doing it," says Dr. Domeena Renshaw, a psychiatrist at Loyola University who specializes in sexual abnormality. "It isn't a cookie cutter or a rubber stamp. Instead it depends on many things — early experiences, curiosity, what they're reading, and of course stuff on the Internet titillates and teases them and they explore the exotic of erotica."
This once-remote world is certainly now a few keystrokes away from anybody. The Continuum has its own Web site — continuumchicago.com — as does Lilith, who lists her profession as "Dominatrix" on her MySpace page. It would take you two seconds to find it on Google.
"Now lie on the table, face down this time."
The coffin was actually restful. She secured it with a chain that clanked ominously, but there was a crack that let in light and air, and I'm not claustrophobic.
Toward the end of the session, there was a moment—bound to a studded spanking bench, hand and foot, with elaborate knots which Lilith tied with extreme care—that I had a surprising realization: I was bored, somewhat, even buck naked, being straddled by a pretty woman hitting me with a riding crop.
In my view, an hour with a dominatrix could be most readily compared to attending a Bears game at Soldier Field in winter — novel, yes, but also uncomfortable, expensive and ultimately more thrilling to anticipate than to experience. In both cases, I was glad I went, once, but it was obviously something that other people enjoy a whole lot more than I do, and I doubt I'd go back, particularly if I had to foot the bill myself.
Part of that might have been my fault — I told her I didn't want to be hurt too much, and she never did anything particularly extreme, never got out the major league whips.
"I was tempted to," she said, later. "But I thought, 'No, I should make sure he enjoys himself.' "
Perhaps for that reason, the experience did not seem disgusting or perverse. The place was very clean. They seem thorough about cleaning and disinfecting between sessions. Philosophically, I could see being offended, if you view it as mock torture — this is not a real dungeon, these are not real whips, and to pretend they are could be seen as an affront to those actually subjected to these things, to real prisoners actually being abused against their will.
But that's a stretch — we don't condemn actors performing Shakespeare because they don't really die. When I think of people who seek this out, for their pleasure, I do not feel revulsion so much as sympathy. If one's idea of a good time necessitates hiring someone like Lilith for $200 an hour and repairing to a place such as this, it would naturally tend to limit one's ability to derive satisfaction out of their lives.
"Our hour is almost up -- was there anything you particularly liked?"
"Liked? The paddle with the fur wasn't bad."
Boredom might not be the standard response however -- at the very end, she asked if I needed a few minutes alone with myself and a few paper towels.
"Umm, actually no," I said, feeling quite deflated. "No offense intended, but it was not what I would call an erotic experience."
Nor is being a dominatrix, though it is not without its pleasures.
"The job itself is not erotic," she said. "But I enjoy it. The point is to have fun. To relax, and enjoy yourself. When you think about it, why would anyone want to come in and be tortured, to have something truly painful done to them? There has to be some appeal. What you normally think of as pain can turn into pleasure, and that is the appeal."
—Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 23, 2007