The History & Arts of the Dominatrix: An Interview with Anne O Nomis

You would be hard-pressed to ignore the never-so-subtle influence that The Dominatrix has had on western culture. From Thierry Mugler’s infamous catwalk designs to the spillover cat suits of 1960’s TV heroines and the archetypes in between, The Dominatrix is one of the most popular images of women’s sexuality and also one of the most misunderstood and hush-hushed roles to date.

Enter Anne O Nomis, author and creator of The History & Arts of the Dominatrix. The first book of its kind, it is a complete survey and in-depth look at not only The Dominatrix as a cultural figure and her influence and role throughout history, but also The Dominatrix as an art. The book isn’t just thorough – it’s beautiful, a work of art in itself, with high-quality photographs, pages that textually feel good, and a cover that is bound in a way that makes you realize that the book is much bigger than just your regular academic treatise, bringing together body politics, cultural roles for women, and the sensual and tactile all at once. Nomis received her MA degree in comparative art and archaeology from University College London (UCL), and works as an historian, consultant and curator on ancient and contemporary art. She also undertook clandestine training in one of Australia’s leading dungeons under the tutelage of some 15 Dominatrices, and pursued independent research in the British Museum, British Library and the underground ‘scene’ over a four-year period.

And I’d chatter on more if I could, but I’d rather let O Nomis do that herself.

The History and Arts of The Dominatrix

What was the impetus for writing such an in-depth book on The Dominatrix? You mention in your preface that at first, you were sort of a curious bystander, and then things evolved. What led you to the book, and not only that, but to writing about Dominatrices?

I have always had an intellectual curiosity for the world, which includes sexuality. It was a rather unique combination of events which led me to take on the subject of the Dominatrix. I am restricted somewhat in what I can share, but certainly my curiosity, being in proximity to the dungeons of Melbourne which were then located in Fitzroy, and meeting these women who had such interesting backgrounds. The fact that no such book on the Dominatrix’s history existed – yet there were so many books for example on Japanese geisha, French courtesans and so on. Why was there no book on the Dominatrix? How long had ‘She’ been around for? Was the Dominatrix a more recent phenomenon or did it have a long-standing history? And what did the Dominatrix ‘do’ behind her secretive dungeon door?

I’m very drawn to what you say in regards to writing the book when you begin talking about challenges and refer to your father, who had cancer. You mention that death sort of has a way of breaking down the way we worry about what people think of us and quote a friend of yours saying, “We’re all fertilizer for grass in the end. You don’t regret the things you’ve done in life, so much as the things you didn’t do.” Can you talk more about how this frame of mind fueled this book?

Dealing with death puts many things in your life in perspective. When you die, you can’t take material things with you – your wealth, your car, your jewelry – what do these things matter in the end? Death doesn’t distinguish people’s status, importance or wealth, it stalks us all. Yet so many people are absorbed in acquiring material things, living their life on a treadmill of work, and doing ‘the done thing’. They’re held back by social conventions and worrying about what other people think of them, so they live like sheep following the herd. There’s been articles and a book on Regrets of the Dying, by hospice worker Bronnie Ware, who would hear the same themes referred to over and again by dying patients. The number 1 most common regret was: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

I wanted to research and write the book on the Dominatrix and her history, and the fact of my father dying, loosened me from living life conventionally and worrying so much about what everyone else would think of me. It made me live my life more courageously, and take on the challenge of writing on the Dominatrix and undergoing a formal apprenticeship in a dungeon, which required 18 hours a week commitment. Something I might normally not have done out of concern for what others I know would think.

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Portrait of Mistress Morrigan in her dungeon, by artist Phil Miller, 2013, Limited edition digital print

It isn’t just history that’s being covered, but also what you call the arts of being a dominatrix. It might surprise people to know that being a dominatrix isn’t a recent thing, but it might surprise them even further to hear it referred to as “the arts”. Can you talk a bit more on why you made that choice and the reasoning behind it?

Of course. Today we may commonly think of “art” as painting and sculpture, and so on, but that’s a recent phenomenon. Traditionally, the “arts” referred to a skill and mastery tied to crafts and sciences. This goes back as far as the Classical Greek and Roman era (and the term “ars”), and it continued really through the Renaissance era, up until pretty recent times. The Dominatrix occupation is very much tied up with the understanding and practice of particular “arts”, of craft knowledge which take a year or longer to apprentice in. There is a visual aesthetic, as well as aspects of performance, practices with props and equipment which is as specialized as any field of occupational profession. The practices are paired with intricate knowledge, passed on like a batten of erotic wisdom from senior Mistress practitioners to apprentices. It’s rich and complex to try and explain. After four years of research, I had to really sit and think how I was going to try and explain it for the uninitiated and scholars who wanted to know what a Dominatrix does. I decided an A-Z guide was not going to be particularly fruitful, as it would only act as a kind of an index, of Bastinado, Ball-Busting, and so forth in alphabetical order. So instead, I tried to really work out the themes and practices of the Dominatrix, which I discuss under a framework I call ‘The Seven Realm Arts’:

Realm 1 – The Art of the Sublime & Powerful Woman
Realm 2 – The Art of lowering the man to submission
Realm 3 – The Art of bondage, entrapment and enclosure
Realm 4 – The Art of discipline, training and punishment
Realm 5 – The art of the bodily and the ‘out-of-body’
Realm 6 – The art of cross-dressing, transformation and gender subversion
Realm 7 – The art of fetish and fantasy

These categories attempt to cover the spectrum of what Dominatrices practice as their “arts”. For those people deeply familiar with BDSM and fetish practices, much of the material I cover will be “yes of course, I know that,” but for those unfamiliar, it seems to have been very helpful. La Domaine Esemar – which is I believe the world’s oldest BDSM training château – has asked to use ‘The Seven Realm Arts’ as the framework for their Mistress apprentice training, which is a real honor. Most Dominatrices train for one year or longer to learn the Dominatrix craft profession, which I discuss in the book.

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‘The Fair Nun Unmask’d’ by James Wilson after Henry Morland painting, c1770, Yale Center for British Art

I think the difficulty on writing about something that tends to be marginalized, and certainly stigmatized, is that you end up being a representation for a large community, whether you want to be or not. Have you at any point, felt this pressure or received any response on being a sort of figurehead for doms or even sex workers in general? Even if this book is really an academic one?

Great question – and I think this is part of why such a book has not been tackled before. The Dominatrix was a taboo topic to take on. She’s an archetype of female sexual power, and as a specialized niche within sex work. I felt real pressure, certainly, as I wanted to really do justice to the Dominatrices, living and dead, who have made domination their craft profession. I was concerned as to what Dominatrices would make of the book. I didn’t want to misrepresent them. I was very conscious that I was speaking for them in what would likely be one of the major books ever published on them. I met so many personally during my journey and research, and they’re typically all such strong and opinioned women, it was a big task on my shoulders. I was, I have to say, and quite nervous as to how they would receive the book.

It took me four years to research and complete the writing. And then publishers wouldn’t print it unless they could expurgate some of the more explicit content on what a Dominatrix does, and they wouldn’t back me doing color reproductions of the museum and library images of historical Dominatrices! It was such a struggle to be able to print the book with the material it deserved, and it was the concern you refer to – the pressure of representing Dominatrices. And what an effort – to get all these rare images from the British Library, the British Library, the National Portrait Gallery, the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, the Yale Center for British Art, the Library of Congress in Washington DC, and so on. I had gone to Vietnam to finish writing the book, so I could shut the world out in my focus and live cheaply on $20 a day in accommodation for three intensive months. My Vietnamese hotel staff were kept busy faxing off my image requests around the world. It was bedlam; there were museum image requests all over the hotel foyer counter daily.

The book certainly became a labor of love to see through, driven by this pressure to do justice to the Dominatrix and ‘Her’ profession. Ultimately though, the Dominatrices seem to really love the book, and been really appreciative for me writing it. I’ve received many emails, letters and messages of thanks from around the world, including from the most famous Dominatrices out there. I guess I have become a kind of figurehead in a way. The mysterious woman author of the Dominatrix book. I’ll be proud of that mention at my eulogy.

Anne O Nomis
The author

The book really encompasses a large swath of commentary on female sexual power, sexual subversion, and sexual subculture – how important is the theme of the body politic in this book. More importantly, how important is the idea of it being “shameless” to you?

You can’t write a book on the Dominatrix and do the subject justice without tackling the ‘body politic’ as you put it. I didn’t set out to be political, and don’t regard myself as particularly political. However the Dominatrix has been in patriarchal culture – a kind of a taboo of a taboo of a taboo. The big religions of Christianity and Islam have sought to enforce women’s obedience, submission and modesty. The Dominatrix is as challenging and confronting as can be to long-established gender and power positions of patriarchal regimes. She is a woman in the position of power; dominant and sexual.

I am an Archaeologist and Art Historian by training, so I was able to reflect on the Dominatrix’s long history to suggest that there is something very important and necessary to her role in society. Offering relief from fixed social roles, receiving and understanding alternative sexual identities, and being a powerful sexual female to worship. I didn’t set out to be ‘shameless’. I set out to be frank in the way I dealt with the subject. I think it was Marilyn Monroe who once said “Sex is a part of nature. I go along with nature.”

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‘Monique Von Cleef’ c1963 Vintage image taken in Leonard (Lenny) Burtman’s apartment, New York, for Bizarre Life

So, I just read on your blog that the book is now forbidden in China. How does it feel to be a banned author?

It’s a bit surreal being a banned author. People from China who ordered The History & Arts of the Dominatrix were not receiving their copies. There was no notification to let them know the book was held or confiscated. And on further examination, the book was not appearing in Amazon’s kindle store in China, despite being available worldwide. It may have been my discussion of censorship and historical ‘forbidden books’ dealing with flagellation. I wrote:

“In general, that which a person or institution bans, burns, locks away, censors or marks with a red ‘X’, they simultaneously mark as holding power. Those who busy themselves in banning books and information, index their own belief system in torrent and contradiction at odds with reality. They censor what echoes with some kernel of truth, and with it an immense power, conflicting or contradicting the ideology they seek to impose – by force – on everyone else.” (p.112)

I think this passage saw my book banned by the Chinese authorities, coupled with the content and images on the Dominatrix and addressing sex work. I may never know. I believe I may now have been flagged as a ‘subversive person’ by Chinese authorities. I certainly don’t expect to face the same problems as Ai Weiwei (the contemporary Chinese artist), but I am worried about trying to get into China when I travel. It’s such a shame as I have actually studied Chinese archaeology and intended to go to Sichuan in particular to see some ancient shamanic bronze artifacts.

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‘Socrates and Xantippe’ Mezzotint by John Smith after Heinrich Glotzius, c1670-1700, Yale Center for British Art

On the upside, I have always tended to admire the work of authors whose work has been banned. It’s usually a sign that they were ahead of their times, and challenging the dominant institutionalized thinking of their era. The Catholic Church once had an Index of Forbidden books, which included Galileo (for daring to suggest that the earth revolved around the sun), Immanuel Kant, Casanova, Francis Bacon, Marquis de Sade, Madame de Stael, from Martin Luther through to Jean Paul Satre and Simone de Beauvoir. So perhaps I should take it as a compliment and honor to have been banned. I certainly didn’t expect my book on the Dominatrix to be banned, in this modern day era. However my travel plans to China are – at least temporarily – now on hold.

The History of the Dominatrix is available now. Find out more about Anne O Nomis on her website, or on Twitter and Facebook.

3 thoughts on “The History & Arts of the Dominatrix: An Interview with Anne O Nomis

  1. I find this quite frightening when you get to the nitty gritty. Gender subversion and cross dressing are ugly themes which can destroy the males natural vigour. That cannot be good.

    My wife uses a paddle on me but only on the basis of when I ask for it. I find that erotic but the other stuff frightens me and I hope I never enter into that. I feel it would be destructive of personality.

    1. Hi Tony – there’s no evidence that gender subversion and cross-dressing “can destroy the male’s natural vigour”. In fact if anything there’s evidence of the opposite!

      Many of the Dominatrix’s clients report that through submission, and through the mixing of male and female elements, they are relieved of society’s pressures, freed to be more themselves. It is interesting to note also that amongst the Dominatrix’s cross-dressing clients are strong macho army personnel on leave, who seek out cross-dressing and feminization.

      I have often wondered that they do so as a kind of re-balancing. The army being so masculine, macho, emphasizing strength, power, discipline, that it creates an unhealthy state. And so army men need time in a more feminine environment – and attire – to be brought back into equilibrium, of yin/yang balance as it were.

      I also find it interesting that many musicians and rock stars mix feminine and masculine elements into a kind of androgyny. Many wear long hair. Many wear make-up. Many wear high heel boots. There seems something in chanelling creativity that comes from the performative messing with gender roles (“gender-fuck”).

      And I don’t think there’s anything damaging to sexual vigour in doing so – in fact the opposite, if you consider the example of rockstars, they’re famed for “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll”.

      The history of cross-dressing, if it interests you to know, can certainly be traced back within Goddess cults such as the Goddess Inanna / Ishtar in ancient Mesopotamia, who had kurgarra priests who are known to have cross-dressed in honour of the sex Goddess.

      Best wishes,

      Anne O Nomis

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