Mother Whore: I Claim Both

My partner kneels by my bedside, his head to the floor with his hands stretched out in a yogic “Child’s Pose.” I enter the room and stand at the crown of his head. “Show me your gratitude.” He moves his lips to my leather boots and presses a kiss three times to each.

I pull a soft leather hood over his face and Robert disappears into a being that is my object. His body is the one I lie next to every night, but his face is gone, no longer the man who chides me over the grocery budget nor the jolly father who throws his daughters over his shoulders. His face is a dark spot against the white bedroom walls, a Rorschach ink spill in which I perceive my erotic fantasy.

I instruct the slave to stand at the far end of the sturdy, steel canopy bed. Unraveling a loop of hemp rope, I quickly weave a web that winds around wrists, ankles, torso, and thighs, securing the body to the metal frame. My fingers pause by his chest, squeezing his nipples–– those sensitive triggers that activate his groin, which I also lasso tightly with a thin rope and tie directly to the bed frame. Any struggle will be surely and sorely felt. Satisfied, I step back to admire the collage of rope and muscles, steel and skin.

From the many years of experience I’ve had as a professional and lifestyle dominatrix, I’ve learned that the body can be taken to greater lengths of pain, if the entrance is first through pleasure. For many people, the line between pleasure and pain is not clear—a deep tissue massage, a spicy Indian meal, the 17th mile of a marathon. For sadomasochists, that threshold is our limbo stick. We want to cross it again and again, until our bodies can take no more.

I peruse a collection of instruments laid on the windowsill: a slim bamboo cane; a riding crop; a thick deer skin flogger; and a long single tail whip, the kind loaded with the iconic cracking sound. I select the flogger and swing it in a fluid motion that allows the soft tails to brush against skin. Slowly, I apply greater force and mass so that when the flogger connects, the impact is firm, but not unpleasant, like the thump of a shiatsu massage. I listen to my slave’s breathing and I, too, breathe loudly, encouraging our breath to fall in unison. I watch his hands clench and open, steadying his resolve to take what I want to give. If he were to say “Mercy,” our safe-word, I would relax the force of the whip. If he were to say it several times, I would stop the scene altogether, untie him quickly, and let the heat of our play calm to room temperature. But he says no words; his groans are for more. So I build the force to a degree that the leather pounds muscle, stings the skin, and calls the blood up to surface, a dark bruise pooling under his sun-freckled skin. At this point, I draw out the single tail, an elegant and exacting instrument that will open the body to my desire. I am a sadist; I adore the tear of the skin, the pain that so effectively and visually trembles the flesh. I touch my fingertips gently to the welts and release a sigh. Later, when I intend to satisfy my sexual needs, I will focus on the moment of breaking, gripping that torn skin as the slave’s body presses over mine. But this time, a baby starts to cry, a meowing muffled from behind two sets of closed doors and a hallway, a sound so faint and yet its ghostly cry hooks into my gut and swells my chest. It’s time to breastfeed.

The career I chose as a professional dominant in Bondage, Discipline, and SadoMasochism (shortened to BDSM) was an extension of my personal curiosities in the human psyche and proclivity for the taboo. Plus, I am a natural sadomasochist. My sexual awakening had emerged from a dysfunctional, violent, and yet culturally and emotionally rich childhood. I grew up with a father who was a brilliant Chemical Physicist with a sentimental attachment to the poetry of William Blake. His mental illness, probably of the bipolar or schizophrenic sort, went undiagnosed and untreated, thus precipitating to verbal and physical abuse of my mother. My father was constantly losing his job due to emotional outbursts and paranoid delusion, but my mother, a respected genetic engineer in her own right, managed to provide a home of music lessons, delicious Chinese food, a menagerie of pets, and nightly readings from the fairytales of Hans Christian Anderson, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Watership Down and other beloved books. The cycle of eruptive abuse and victimhood, weeping and guilt, forgiveness and baiting ruled our world, but from the books we read, I was provided a faith that there is a safe place called home as surely as there is magic.

I was thirteen when my parents finally divorced. My older brother, Fong, and I had armed our selves with the defense mechanisms that children must have in order to survive madness. Fong fortified himself with a sense of detachment and the useful power of forgetting. Taking on the more socially unacceptable faculty of magical thinking and lust for pain, I raged through my teens and early twenties with messy, brutal sex: slapping, biting, and choking my partner while Perry Farrell wailed affirmation in the background, “Sex is Violence!” My private journal detailed relationships that resembled the chapters of a Mary Gaitskill anthology—a torrent of desire, danger, and ambiguity; I needed to identify, to declare, and to assume responsibility.

I remember buying my first crop and cat-mask at The Leather Man. My high school girlfriend and I had spent a sweltering summer day reveling in the glory of the Gay Pride March. With her hair dyed purple and mine, a shaved blue, we felt like the lollipop kids dancing alongside the grand trannies of Oz. We began skipping hand-in-hand down Christopher Street, rainbow flags swirling around us, and there it was—my first Leather Daddy—a buff, hugely packed mannequin dressed in leather chaps and officer’s cap—demanding that I get on my knees and crawl into the store to find my calling. I pulled Dee into the store with me. Suddenly all my pride drained and I was trembling in a shop that smelled of sex—primal and ecstatic. Black leather gear and heavy steel instruments hung in rows. Toned, beautiful men turned their eyes on us with curiosity, then turned away, some sneering, some indifferent. But one, sweet leather-fag reached out his Glenda-esque hand and asked me if I needed help (“Sir, yes please, sir”). And that’s how I found home.

That evening, after we returned to New Jersey from the long day of stomping around the Village and trying to cop weed in Washington Square, I fastened on my mask, pulled out my crop, and proceeded to strike Dee’s cute, teenage ass. She yelped and threw her boot at my head. I lunged at her and grabbed her throat before forcing my lips on hers. I didn’t know about negotiations or safe words then.

Books became, again, my refuge and consult of safety and definition. I picked up books like Jay Wiseman’s BDSM 101 and The Correct Sadist. I began to participate in formal BDSM as taught by the Leather Community, adopting its code of Safe, Sane, and Consensual BDSM practice, now spoken of as Risk Aware Consensual Kink, (since safe and sane are subjective). As an undergraduate of Barnard College, I was out to my friends and even some teachers. I had focused my English literature major on the erotic taboos of the body. Upon completing my senior thesis on BDSM, I graduated and sought hands-on apprenticeship from the Masters and Madams of the craft and entered the career of professional domination.

On the subject of nature vs nurture, I take both sides. I don’t believe that all participants in BDSM come from abusive homes, but I know that for those of us who have had violence planted in our heart space from a young age, BDSM can be the transformative power that shifts us from abuse to reclamation, from victimhood to empowerment. Consent, trust, and mercy are the key elements. Most perpetrators of child or spousal abuse have been victims, themselves, of violence at an early age. The violence wheel can roll on and on for generations, just as alcoholism or mental illness may be passed down. Sometimes these urges can be harnessed and the wheel can be turned another direction.

I chose to be a professional dominatrix neither to support a drug habit nor to make my way until a real job popped up. I worked in the sex industry because it was what I wanted to do—it satisfied my personal interests on many levels and was a lucrative business. My apartment mate at the time, also a Barnard alum, questioned me, “You have a degree from a prestigious college, why are you limiting yourself to this kind of work?” I was coming home giddy from the interactions I had had throughout the day: working with clients, exposing their raw desire. I felt that I was helping others, like myself, to explore their vulnerabilities. My friend was coming home miserable from the menial duties and the tedious social politics of her office job. I was not the one limiting her self to society’s standards.

I don’t mean to imply that sex work is for everyone, especially that which involves BDSM and kink. I’ve read too many memoirs of women who try the dominatrix role only to produce ridicule for the clients whose trust and discretion had been invested in them, as well as with an obvious self-loathing for their own involvement. If the kink orientation and self-awareness isn’t inherent in the participants, top and bottom, the interaction can be self-destructive for both.

Professional BDSM work does not usually incorporate overt sexual activity. In fact, most professional dominatrices adhere to a kind of sorority pledge that, while the client may satisfy themselves or be satisfied through some sort of machine (vibrators or devices resembling those you might see on a dairy farm), the Dominant Lady is not to engage her hands or other body parts in the physical relief of the client’s, ahem, tension. It’s a funny dividing line in the sex industry and there is always hushed and harshly judged whispers regarding the professional who transgresses those lines. What is fair in the world of sex and commerce? I am safe in my corner, touting a solid reputation in the industry as a bondage aficionado and well-trained sadist of whips and other instruments of torture, but I shrug my shoulders at the theoretical dividing line. Escort, prostitute, porn-star, stripper, erotic masseuse, dominatrix: Whore. The politically correct term would be sex worker, but I prefer the brazen and the dirty because that is where the punches from the right will land anyhow. Though we are not all on the same side of the law, we definitely stand on the same side of the social judgment line, and I am fine with the company.

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In 2005, I created my own BDSM studio in the financial district of Manhattan. Located on the same street as a strip club, a sex shop, and a boxing gym, my private loft was a sanctuary for my professional and personal practices in sexuality and consensual violence. Outfitted with custom suspension beams, a human sized cage, and a designer bondage chair, the studio was aptly named “The Dojo.” There, I conducted sessions for men, women, couples, queer and the-not-necessarily-so to explore their inner desires: to experience immobilization, to willfully submit control, to shed gender roles and indulge in hidden identities, and to connect with one’s spirit through rituals of the flesh. In other words, I tied and teased, I dominated, I dressed men in panties and women in strap-ons, and I caned, whipped, and pierced the bodies of consenting adults. I was good at my job and I loved it.

My adult life, for the most part, has been ruled by sex. No, not sex, but sexuality, since the former is defined by the activity and the latter a more expansive capacity. Believe me, this statement makes me laugh. It all sounds rather poofy. How can one make a whole career out of sexuality? I suppose the same way that one makes a career out of organizing strangers’ closets. It took a long time for me to explain to my Chinese-immigrant mother what a dominatrix is. When I brought her to my studio, she averted her eyes from the cage and row of paddles and fixed her gaze on the statue of Quan Yin that stood on the table, the Buddhist goddess of Mercy, who has vowed to walk the earth until all humans have found release from suffering. A part of my heart found freedom that day when my mother told me that she understood that I had chosen a harder path in life, but one that was my own. I did not become the doctor or lawyer as she had hoped, but my mother told me that she was proud of me for creating a life of unique accomplishment.

Now for the inevitable “but then…” Robert and I first met at a piercing demonstration at Babes In Toyland, a sex toy store, on the Lower East Side. I was assisting my mentor, Madame Cleo Dubois, as she taught a class on how to safely use needles as sensation play. Robert was the demo-bottom, the human pincushion. After the workshop, we retired to “Les Enfant Terribles,” a café of portending title, and discovered that we had both just moved from the San Francisco Bay to New York City. (I had just returned after a two-year leave. It was Robert’s first time living in NYC). Our story is a bit like a kinky version of When Harry Met Sally, both of us dating other partners, while confiding our failures and hopes to each other. We were best friends for eight years before we kissed. But then one falls in love at the right time; one commits to the love and spawns a future of it. In that, the growth of heartbeat, fluids, and toes, the storm of hormones and diapers sweep one’s life of the sanity one once knew. It takes a long time for the new set of rules, the new state of sanity to make sense, despite the surplus of online parenting blogs; hip, designer maternity wear; and books on sleep training.

I tried to be the goddess earth mother and wasn’t. For my first pregnancy, a professional photographer friend took pictures of me in the nude sitting on my partner, as he was strapped in a straightjacket. Suffice it to say, Robert looks much more at ease with his bodily configuration than I. There were magic moments in pregnancy, especially when I heard the heartbeat or felt the first flutter of movement, but much of the time, I just felt big and unsuitable for a life amongst subway stairs and leather thigh-high boots, (not that the boots were ever worn on the subway, nor after the first trimester). For our second pregnancy, I directed the shoot to closer reflect my mental state: I present as a black spider-like figure perched atop my cocooned mate, (this time, he’s in a cotton bondage bag). Silver talons extend from my fingertips, caressing the swollen belly, as if ready to spill its contents. I do have wonderful memories of pregnancy and early motherhood, but the dark and frightening parts are not shared enough in this culture of baby-idolatry and commercialization of the perfect mother.

Motherhood is wonderful, and it’s dark and frightening. For those of you about to embark on the endeavor, bear up, that squishy parasite is the most wondrous thing and will prove to be again and again. But, don’t be scared of yourself if you are bored out of your mind by the monotonous magnificence of breastfeeding; or when the hand-print art project the child brings home seems like forensics evidence of the miniature psycho who’s torn your life of travel, movie theatres, and Sunday morning reading into shreds. I am not a baby-woman. I don’t squeal at the small creatures and rush to hold those are not mine. I cooed and adored and marveled at my own and feigned an interest in their peers. As my daughters advance from toddlers to kid-hood, I enjoy the maturing conversations, the germinating personalities, and reading books with more words than pictures, (though a good picture book can be a treasure). I enjoy the physical activity of children who’ve grown into their capable limbs—the running, climbing, swimming, and roller-skating. I am a better mother as my children age.

Along with children, come their accessories. Even before the baby emerges, a vomitus portal opens and in come the cribs and onesies, child gates and strollers built by rocket engineers. BMO-free plastic dining-ware of every color of the rainbow fill the kitchen drawers and wooden, hand carved, sensorial stimulation toys make their way into one’s reality. Our Manhattan apartment could not accommodate the accumulation of sensorial stimulation toys—those for child and adult: pacifiers and ball gags; swaddle blankets and straight jackets; crib and cage. (I’ve also observed a strong resemblance between my young daughters’ sense of style to that of many drag queens and cross dressers: pink and purple ruffles, tiaras, and glitter galore).

My life quickly became like a Saturday Night Live skit: the Dommy Mommy. There were evenings I would literally run from the cage to the crib, checking on each of my dependents. Power exchange had been upended. I had once enjoyed the control over my husband—bound and helpless—but with a truly helpless baby in my care, I found that former responsibility to be a burden. I didn’t want my partner to be immobile, I wanted him to be changing diapers and aiding with the 2, 4, and 6am feedings. Robert did all that, for sure, but he is a bondage fetishist. It was one of the reasons we married: our sex needs fit. So once a week, he would need that fix, and I, with swollen breasts and depleted libido, felt what so many new mothers feel towards the partners they love: utter dispassion and resentment. Every time I buckled on the straight jacket and secured him into position, I felt that I was the submissive, serving two dominants: the Master Slave and the Baby Mistress. These two pillars—motherhood and sexuality—were toppling over me. So naturally, we moved to Brooklyn.

On the grander scale, I began to feel that the whole subject of BDSM and Kink that I had built my career on, when propped against the mother-child relationship, had become preposterous. After I had returned to the Dojo from maternity leave, I sat across from one of my dear clients, listening to his self-psychoanalysis on his spanking fetish, and I found myself thinking, “If you whine this much in the bedroom, you’ll have no trouble getting your lover to gag and take a whack at you.” During a following session, as another client steadied their breathing to prepare for my cane, I breathed in my intentions and breathed out all interest in the poised derrier in front of me. My mind wandered from the intensity of the other’s pain to what I should buy—kale or spinach?—for dinner.

There were many factors that led to my retirement—the rising rental fee of the Manhattan loft, dissatisfaction with the nanny I had hired for my daughter, and the desire to be involved with my children’s daily activities—but the most important was the introversion of my sexual persona. While I despise the (Christian) Madonna/Whore binary, there was something about becoming a mother that made the capitalism of my sexuality uncomfortable—not in an ethical way, but in a way that I no longer had the empathetic capacity to involve myself with the erotic innards of others. I was no longer curious or patient enough to deal with my clients’ desires. My fingertips felt reserved for private encounters. I didn’t want the smell of bodies or even the breath of others to enter my nostrils. I had grown a child inside my body. Now more than ever, it was sacred space. As Robert and I were financially secure enough to give up my income, I packed my whips, wheeled the cage onto a moving truck, closed the doors to the Dojo, and receded from the business of professional domination.

I am not original in my struggles with libido after motherhood, but I wonder if I felt the diminishment all the more drastically because my professional realm was also based on the subject. Sexuality had always been a fluid thing in my life—an ever present trickling curiosity in my childhood, a flood in my teens and twenties, then an ocean with high and low tides in my thirties. Pregnancy offered its sudden spurts and dry spells and early motherhood brought on the common drought. The arid season of motherhood seems almost too plebian to speak of—it’s clustered with stretch marks and sleeplessness.

I left sex work only to face that sex had become work. Sex is work: I had exhorted that discourse long before I had children. I had counseled married-with-kids couples on how to tap into their BDSM dynamics at home, taught lessons on how to keep their sexual tension taut. Now I know that I knew nothing. But I did take much of my own advice. I dressed in clothes that made me feel sexy, an incredibly hard accomplishment after the belly deflates but the hips don’t. I selected sexy music that wouldn’t wake the baby, took out my ropes and whips, which were now kept in a locked trunk, and role-played the sexy me until I really felt sexy. As the saying goes, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” I faked it for four years. Not the orgasm, but the feeling sexy part. You really can work backwards with the body. Just as you can force a smile until your brain starts to register happiness, you can go through the motions of sex until the heat actually starts to rise. With the proper equipment, including my husband, I can work my body to orgasm without feeling the sexy part in my brain until a nanosecond before. When the climax is reached, that victory is a relief in so many ways. Sometimes, getting myself to orgasm felt like a lap around the track, something I needed to pump out to stay in sexual health. The release of estrogen definitely calmed me afterwards and the pulsations, though they were not as strong as pre-child orgasms (for a few years), were a lovely reminder that my body is for my pleasure.

As much as I sometimes felt trapped by the bondage needs of my partner, I am twice as grateful to have kink props, both physical and power dynamics, in my sex life. I can’t imagine performing oral sex or being receptive to intercourse if I’m not feeling sexy, but even if my libido is low, I can lay back and receive the oral and I can harness a strap-on dildo for a different kind of intercourse—both of which will get me into the sexual mood—head and body. I will briefly mention that the gnarly cesarean scar from my first birth prevented me from wearing a strap on for a solid three years, another example of how motherhood took a big notch out of my sexuality. When I didn’t wish to engage my body in overt sexual activity, bondage was a wonderful way to send Robert into his happy place while I read a book or, more likely, browsed shoes online.

I believe in satisfying one’s partner’s needs to sustain a cohesive relationship, working the sex until it is working. I also believe in honoring my body with times of rest and the need to lay fallow. And sometimes, when I felt both, I directed my online browsing to the erotic menu and employed another. I don’t preach this method to everyone as we all have our own belief systems about monogamy, but I’ll say that it was a relief to send my partner out to see a professional dominatrix once in a while when I simply couldn’t find the wherewithal to participate. I trust my partner to stay within the poly-play limits that we’ve set and I should also mention that I, too, have personal partners whom I still engage with for aspects of BDSM that Robert does not fill. I know this might sound very racy but it’s not really. Robert and I tango well together, but sometimes I like to foxtrot and he doesn’t dance those steps.

When I was working in the sex industry, I saw plenty of married men as clients—some of them were sent by their wives and some of them were hiding it as their dirty secret. I had counseled many clients in coming out to their partners—not a single case caused separation. There was always a huge difference in ease with the ones who were able to be honest. While shame severs connection and cripples identity; core honesty enhances understanding. Sexuality in long-term, close-quartered relationships is always changing. As long as Robert and I are direct and generous in our dialogue on sex, I feel empowered and that empowerment leads to a more fulfilling sexuality. This personal testament applies just as well to my social identity.

There are clinical postpartum support groups for mothers with dipping hormones and playground support groups for the stay at home parents with dipping self esteem. Yet after I left the BDSM career to be the daily swing-pusher, I found myself isolating behind a wall of the unsaid. While other SAH parents could share the professional identities they had passed off, I had four scarlet letters attached to my resume: BDSM. Pre-children, I was adamantly out to my social community. I felt a duty to challenge the mainstream perceptions of sex workers and kinksters, but as a new mother, I hesitated to bring my children under the same scrutiny. I hesitated and hesitated until the hesitation felt like shame, the same kind of shame that I had spent my career as a professional dominatrix trying to help clients cast aside.

It is not that everyone should know the details of our sexual desires, but the BDSM lifestyle is a sexual orientation, an identity, much like the queer and trans identity. When identity is hidden in shame, the result is a quiet–or not-so-quiet–madness. Sexual identity need not emerge at the casual dinner party, nor at the office. My office had been the focal point of sexual identity, thus my professional identity seemed inappropriate for parent talk. I became accustomed to muttering broad lies about my past career under the pretense of protecting my children.

Parents should protect their children from sugary cereals, violent video games, and Spongebob. Parents should protect their children from busy streets, drugs, sharp knives, and other hard realities. We even need to protect them from ourselves sometimes—our anger and frustrations, our anxieties, and our sex. But as they grow, our protection turns into education. We teach them to handle sharp knives, to choose their own foods. They should learn what our anxieties are based on, that anger can be a useful emotion. Our sexual activities should never be in front of their eyes, but neither should our sexual identities be hidden.

My five year old just recently found my vibrator when I left it on the bed stand. She turned it on and was delighted by the purple pocket rocket as it sputtered across the floor. When she asked me what it was for, I pressed it behind her shoulders and told her it was for massaging muscles. She opened her mouth and let out a choppy breathed “a-a-a-ahhh” and didn’t need any more explanation. When she starts puberty, I’ll buy her one and further the explanation. I suspect that another more formidable instrument will be found one day—probably from her snooping rather than my carelessness—a whip, perhaps, or Robert’s heavy metal cuffs. There is a cage that rolls from under our bed, but it’s been part of my daughters’ daily surroundings for as long as they can remember. They hide next to it when I try to herd them to take a bath. The metal “storage crate” hasn’t sparked any inquiries as of yet, but one day something will click and they’ll ask. I don’t fear that conversation in the least. It’s an easy one; but if one day, she wants a whip, she’ll have to get her own.

Photo Credits: Aeric Meredith-Goujon Photography; Natasha Gornik