Anatomy of Desire

A St. Louis dominatrix instructs the uninitiated in bondage, domination, sadomasochism, masters, slaves, dungeons and other pleasures and pains

She's not unlike anyone working in the cubicle next to yours. She may be a data-entry person (which she is). Attractive, middle-aged, divorced (which she is as well) -- you can imagine the details of her appearance any way you like: blonde, brunette, redhead. Shapely, plump, stout, thin -- she won't be described with specific details, because the risks to the life she has imaginatively, and determinedly, created are too great. Her family doesn't know; her son doesn't know. If her identity were revealed in these pages, she'd lose everything -- that life she has constructed is delicately secured. So imagine her as you will -- her business is fantasy, after all -- but don't make of her someone extreme, the mental picture that comes with the word "dominatrix." She's not who you would expect ("I'm not Elvira," she says), just as the corporate CEO, the lawyer, the former NFL star sporting the Super Bowl ring -- some of her clientele -- are not the people you would expect to be into bondage, cross-dressing. You would not expect them to be the sort who would ask -- no, beg -- to be whipped, to be verbally humiliated, to be spanked, and then head home to their wives and children, feeling restored.

Think of her, at least superficially, as a typical Midwesterner. She was born and educated in the city, raised in a large Catholic family, but don't make any assumptions about abusive priests or sadistic nuns, or some perverse childhood interpretation of the wine and the chalice, the robes and the incense. She wasn't that kind of Catholic girl. "Why do people want different things?" she asks, rhetorically. "Some can say, 'Back in childhood such-and-such happened.' There is nothing in childhood I could look at and say, 'This is why I enjoy being in control so much.'"

Adolescence, as with most people, was a time of exploration. The adolescent quest for meaning or significance shows itself outwardly in clothes, fads. A profile of youth culture in St. Louis in the late '70s would include the fading-out of disco, the first punkers and hip kids catching the new wave. The more intimate discoveries aren't so easily stereotyped.

Rose Johnson

Her boyfriend was open to exploring different fetishes, she says: "We played with areas of bondage, sensuality, role-playing." But, as with most people, those teenage years of adventure and daring became a memory. She grew into adulthood and did what adults do: married in her early 20s, gave birth to a son, lived a family life. "The marriage was completely vanilla," she says, and adds, "and vanilla is good, too. Everything was fine; the marriage went its course. My desire for fetish didn't have anything to do with my divorce."

With the dissolution of her marriage, once the pain subsided, she realized new possibilities, a world beyond the boundaries marriage had imposed. She remembered happier days, more free-spirited days, and those teenage forays into kink: "When I was married, and that wasn't available, I didn't actually miss it, but once marriage was over ... "

Once marriage was over, about five years ago, she checked out the Internet. The desire for control -- or, more crucially, the pleasure of control, which she had experienced since childhood -- she found on the kinkier filaments of the Web.

If people with fantasies for handcuffs and butt plugs, for wooden canes and leather paddles, for playing the role of slave or master -- if they found themselves isolated and assumed themselves alone, abnormal, deviant in the seemingly kinkless Midwest, the Internet revolution was their invitation to reach out and flog someone, and right here in River City.

She began discovering information, the kind of information she didn't know existed. She uncovered a local chapter of a national organization, People Exchanging Power (PEP), a group that meets monthly at a hotel near I-270 for informal discussions. Coaxing herself to attend her first meeting was difficult, she says: "I didn't have any idea what to expect. When I got there, I realized they were very friendly people, welcoming me."

There were about a dozen participants, mostly men. "Women tend to come with other men," she says, "or they don't come at all." One couple led the group discussions. It could have been any civic organization gathering to share ideas about pertinent issues, drinking sodas, munching on vegetables and dip, wearing name tags -- "Hi, my name is ...." For her, the surface banality of it all provided a jolt of recognition: "I wasn't as abnormal as I thought I was."

She was understandably shy at her first PEP meeting (or " PEP rally," she jokes, "black-and-blue pompons"): "The first time, I just sat and didn't talk about anything." Books were discussed, some how-to info was provided -- imagine a Tupperware party, except the fetish material of choice is leather rather than plastic.

"As I got to know some of those people better, I was introduced to more private groups," she recalls. People who met at PEP splintered into groups "to have more play, to have something more than a book club." You can't develop dexterity with a whip by reading a manual, she says. And then these groups became couples. "That's where community starts," she observes, "a community of like minds."

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