Dr. D J Williams
Department of Sociology, Idaho State University
921 South 8th Avenue, Stop 8114, Pocatello, ID 83209
e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Ph: 208-282-2929
In this paper we draw from both the relevant scholarly literature and from our own rich and diverse experiences on the complex topic of bondage/discipline, dominance/submission and sadomasochism (BDSM). Our paper is not a research study, but rather an important critical viewpoint. Professional domination is frequently trivialized, misunderstood, and not taken seriously. We hope to demystify a fascinating occupation that seems to provide deviant (unusual) leisure services to many mainstream clients, yet this phenomenon has received virtually no serious attention within the academic literature. We believe that it is time for scholars and professionals to consider this issue more thoroughly and critically. Our paper is intended to be a first step in this process.
The first author is an interdisciplinary social scientist whose interests and formal education span the fields of clinical social work, leisure sciences, deviance and criminology. The second author shares interests in the behavioral sciences, and has had a long and successful career as a professional dominatrix. In this capacity she has had the opportunity to work with hundreds of clients and several top peers in her field. Drawing from both of our professional backgrounds and observations, the purpose of this paper is to briefly describe and explore the work of highly trained dominants alongside a spectrum of helping professions. We acknowledge that professional dominants may be of any gender, but we refer herein specifically to dominatrices (female gender) since the demand for their services is much greater.
Given that this is a professional paper, we have decided not to capitalize references to dominatrices and interchangeable terms (dommes, dominas, and mistresses). However, it may be noted that BDSM subcultural discourse and writing practices frequently necessitates capitalization of such terms, which emphasize a power dynamic. BDSM, generally, seems to be first and foremost about playing with power—not necessarily sex directly—and it has been suggested that the term erotic power exchange may be a good descriptor (Langdridge & Butt, 2005).
Regarding the latter criterion, we prefer the word erotic over sexual, since erotic seems to be a broader term and many BDSM experiences do not include sex. Additionally, recent research challenges the common assumption that all or most BDSM is sexually motivated (see Newmahr, 2010a). Following the motto of “safe, sane, consensual” (SSC) play is a strict requirement for participation within the BDSM community, although some groups prefer using the slogan “Risk Aware Consensual Kink” (RACK).
BDSM may include a number of diverse activities (i.e., bondage, discipline training, role-playing, spanking, whipping, controlled sensory deprivation or overload, objectification, fetish activation, etc.), yet for many people seems to be a lifestyle preference. In other words, committed relationships are purposefully structured in one way or another around BDSM roles. BDSM relationships may be designed in various ways that meet the complex needs of participants. Some structures may look more traditional, while others can be quite diverse. Many people who live a BDSM lifestyle often attend BDSM community events and parties, thus strengthening a support network of people with similar interests and forms of self expression.
Despite pervasive myths and stereotypes, recent studies show that people with BDSM socio-sexual identities are generally psychologically healthy (Beckmann, 2001; Connelly, 2006; Cross & Matheson, 2006; Richters, de Visser, Rissel, Grulich, & Smith, 2008; Weinberg, 2006). For some practitioners, regular BDSM participation may promote trust, communication, spirituality and intimacy within relationships; provide new understandings of self and lived experiences; and lead to new insights about unnoticed phenomena (Beckmann, 2001; Kleinplatz, 2006; Taylor & Ussher, 2001; Williams, 2006, 2010).
In light of recent research that runs counter to traditional psychiatric discourse, some scholars have recognized that a BDSM lifestyle may be understood as a form of legitimate serious leisure experience that requires considerable personal investment and the acquisition of specific skills (Newmahr, 2010a; Williams, 2006, 2009). Particularly noteworthy in illustrating how lifestyle BDSM can thoroughly meet the criteria of serious leisure is Newmahr’s (2010a) extensive ethnographic study. Such research is especially valuable because, as Newmahr has suggested, a leisure perspective expands the discourses (including beyond sexology and psychiatric understanding) through which BDSM is interpreted, including among scholars and professionals. Indeed, specific BDSM practices among some individuals may be highly erotic and may be partially explained through discourses of sexuality, yet for many others BDSM does not seem to be primarily a sexual or erotic phenomenon. A leisure perspective allows for such variation (leisure may or may not include sexual phenomena). Although existing research challenges common perspectives that BDSM is somehow inherently problematic, people who practice BDSM have faced harassment, discrimination, and unfair legal sanctions (Green, 2001; Klein & Moser, 2006; Wright, 2006, 2009).
To date, articles in scholarly journals on the topic of BDSM, including those referred to here, have focused almost exclusively on those who participate in it as an alternative lifestyle (as serious leisure experience). Participants may be bisexual, heterosexual or homosexual; associate frequently with fellow BDSM practitioners; and often tend to be active to some degree within their local BDSM communities. Conversely, there are other individuals with a BDSM socio-sexual identity who are not always identified within the BDSM community, or they may less active within it, yet who from time to time privately and secretively seek out the services of a professional dominant. Our experience (and that of several mistresses with whom we have worked) has been that individuals often seem to be men who, justifiably for fears of facing stereotypes and discrimination, may be afraid to admit arousing fantasies and desires to others, including those in their lives to whom they are closest emotionally.
An apparent widespread issue of maintaining secrecy seems to be a significant problem at micro, mezzo, and macro social levels, which perhaps signifies a need for broader and more comprehensive sex education in North American society. Because secrecy associated with BDSM has a protective function, participants, when exposed, sometimes may be mislabeled as being psychopathological, morally deficient, dangerous, and/or sex addicts due to pervasive social discourses concerning sexuality. For example, a recent survey by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom found that significant percentages of BDSM participants reported experiencing discrimination from medical doctors and mental health professionals (Wright, 2009). Such misunderstanding is unfortunate. Participants may be mislabeled because they engage in unconventional practices that are, unfortunately, not understood but feared within our society.
While professional dominants may be male or female, we will focus specifically on female dominants-dominatrices since they are in far more demand than their male counterparts. However, our discussion here may pertain to both males and females within professional BDSM. While lifestyle and professional BDSM overlap in terms of many activities that are performed, these BDSM forms differ due to factors related to the broader social roles and contexts of participants and the commonly accepted meanings associated with such roles.
Given the lack of education on BDSM, generally, it is not surprising that the work of professional dominatrices is easily misinterpreted. For many who are unfamiliar with BDSM, the services provided by a dominatrix often are perceived to be little more than common prostitution with an added dimension of kink. There seem to be cases were sex workers have, with little or no training, incorporated BDSM activities into their work due to the simple process of supply and demand. Such examples might be to add bondage, blindfolds or spankings before the sexual experience. Some of these practices may be considered dangerous and risky, and such sex workers cannot be classified accurately as professional BDSM workers.
By making the above observations, we are not disrespecting the sex work profession, but simply pointing out that sex work, in traditionally conceived forms, and professional domination bear some resemblance, but are also distinct. For workers not trained specifically in BDSM, the dangers of adding this dimension to a common sex act can potentially trigger unconscious and unresolved psychological trauma within the client, which may then produce an aggressive response. Competent dominatrices are trained to lower the risk of triggering such an abreaction, but are prepared to deal with it should it occur. Furthermore, there are significant physical safety risks that untrained sex workers may not consider or be prepared to address. Some of these will be discussed later in this paper. Given such significant psychological and physical safety issues, untrained workers may unknowingly put themselves and their clients in harmful situations where injuries may happen or significant trauma and/or psychopathology may be replayed.
We propose that experiences provided by many well-trained dominas may be viewed as being on the borders of sex work, but that professional BDSM often overlaps considerably with mainstream helping professions such as leisure programming and therapeutic recreation, social work and psychotherapy, massage therapy and nursing. Our reasoning for this position should become clear as we proceed further into the discussion herein. Professional BDSM sessions are carefully structured to remain consistent with client fantasies, and may include various combinations of psychological and sensory stimulation, depending on specific client needs and interests. BDSM activities are diverse, but may include any number of role play scenarios, cross-dressing, various forms of bondage, whipping, caning, the application of hot wax or fire (cooler flames that are extinguished very quickly), electrical play, and temporary body piercing.
It has been suggested that effective dominatrices require training in psychology, acting, and nursing (Domination Directory International, 2003). They should have basic knowledge in anatomy and physiology, psychology, and medical conditions (i.e., hypertension, hypo- or hyperglycemia, muscle fatigue, and common psychiatric conditions), and common medications (and potential side effects). Dominas are expected to practice within the bounds of their training and expertise, which helps ensure the physical and psychological safety of clients.
Professional dominatrices perform the same activities as their lifestyle counterparts, and many are also BDSM lifestylers. However, for many professionals, BDSM may be the sole source of income. For safety considerations, they provide services in a private dungeon, which can be at a studio or sometimes within the home. Professional BDSM provided in the home requires obtaining a security system that includes door and window locks with alarms. There should be a mechanism that can be quickly utilized to get police assistance, if necessary. Many dommes who provide services with their homes have dogs.
Before agreeing to see a client, dominatrices will likely meet each potential client casually at a public place to discuss client interests, fantasies, possible motivations and appropriate boundaries. Dominas utilize safe calls—phone calls to a trusted person at a specific time to let that person know that the domina is safe. Upon meeting potential clients, dommes will note details and the license plate numbers of potential clients’ vehicles, and relay that information to a trusted person via a safe call. Dommes will also utilize safe calls at the end of each BDSM session. Picture identification may be required for potential clients to ensure correct identity, and those who refuse to produce identification may be refused services for safety reasons. A consent form signed by the client may also be utilized to signify that the client has been informed of the range and parameters of services and agrees to participate as specified.
We have found that many dominatrices have taken relevant college courses that help them with their profession, but professional BDSM training occurs primarily through a “hands on” mentoring process. Throughout this process, each mistress-in-training works closely with an established dominatrix for an extended period of time, the length of which depends somewhat on the range of various skills that the new mistress wishes to learn. Learning the mechanics and psychological and physiological responses of certain common BDSM activities takes considerable time and practice, such as learning good technique and developing accuracy in whipping and flogging. Many BDSM professionals seem to believe that it is important to seek new knowledge and continually keep skills sharp. There is always the potential to help or harm clients, thus mistresses should be prepared for various possibilities that may arise. Potential problems in a scene may include those related to toy or equipment malfunction, psychological reactions (i.e., sudden emergence of repressed memories, abreactions, panic attacks), and physical/medical issues. Dominatrices must learn to assess what may go wrong in various sessions, how to minimize psychological and physical risks, and how to intervene effectively should such problems arise.
A mistress-in-training needs to learn to master a variety of BDSM tools (toys), including cuffs, ropes, chains, floggers, crops, canes, paddles, electrical stimulation devices, knives, scalpels, tapes, and various forms of specialized equipment. New dominatrices must know how to use each tool, its capability for causing harm, and how to use it safely and properly. Toys have different impact levels on muscle and connective tissue, which dictate where and how implements can be used. Generally, tools and equipment must be sturdy, well-designed and constructed, and new dominas must learn to evaluate the quality of various accessories. For example, a flogger of good quality should be weight-balanced from the falls (strands for whipping) to the handle and the center point should produce a 45 degree angle. Floggers that do not fit this weighting standard may lead to injuries to dommes or clients, since the swing is not balanced for a significant level of impact. To include another example, dominatrices should be aware of the properties of the wood from which their paddles are made. Different types of wood have different overall strengths, yet wood may break at various places when used at different intensities and depending on whether it is applied forcefully to flat surfaces or various angles. Wood that easily splinters or can shatter under certain conditions may lead to injuries.
Dominatrices need to learn about a wide range of fantasies and the potential ways that fantasy and BDSM experience may function within a client’s overall life. Regarding functioning, it is important that clients have positive BDSM experiences that might contribute more broadly to overall client health and wellbeing. Thus, mistresses need to consider how BDSM may be, potentially, health promoting for each client.
Clients frequently seek the services of a professional dominatrix to act out erotic fantasies and play with interpersonal power dynamics. However, it should be remembered that there can be tremendous interpersonal variation regarding the degree to which a BDSM activity is erotically motivated. Competent dominas must learn how to guide various fantasies as effectively as possible—to produce a fantasy structure with sufficient detail to make the fantasy come alive, yet not so much direction and over-prescription that the actual experience substantially conflicts with the desired fantasy. Such a skill is similar to that of masterful storytellers. Tellers produce enough detail in the story to provide richness and movement, yet there are flexible places throughout the tale wherein readers can naturally insert their own particular details and experiences. This allows the story to resonate personally. For fantasies involving sensory stimulation, dominatrices need to be aware of common safety considerations, along with how the stimulation is being subjectively integrated and processed by the particular client. Learning to guide fantasies effectively can be difficult for many people. It requires paying careful attention to body language, good verbal communication and session planning, and maintaining a somewhat flexible style.
Professional mistresses should follow existing laws in the geographic areas wherein they practice, and they should not perform illegal sex acts. Our vast combined experience has been that mistresses usually state explicitly that sex is not performed (as defined by relevant laws), and it is not. Some U.S. states and Canadian provinces do not allow certain forms of BDSM, and some places require mistresses to obtain a business license. Laws surrounding BDSM can be nebulous, but generally, the legality of BDSM in the U.S. primarily falls under laws concerning sexuality (Ridinger, 2006).
Ethically, trained dominatrices are expected to treat clients respectfully and to use their best judgment in ensuring clients’ physical and psychological safety. Professional BDSM values include respect for persons, equality and justice, confidentiality, truthfulness, compassion and kindness. These values usually are taught throughout the mentoring process and passed along to the next generation of BDSM practitioners. Ethical dominas will not perform services that they believe would be medically or psychologically unhealthy for specific clients, despite that some clients may be willing to pay for such services. This underscores the importance of BDSM training for professionals—a sex worker performing BDSM activities or a mistress practicing without expertise may lack the education and critical judgment necessary for providing safe experiences to clients. Many may be unaware of what the potential risks may be.
Despite a fierce tendency toward categorization and separating “deviance” from the “normal,” a close examination of these terms shows that such distance is often an illusion. Professional domination may be considered to be deviant work, while such services may be considered deviant leisure for clients. Deviance may be viewed as being fundamentally artistic and expressive (Williams, 2004), and normal, healthy leisure can be difficult to disentangle from what is often considered to be deviant leisure (Williams & Walker, 2006; Williams, 2009). As noted at the beginning of this paper, there is an accumulating research literature demonstrating that BDSM participants, often classified as deviant people, are rather normal regarding the prevalence and distribution of psychological disorders and incidence of past trauma. A recent descriptive review of the literature emphasizes that BDSM participation cannot be explained via traditional psychiatric and psychodynamic approaches, whereby participants are assumed to be psychologically unwell (Powls & Davies, 2012).
A critical analysis of the services of professional mistresses shows that their unconventional work closely resembles that of other legitimate professions. Legitimate professions delineate specific times and places for therapy. The same is true of professional BDSM—appointments for sessions are scheduled, assessments are conducted, and clients report to a BDSM dungeon (analogous to the office or clinic) at their scheduled times (see Williams, 2010).
BDSM can be understood through a leisure science lens (Newmahr, 2010a; Williams, 2006, 2009), which informs leisure education practice and therapeutic recreation programming. Although the concept of leisure is difficult to define, it seems to have various important dimensions, including associations with positive affective experience, freedom or lack of constraint, intrinsic motivation, optimal balance between skill level and challenge (flow theory), and profound personal meaning (Mannell & Kleiber, 1997). Leisure may reduce stress and help people cope with life difficulties (Iwasaki & Schneider, 2003), and may contribute to physical, social, emotional, and cognitive health (Caldwell, 2005; Mannell, 2007). Leisure educators and therapeutic recreation specialists work to help clients in a variety of settings design and implement positive leisure experiences that fit their specific needs and interests. Professional dominatrices share a similar goal, and many clients report their experiences to be psychologically and/or spiritually therapeutic. BDSM has been described by participants as being a form of play, fun, pleasurable, and endorphin rush, a way to escape the ordinariness of everyday life, freedom, spiritual, and as transcendence (Taylor & Ussher, 2001). These descriptors are associated with healthy leisure experience. There is evidence that men who participate in BDSM have lower psychological distress compared to other men (Richters, et al., 2008).
For many years Mistress Monique von Cleef operated an elegant BDSM dungeon called the House of Torture in Newark, New Jersey. Interestingly, she referred to her fellow mistresses as “leather social workers.” Like the many professional dominatrices we have known and worked with, Mistress von Cleef understood the supportive and empowering potential of professional BDSM. When police eventually raided her business believing it was a house of prostitution, they found records for more than 15,000 clients (Allgeier, & Allgeier, 1991).
Interestingly, a recent study of professional dominatrices found that many understand themselves as “therapists,” thus providing a form of psychological intervention for their clients (Lindemann, 2011). Indeed, professional BDSM has much in common with social work and psychotherapy. To begin with, social work historically has been a female-dominated profession. Dominas, like social workers, are expected to display care and respect for clients as unique and empowered human beings. A cornerstone of the social work profession is to recognize and appreciate human diversity, including differences related to culture, age, color, disablility, ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, race, religion, sex and sexual orientation (see Council on Social Work Education, 2008). Australia’s Mistress Sheridan Taylor explained that professional dommes must have clear boundaries, yet recognize human diversity and not be judgmental of people’s kinks, fetishes, or alternative views. She reported, “We (people) are all different, and obviously have very different opinions and limits…(but) whatever roles we choose to play, we are equal in real life” (Taylor, 2007).
Dominas and social workers/psychotherapists must be approachable and trustworthy if clients are to share deep and important aspects of themselves and their personal lives. Social workers and psychotherapists gather extensive background information during an initial session with their clients. In essence, professional dominatrices also collect thorough psychosocial and medical histories before conducting sessions with clients (see Williams, 2010). Boundaries are set, possibilities for sessions are discussed, and negotiations are determined.
Although much of BDSM play can be designed to be erotic, most highly-respected professional dommes do not have sex with their clients (sex itself is considered taboo within a session). Therapeutic BDSM experience explores clients’ fantasies, which may be viewed as emanating from clients’ secret selves. Most individuals fear revealing their secret selves because they may be stigmatized or disavowed by family, friends and community members, and credibility and reputations may be threatened (see Goffman, 1959). However, the secret self of each individual remains inextricably connected to the larger self, and safely exploring it may be enlightening and provide profound personal insights. This process of exploration and discovery is directly related to the goal of phenomenological psychotherapy, which seeks to help clients recognize, appreciate, and express an authentic self.
Ironically, the experience of seeing a mental health professional has, historically, commonly been misunderstood by much of society, and mental health clients have been, and sometimes still are, stigmatized and harshly judged. Indeed, the mental health professions have had to work hard, and continue to do so, to dispel popular myths about mental disorders, thus strict standards of confidentiality must be maintained. Like the mental health professions, the world of professional BDSM requires confidentiality primarily because of widespread misunderstandings and limited interpretations of such phenomena.
It is important to note here that sexuality is a complex construct that is not neatly packaged within the secret self according to traditional classifications of “normal” and “deviant,” but sexuality varies considerably based on culture, age, historical time period, biology and physiology, and so forth. In other words, it is a broad range of human sexual diversity that is normal (Popovic, 2006). While social workers and psychotherapists help clients understand the complexity of the self and its relation to its broader environment, so do professional dominatrices through structured use of power and eroticism.
Successful client self discovery and growth through social work / psychotherapy or professional BDSM requires the formation of a good working alliance between individual clients and their workers. In BDSM there needs to be a good fit between dominas and their clients, and evidence of this should be present during the assessment process and before dominas agree to provide services to specific clients. During sessions, dominatrices may use various psychological techniques, including behavioral modification, guided imagery, role-play, and psychodrama. Generally, professional dominatrices want each session to be meaningful and cathartic for clients. Although not formalized, professional BDSM shares several core values outlined by the National Association of Social Workers (1999), including diversity, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, integrity, and competence.
Like social work, nursing is historically a female-dominated profession. Patients are commonly disrobed for medical procedures; and procedures in both nursing and BDSM frequently target various anatomical areas of the body (not exclusively the genitalia). Although some procedures may produce discomfort, the overall therapeutic goal in both professions is for a positive, healthful result. Patients / clients and professionals are expected to treat each other respectfully, and boundaries of each should not be violated.
Nursing and many aspects of professional BDSM require some knowledge of anatomy and physiology. For BDSM play that is highly sensory (i.e., needle play, impact play, flagellation, temperature play) at least a cursory knowledge is needed. From a medical perspective, professional mistresses need to know what areas of the body can withstand certain activities safely. We note here that it is a popular misconception that BDSM activities must be intense. To the contrary, many clients prefer more moderate levels of play rather than heavier, intense activities. Even a common gentle to moderate controlled spanking or whipping can feel much like a therapeutic massage, leaving clients who enjoy these activities feeling alert, refreshed, and reduced psychological stress.
Professional dominatrices sometimes offer services similar to that of nurses, and some have formal nursing training. While several of the activities may be common to both professions, obviously the purposes are different. Dommes may role play as nurses or doctors and perform “examinations” followed by procedures that may include administering enemas, catheters, urethral sounds, sponge-baths, and inserting needles. BDSM medical scenarios may awaken parts of the secret self, such as providing an appropriate outlet for exhibitionist fantasies. Medical scenes are not always primarily about sexuality and eroticism, but can play with power dynamics and identity issues associated with authority figures. Additionally, the sensory stimulating aspects of certain medical procedures may be desirable, neurophysiologically, to some “patients.” Regarding BDSM-related sensory stimulation (including pain), there seem to be different discourses among participants through which experiences are constructed and understood (see Newmahr, 2010b).
Obviously, medical type procedures performed by professional dominatrices should be administered with training and care. Of course, while both licensed medical personnel (nurses, doctors, technicians) and professional dominatrices may perform some of the same basic procedures on consenting clients, a profound underlying theoretical issue here involves who within society is allowed to decide matters pertaining to practices concerning people’s own bodies (and what, how and why some sources of knowledge are privileged over alternatives). BDSM medical play may be understood as being particularly transgressive in that it infringes on the territory and, more importantly, the institutionalized authority of modern medicine.
We use the term sex work to refer to a number of possible jobs relating somewhat directly to sexuality, including exotic dancing and striptease, erotic massage (massage primarily for sexual reasons that is administered by practitioners not licensed in massage therapy), and other activities where sex is exchanged for money. Sloan and Wahab (2004) found that many sex workers reject the notion that they are victims of abuse and exploitation. Sloan and Wahab noted that there are a variety of reasons why sex workers may choose this form of employment. Sex work, even among feminists, has been viewed as being exploitative (i.e., Dworkin, 1974; MacKinnon, 1978), empowering (i.e., Bell, 1987; Delacosta & Alexander, 1998) or possibly some combination of both (i.e., Deshotels, & Forsyth, 2006; Murphy, 2003; Philaretou, 2006). Despite a radical feminist perspective that BDSM is necessarily violent and oppressive towards women who choose to practice it, our extensive experiences with numerous professional dommes suggests that this career choice is often personally desirable and empowering. As a veteran professional dominatrix, the second author personally attests to the complexity of her work, the many skills that are needed, and the satisfaction that can come from helping clients obtain satisfying experiences and interesting insights about themselves and their worlds.
It is noteworthy that sex work (and sexual norms, in general) including voluntary prostitution, is viewed quite differently depending on one’s culture and geographic location. Voluntary prostitution is legal in rural Nevada counties and in many developed nations, including the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, and Switzerland. The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2005) recognizes sex clubs, brothels, and escort services as legal and tax paying businesses, and views voluntary prostitution as “a normal occupation.” While many nations are in agreement in denouncing sexual abuse and violence, nations and cultures differ markedly regarding sexual attitudes and norms (Popovic, 2006).
Professional domination is often classified as sex work, yet we argue that it is best conceived as being on the borders of sex work. It should be noted that all sex work is not the same, but there seem to be some common elements across various forms of it. Many would agree there is much overlap in the constructs of sex, sexuality, and eroticism, thus sex work and professional dominas share some obvious common territory. Sex work in the form of prostitution and some BDSM activities may involve applying sensory stimuli to sexual organs, and a satisfying experience that produces pleasure directly involving the body is common to sex work and BDSM.
It appears that sex workers provide a certain level of emotional and intimate engagement, while simultaneously maintaining emotional distance (see Deshotels & Forsythe, 2006; Schweitzer, 2000). Professional dominas are in a similar position, and a study of German dominatrix pseudonyms reflects such ambiguity between distance and intimacy (Wilson, 2005). The relationship of distance to intimacy is complex for many mistresses, because outside of sessions there is the obligation to show respect and compassion for clients, similar to other helping professions, yet within sessions roles may dictate the appearance of considerably more or less intimacy and, conversely, emotional distance. Rather than focusing sexuality directly as sex work often does, BDSM emphasizes playing with power in erotic contexts and how such power relates to self and identity. Therefore, professional dominatrices are capable of providing unique therapeutic services. However, we acknowledge that sexuality, like power, also is directly linked to complexities of self and identity. Finally, despite overlap between sex work and BDSM, many lifestyle and professional BDSM practitioners seem to frame their activities away from sexuality, partly due to dominant and pervasive sex-negative discourses in contemporary society concerning sexuality and sexual variation.
In this article we have proposed that well-trained dominatrices rightly may be viewed as legitimate professionals with their own, unique occupational territory. We have situated this often mysterious profession in relation to other relevant occupations, illustrating overlap with therapeutic recreation, social work and psychotherapy, nursing, and sex work. Much of the work of BDSM mistresses resembles core aspects of established therapeutic professions, and while their domain remains on the borders of sex work, it is not its equivalent—at least not as sex work is generally conceived within much of American society.
The accumulating scholarly research on BDSM runs counter to widespread beliefs that assume such practices are necessarily psychopathological, unhealthy, dangerous, or immoral. Interpersonal BDSM practices and motivations seem to be complex and varied, yet we agree with existing reports suggesting that, like many other acceptable behaviors and lifestyles, BDSM can be creative, expressive, enjoyable, and potentially health promoting and beneficial for many participants (i.e., Kleinplatz, 2006; Taylor & Ussher, 2001; Williams, 2010). Based on current interdisciplinary scholarship, it is logical that many professional dominas may be capable of providing legitimate, therapeutic services to their clients.
While some aspects of BDSM (and for some participants) may be approached from existing professional discourses concerning sexuality, a leisure perspective offers a much broader framework for understanding both lifestyle and professional BDSM. A leisure perspective allows for erotic and sexual motivations in relevant cases, yet it extends beyond such discourses to include differences in individual motivations, potential psychological and health benefits, the expression of unique identities, creativity, and freedom to engage in desired activities. A leisure perspective acknowledges the variety and complexity of BDSM experience among its participants. Professional BDSM often challenges traditional forms and understandings of power and authority concerning bodily practices. As a hidden, but popular, form of leisure service, it warrants critical exploration from scholars and professionals.
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