Source: University of Chicago Press

Source: University of Chicago Press

While recently working on a project that examines the representation of BDSM in popular culture, I ran across Danielle J. Lindemann’s new book Dominatrix: Gender, Eroticism, and Control in the Dungeon.  Studies of erotic labor are not uncommon in sociological literature.  The increase in published research on professional erotic dominance illustrates how scholars of gender have turned to dominatrix/client relationships to understand, contest, and complicate erotic hierarchies.  Lindemann expands beyond previous scholarship by suggesting that studies of professional dominatrices are noteworthy not because they represent the exotic but because they represent the mundane.  In Dominatrix: Gender, Eroticism, and Control in the Dungeon, Lindemann presents a systematic study of professional dominatrices based on in-depth interviews with sixty-six professional dominatrices in New York and San Francisco.  Through her interviews, Lindemann illustrates how one can use the world of professional domination to illuminate the dynamics that define but are also often invisible within the larger social world.

Contrary to rhetoric within the BDSM community, Lindemann does not believe the submissive “controls” the D/S exchange.  Rather, she suggests the entire interaction is a continuous struggle for control between the dominatrix and client.  Independent dominatrices can take control by rejecting clients, refusing to engage in certain activities, and through the ultimate setup and structure of the scene. Clients can choose to find an alternative dominatrix, reject specific activities, or script their scenes.  Therefore, both the client and dominatrix tend to “push back” against the other. Lindemann argues that this competition for power is not unique to the D/S world.  She suggests that it is one of the core tensions embedded within any service industry.  To further her point, she highlights similar dynamics among fashion designers, chefs, and interior designers.

The dominatrix is often able to assert power by framing herself as a professional, with expert skills and cultural capital.  Lindemann’s respondents describe the larger dungeons as a training ground where one learns the techniques and knowledge necessary to become an authentic independent dominatrix.  She suggests this emphasis on training and education creates a skill set and professionalism that is unique among other forms of erotic labor but common among less exotic professionals.

In addition to emphasizing skill and training many dominatrices see their work as an art form. One of the creative challenges of the dominatrix is to maintain the fantasy.  Lindemann’s participants provide exhaustive accounts of the lengths to which they have gone to create a temporary alternative reality for their clients.  Lindemann compares this process to work of an anesthesiologist; part of the dominatrix’s job is to move a client into a fantasy world and then seamlessly transition him or her back to the real world.

Most of the dominatrices in Lindemann’s study stated that the ability to transition a client from the mundane to an alternative world and back also requires a kind of psychological expertise.  Further, most of Lindemann’s participants believed their work was therapeutic as they not only felt it served as a mechanism for allowing sexual expression, atonement, and dealing with prior trauma but also provided clients with both physical contact and conversation.  Lindemann suggests this intimate and emotional labor embedded within the work of a professional dominatrix is comparable to a sympathetic bartender as well as an ethnographer who is often thanked for allowing an informant to “just talk.”

Lindemann concludes by examining the role of gender among professional dominatrices.  Obviously, when a female dominatrix takes control in a scene with a male client, she inverts symbolic and traditional gender/power hierarchies that represent the greater social world.  Paradoxically, these same women often must conform to traditional gender expectations through conventional standards of physical beauty, emotional labor, and returning to medieval etiquettes that highlights clear gender divisions.  Therefore, Lindemann argues that the professional dominatrix, much like any modern Western woman, must strategize a comprising position within the gender/power system that allows her access to power without moving too far beyond the constraints of traditional gender norms.

But how much power does the professional dominatrix really have if she is must create her alternative world within the confines of patriarchal universe?  Is the dominatrix really free to dominate if there are significant costs for stepping too far outside of her gendered box?  Lindemann implies the “scene” ends in a draw.  However, it is difficult to forget that the client always carries an ace; the client is the one who can use the safe word.

Nonetheless, Lindemann’s book provides the reader with a new perspective on professional erotic dominance.  Her participants provide rich and colorful narratives about the complexities faces by professional dominatrices.  These complexities resonate with the everyday challenges of men and women living in a gendered society.  Thus, Lindemann provides the reader with a magnified example of they ways in which power exchange, expertise, authenticity, play, therapeutic overtones, and the complexities of gender operate within the greater social world.

 

Further Reading:

Newmahr, Staci. 2011. Playing on the Edge Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.

Lindemann, Danielle J. 2012. Dominatrix: Gender, Eroticism, and Control in the Dungeon.