From Issue 2.1 - September 1995
Doms are Part, Not All, of SM Scene
What comes to your mind when you think "dominatrix"? If you're like many people, your image includes whips and chains, corsets and thigh-high boots, and a stern (or perhaps maternal) demeanor. Like most stereotypes, these have an element of truth. But underneath the leather, and behind the public facade of the leather/SM/fetish scene as a whole, there are multidimensional individuals with a full range of human desires, hopes, anxieties, stresses, and joys.
For many people, especially those in areas without an open SM community, the image of the dominatrix may be their first exposure to the world of SM. And these days, it seems that anything having to do with SM is tre's chic. Clubs with an BDSM (Bondage/Discipline/Domination/ Submission/Sadism/Masochism) theme are increasingly popular. Fetish styles (leather, piercings) appear in fashion magazines and on MTV. Guardian sex columnist "Ask Isadora" Duncan describes SM as "pop-culturalized." The mainstream media portrayal of SM has moved away from the traditional pornographic image of the dominatrix as a cruel vixen and the SM scene as one of unabashed horror -- definitely not "safe, sane, and consensual" -- to images that range from naughty titillation to lighthearted fun.
The San Francisco Examiner recently featured a story (July 31) that claimed to be "an inside look at the Bay Area's S&M scene." In reality, what they looked inside was a couple local houses of B&D. Once again, because the community as a whole is understandably reluctant to expose itself to journalists with dubious agendas, professional dominants are made to stand in for the SM scene as a whole. The title, "Slaves to the Business," gives an indication of the article's slant on professional SM. The story dwells on the women's attire and appearance ("ample cleavage," "red talons"). The interviewees did not include the well-known, highly experienced independent dominants, but focused instead on what I call the "youth and beauty market." The article did a reasonable job of describing the types of work many professional dominants do (the range of clients and fetishes are similar to what I see in my own work) and the variety of motives women have for entering the business. And yes, the story included the now-obligatory reference to the Internet as a source of inspiration and a medium for advertisement.
Rather than demonizing SM, the story normalizes it, quoting a medical examiner, therapists, and a member of the SFPD vice crimes divisions. Inspector Micahel Curran, after noting that from what he's seen, houses of domination are very aware of health and safety, says, "What is tolerated in San Francisco will not be tolerated in Dump Truck, Iowa. I think there's a certain tolerance because it's between consenting adults. And hey, different strokes for different folks." It's notable that the article focuses on heterosexual SM (although I'd bet the majority of pro doms are bisexual or lesbian), even though San Francisco is world-renowned for its gay and lesbian SM communities. In fact, the article seems to sanitize SM by disassociating it from homosexuality. Dr. Boyd Stephens, the city's chief medical examiner, says "At that time [the 80s], there were a large number of S&M deaths in the homosexual community. Today, there's more safety awareness and closer monitoring of the scene." As if the "old guard" of gay SM didn't have the major role in inventing the current community standards of safety and consensuality, now it's implied that they could learn a few things from the folks at Bondage-a-go-go!
A recent trip to the video store revealed several newish films that contain some SM or fetish element. Anne Rice's "Interview with the Vampire" features dark, gothic sexuality, and "everyone" knows that Rice is also the author, under other names, of some of the most popular contemporary SM-themed fiction. One of those pieces, "Exit to Eden" has itself recently been made into a movie. The film features a fantasy SM island run by a beautiful young mistress who discovers with the aid of an unruly but cute slave boy that she can have "bondage and babies too." While her behavior would no doubt appall many a dominatrix, I had to appreciate the portrayal of the mistress as a real person who can be all-too-human. Unlike many past films, the SM practitioners do not need to meet an ugly demise to drive home a moralistic message. It's not that the film isn't moralistic - it's just not moralistic about SM. The message seems to be that a little kink is fine, as long as it's done in the context of traditional family values.
While such portrayals may appear silly and trivializing to the seasoned SM afficionado, in another sense they should gladden our hearts. In our increasingly repressive and censorious political climate, a newspaper article that offers titillating coverage of the superficial aspects of professional SM and a movie that portrays SM as lighthearted naughty fun are a big improvement over images of SM people as evil, sociopathic freaks. It is indeed true that some of us may at times enjoy being freaks and thumbing our noses at mainstream respectability, but there's also something to be said for being able to live one's SM lifestyle in a matter-of-fact way. As with the recent phenomenon of "bisexual chic," I'm happy that more people are taking an interest in SM/leather/fetish, at whatever level of depth or seriousness. Those who start by dabbling out of curiosity or a desire to try the latest fad will at the very least be exposed to the community and learn that SM people are real regular people and not scary monsters (the best antidote to bigotry), and at best discover that they have finally found a place they truly belong.