Taut and Bound

Wallace Prize Third Place Nonfiction
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Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

A few weeks ago, Lady Elizabeth had her pain slave over for coffee and a “medical scene.” He had brought his camera with him, and, lying supine on the operating table, he managed to snap a few pictures of her as she performed urethral insertions on him with a long, silver needle. “He gets points for having steady hands,” she told me. No nurse get-up was donned that day, and she had foregone her standard head-to-toe latex: the dominatrix who appeared in the photographs wore jeans, a tank top, and something like a snarl twisted across her doll-like features. “Wow, I’m a really nice person when I’m not hurting you,- but gosh” she said, flipping through the photos later. Ever attentive, her slave was quick to reply. “Well, you’re a really nice person while you’re hurting me, too! It’s okay!”

When I ask her to describe the woman in the image, the question extends between us like a tightrope -— smooth, slippery, and a little slack. “Diabolical,” “scary,” and “perverted” are all words that skim past as we fumble. As Elizabeth settles on “real,” there is something of the teetering quality of a funambulist in the way she plucks the word from the ether. The term is unsatisfying to both of us. I am not yet sure what the “reality” of the professional dominatrix looks like to her — I cannot tell you exactly what she saw in the image — but this sense of verbal instability, she tells me, is part of her job description. As a professional dominatrix, Lady Elizabeth lives in constant suspension between planes of communicable wants and the dark, moving shapes of the physical realm. Her purpose: to bind together the known and the unspeakable, coagulating desire into its most powerful corporeal embodiment.

 *

If the dominatrix’s profession is based in part in physicalizing the abstract through language, Lady Elizabeth is particularly well-equipped for the challenge. In addition to her job as a dominatrix, she holds a PhD from an Ivy League university and has written a dissertation on gender, language and meta-communication in S&M communities. As one immersed in both the study and practice of her field, Lady Elizabeth’s position as a BDSM practitioner is twofold—she is immersed in the reflexive academic project of talking about language, and, as a practicing domme, traffics in modes of communication that can only be experienced through nonverbal means.

It is fitting, in this sense, that I first encounter Lady Elizabeth through her website, where the seduction of image tugs against her purported affinity to word. Flipping through her photo gallery, readers need not be able to articulate their fantasy so much as point to the visual aid that renders it in dazzling Technicolor: Lady Elizabeth in a hula skirt, coconuts in hand; Lady Elizabeth in white riding pants and a riding crop; Lady Elizabeth in a cowboy hat and jeans, brandishing a bullwhip. Lady Elizabeth in a floor-length black latex tube dress, red hair swept over one shoulder, testing a plaited leather cane in her tightly clenched fist.

I discover the site on a Monday. By Tuesday, I’m an addict. Lady Elizabeth’s webpage is only one of many within a labyrinthine online kink community, home to The Pervocracy, Fetlife (Facebook for fetishists!), and CollarMe, a dating site for locating “like-minded kinksters in your area.” These woods are dark and deep — like many other pro-dommes, Lady Elizabeth has a Jessica Rabbit physique, the vinegared gaze of a video-game villain, and a lengthy list of talents including remote-control TENS unit capabilities and a specialty in nanny/teacher play. However, it has not escaped me that her namesake, Lady Elizabeth Foster, duchess of Cavendish, was a novelist from the early 1800s who was famous for her ménage a trois with the Duke of Devonshire and his wife, Georgiana Cavendish. Lady Elizabeth Foster is famous for her dalliances in French intellectual circles, her riotous parties, and her slew of illegitimate children. In her letters to Georgiana, Lady Foster refers to the Duke by their pet name for him, “canis.” We need not have been there to hear the two of them whisper it in his ear — this kink (their kink) takes place on the page.

 *

A “safe word” is a previously agreed -upon code word which, when spoken, halts uncomfortable physical action during a bondage scene. To me, the phrase seems somewhat redundant. As a student of literature, I have always thought of words as “safe,” and the project of learning to wield and manipulate them as means of self-armament. Confronted with the sharp-edged patent leather ambiguities of the domme world, however, I find myself on unsteady ground. With its plethora of double (sometimes triple) entendres and unending scroll-down menus for preferred role options (on Fetlife, you can choose among “ageplayer,” “babygirl,” “bottom,” and “top,” along with 39 other self-identifications), this language is not English as I have encountered it in my academic life or elsewhere. I am not only BDSM illiterate, but unversed in the principles of articulating desire through these words — be they safe, dangerous, or otherwise.

The voyeuristic pleasures of my one-way mirror vantage into domme world soon become impossible to sustain. On Fetlife, users who only look at others’ accounts but do not engage with them are quickly dubbed creeps; a few weeks into my idle membership,  the site’s webmasters send me an email which includes the phrase, ‘FetLife is not a meat market.’ With this, my road out of the virtual realm and into Lady Elizabeth’s dungeon is swift, though paved with stuttering. When I first call her, Lady E’s voice has all the lilts and cadences of a slightly huskier-toned (albeit phone-sex-proficient) Terry Gross, and, though I am the one doing the interviewing, I can’t shake the tics of a first-time guest on “Fresh Air”. Mumbling. Silence. The sense of being stuck in a role play scenario that’s struggling to get off the ground. On the day of our meeting, typos riddle my confirmation texts, to her glib reply: “great, will be here playing secretary (as in emails, not the hot film)”.

Three minutes early despite my best-laid plans, I show up at Lady Elizabeth’s doorstep shifty, nervous, and bearing pumpkin bread. On her website, she links future submissives to an Amazon wish list of potential offerings including breathplay hoods, a white leather muzzle, and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell — though I’m no client, the idea of arriving empty-handed seems somehow disrespectful. Despite my good intentions, the gesture reads strangely. Lady Elizabeth gingerly lifts the foil covering my paltry offering; we pause for a second as she appraises me, eyebrows arched. Cringing slightly, I follow her inside.

Lady Elizabeth requires three levels of screening before her clients can enter her dungeon. This amount of hoops is atypical for most other dommes, many of whom publish their phone number on their site for easy reachability. Lady Elizabeth’s reason for this is simple.  “Communication is my kink,” she shrugs. The required initial email, she tells me, “speaks volumes.” When entering into a contract where the work of conversation is key to performing a good scene, she needs to know if the client speaks her language. “Ninety percent of people who email me, I say no thank you. Either they seem rude or nuts or have not given enough of a crap to give me helpful information.” Satisfactory email correspondents receive a phone call; if their spoken words resonate with their written ones, the call usually ends with Lady E telling them her home address.

Stage three takes place in the office. Before entering into a contract where one is the dominant and the other the  submissive, clients must first negotiate their needs on equal footing and establish limitations for physical play within a designated safe space. “They’re generally terrified,” she tells me, glancing, not unkindly, at the quivering tea mug in my hand. “I’m often terrified because I don’t know who the hell they are either. Some strange man’s in my house, so let’s talk about safety, limits, logistics, interests– all the things that are important for me to feel comfortable playing with him, but also for him to feel comfortable playing with me.”

The room, with its framed diplomas on the back wall and black, mesh-covered office chairs on either side of the desk, serves as an outpost — Lady Elizabeth later refers to it as a “ritual space” — that separates the stage of spoken dialogue necessary for a scene, from the subsequent renunciation of explicit verbal communication that takes place underground. A slave’s collar can only be clasped on downstairs; with the click of a buckle, words become secondary to sense experience.

*

After our first meeting, I read one of Lady Elizabeth’s papers for the American Anthropological Association — writing on a community of S&M practitioners, she quotes one of them as saying that “you have to learn or leave” in order to build safe play through strong communication. This is what Elizabeth refers to in her papers as “risk footing” (academics delight in making up their own terms for things, and Lady E is no exception); partners have to be willing to undergo processes of verbal negotiation in order to delineate limits in ongoing consensual edge-play. At these stages, “meta-communication” is not so different from communication as many of us vanilla folk know it. They begin in broad strokes with questions like “Is this okay? Is this not okay?”

Then, partners may begin to test each other’s resistance to different sensations. In her field notes, Elizabeth describes one subject slowly pouring a thin trail of hot wax from a candle onto his partner’s back. (“Her hair almost catches on fire, but neither of them notice.”) Through this correspondence, both spoken and physical, partners develop compatibility based on shared or similar levels of perceived danger. Later in the paper, interviewees compare the practice to extreme sports. Performing a scene is like parachuting, they explain, or scaling an icy rock face. Around this time, I have a dream about a sky full of black hot air balloons toting tiny, spiky occupants.

 *

“Learn or leave” becomes something of a mantra for me over the next few weeks. As I work to develop baseline domme literacy, further Internet misadventures lead me to different definitions —often conflicting, sometimes even contradictory — for similar fetishes. The work of finding language to encompass the idiosyncrasies of a broad community of members is a constant process of revision and re-articulation. The more I learn, the more I find that the need to impose structural parameters on the practice is necessarily underpinned by the urge to explode them.

Elizabeth identifies a few interrelated spheres within what she calls the bondage community’s “acronym soup.” The BDSM umbrella includes B&D for bondage and discipline, D&S for domination and submission, and S&M for sadism and masochism. In order to best articulate one’s desire, she tells me, the first step often involves being able to locate oneself within this continuum. Practitioners often collect and recombine different attributes from these three main areas of discipline, splintering off into sub-groups as dominants who are also masochists, part-time submissives, or sometimes pure-and-simple fetishists who fit into none of the categories listed.

“On some level,” Elizabeth explains. “people who practice D&S end up having much healthier conversation than people in vanilla relationships because they’re so skilled at constantly talking about what they want, what their limits are, and what those things are for their partners.” Constancy, I am beginning to realize, is one of the key tenets of the practice of extreme communication. Talking to each other early and often about their relationships, fetishists tug on the weaknesses of existing frameworks in order to bend language into a form sharper and more exact than the way they found it.

Elizabeth tells me of a travel companion she had at a domme conference in the Dominican Republic, a latex fetishist. “That was his kink, period.” she tells me. “He has fabulous taste in clothing, he’s quite charming, but he’s not into any of the dom/slave stuff. And it made for some interesting conversations between the two of us about, well, what would you be doing that would be fun for you since this is the stuff that we’re doing that’s fun for us. His fun was getting into these amazing beautiful outfits in the evening and going out to dinner. We had great dinner conversations, we looked amazing, and it was a good time. That’s what pushed his buttons.” I notice that in her choice of example, conversation is both the means and the end of the search for erotic stimulus, all of it riddled with kink.

Later, I ask Lady Elizabeth to tell me what she wore to the dinner. She describes a shimmering, emerald green dress with a deep scoop back and silver buckles on the straps. As she reconstructs the image, I detect a certain amount of pleasure in the act of description itself. Lifting her hands up to mime the drop of the neckline — for years, Lady Elizabeth trained to become a ballerina, and you have to know this in order to see what I saw — she holds the image aloft, her fingers parted and arced upward slightly as if to accommodate its pulse. Together, we marvel for a moment.

 *

Once, about six years ago, Lady Elizabeth encountered a client she could not communicate with. After a man had requested medical scenes over the phone, Elizabeth prepared herself for the usual: a humiliating mock-exam, urethral insertions, maybe even some play piercing. She dressed accordingly in a slotted bondage mask and polished her longest pair of forceps. The client showed up with expectations of a sexy nurse outfit and a “happy ending.” “I realized: Woah, we’re talking the same words and we’re using totally different language. I said, ‘You know, I’m sorry to have wasted either of our time, but here’s what I think is an incompatibility. This is what I think your language means and this is what my language means.’ He’d given me a tribute in an envelope, he’d set it on the desk or whatever – I just slid it back to him, I said, ‘Keep this. Sorry you’ve driven all the way here. Let me give you some websites that will have someone more appropriate for what you’re looking for, and good luck with your search.’” She shook his hand, and they parted on good terms.

I notice that even as she tells me the story, her word — “tribute” —smoothes over her discomfort with the notion of a man having shown up with an envelope of cash and an escort service in mind. Still, I am surprised to learn that this is the only time in 13 years that Lady Elizabeth has turned away someone who made it through her door. It is not possible to be a good submissive without a basic willingness to discuss and revise one’s own needs and wants. Correspondingly, a good dominatrix must be attuned to the mechanics of such revisions, influencing the submissive’s play preferences as she asserts and adjusts her own.

The process of becoming a full-time slave — as opposed to a part-time professional client — is a competitive opportunity, and Lady Elizabeth tells me she is lucky to be in a position in her career in which she can be picky. “I get dozens of people wanting to be owned, lifestyle submissives, and I have to say, ‘Sorry, no offense but so does everybody else.’” For this reason, compatibility at the level of language is essential. “Impress me! Make me laugh!” she says. Her submissives all have different strengths, but they are all good communicators, many of them even academic professionals, she tells me. She finds herself gravitating toward people who express themselves similarly to her.

With Elizabeth as guide, a sub’s development often operates as a basic re-articulation of basic wants into more long-term projects. Like a proud teacher listing star students, Elizabeth ticks off her favorite submissives, gridding them all within narratives of “improvement” and “growth,” and citing their willingness to engage in productive discussions. A man who came to her with a preference for golden showers (Elizabeth hates them) turned out, on the heels of a hunch of hers, to be a “tremendous masochist,” and is now her primary pain slave. Another client, the executive of a major corporation, enjoys cross-dressing. “His big kink is he needs to be told what to do. He’s not into pain. He responds really badly to pain. It’s unfortunate, but it’s something I have to work with. I can’t turn him into something he’s not. I can shape what he is, which has been to turn him into a lovely, secretary-type character.”

 *

Lady Elizabeth’s housecat is not allowed in the dungeon. When we descend the long staircase to the space underground, she takes care to close the door carefully behind her. This space is sacred, she says, and setting restrictions between her home routines and what goes on down here is key. “I need spatial boundaries,” she tells me. “They call it ‘domme disease’ when dommes can’t get out of the dungeon, think everybody is their slave. Sometimes I need people in my life to tell me when I’m being a brat — you can get a little crazy if you let the domme thing get to your head, if you don’t know how to switch it on and off.”

Down here, it’s true that she even looks a little different. The walls are painted shades of sea foam and the blue-green color illuminates her skin, bringing her red hair into sharp focus. On the back wall, a row of whips, clamps, spanking paddles, canes, harnesses, and hoods frame a light-blue vintage dentist’s chair. I ask her about a spindly black bondage bench placed in front of it and she immediately straps herself in, cuffing her wrists and opening her legs along two widely spaced boards. “I love this position,” she says. “It makes you so vulnerable.” Turning to the wall, I fidget with a pair of chain-mail bondage gloves as Lady Elizabeth smiles and bends over to examine a chip in her whipping post — the only damage, she notes incredulously, from a fetish party she hosted here last week.

Despite the clear spatial divides within in her home, these bounds blur in the outside world. Elizabeth often takes her lifestyle submissives out to dinner. Sometimes, she says, they come over just to catch up and have tea. Elizabeth tells me about a longtime friend and caning enthusiast who, recently diagnosed with a terminal illness, was not in a place for his spanking regimen. When she found herself in his home state for a few hours on a layover, she called him. “I just really want to see you, while I’m here,” she whispered on the phone en route from the airport to her room at the Holiday Inn. By the time she got there, he had driven over straight from a doctor’s appointment, arriving at the hotel room in a brace with an oxygen regulator. They sat and talked for a while.

*

As a practicing dominatrix of 13 years, Elizabeth tells me that she’s not sure how to imagine a life without this. “I could get a day job but I’d still be kinky, and if I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d still see my core group of regulars because I love them.” Now 37, she is considering retiring soon and going back to school for a year to get accredited as a sex therapist. In this economy, the job of a dominatrix isn’t getting any easier —paying someone to tie you up is most definitely discretionary income, and dungeon upkeep isn’t cheap. Like so many low-paying, low-security jobs, people who do this do it because they can’t imagine doing anything else. Grad school in English — she gestures toward me — is no different in this sense.

When I ask her what would distinguish being a sex therapist from being a dominatrix, she answers in two words: “High heels.” The physical demands of her profession have recently started to become more of a strain, requiring a level of exertion not sustainable in the long-term. “Two hours of caning someone is like two hours of tennis,” she explains. Lady Elizabeth tells me that, for her, losing the physical aspect of her work would not diminish the pleasure she receives from the conversation that comes with it. Her purpose, she says, will always be to help others “own their fantasies.” “You can’t tell your partner what you like and want until you know it yourself,” she says. “There are people who think you can’t meet the nice girl who you can take to your parents, and also ask her to treat you like a puppy. My hope is that I can help people define those partnerships.” The search for sharper vocabulary would continue, then, both in and out of the dungeon. After all, extreme communication is an all-terrain, all-weather sport.

 *

Lately, Lady Elizabeth has taken up skiing. There are days at a time when I can’t reach her anymore. Our calls have been getting cut off and I think it is because she is deep in the woods somewhere. Last week, she canceled all her appointments and found herself at the slopes, speeding down the mountain. It’s an “escape” she tells me. Skiing doesn’t hurt her back like whipping. As long as her health cooperates, she hopes to keep doing it as much as she can. During our last phone call, she has just gotten back from another trip and seems surprised that I am still working on this piece. “I hope this is helpful?” she keeps saying as my questions keep coming. The two of us may be bound to words, but the interstices between language remain apparent to us both, especially when approaching scenes and sensations that will always remain just out of the realm of articulation.

This is how I like to imagine Lady Elizabeth: On the slopes, she is unbound. Her boots are flat, and her parka keeps her warm. Skiing gets her from one point to another, but at a breakneck speed the landscape is animated into vivid, constantly accelerated color that blurs direction. The work of communicating her wants to clients, the work of training them to communicate with her effectively is, in this way, akin to a constant state of free-fall. Listening, watching, probing, Lady Elizabeth waits, poised at the top of vertiginous peaks. She peers into the depths of many-fingered unknowns and propels herself directly into them. This is the work of a professional dominatrix: to pin unfathomable sensations to this earth in words we understand, shifting and angling into the next sloping inscrutability.

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