Anatomy of Desire

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

"Community" is a word that's often used, but rarely with precision. She believes there is a BDSM (bondage/domination/ sadism/masochism) community in St. Louis: "We don't have enough people into BDSM for a Yellow Pages. We don't have restaurants. We don't have our own bars. A jazz lover can go to a jazz club. I don't see Fetish Night at the Galaxy as being an accurate view of the average BDSM participant.

"Yet without those things, there are social groups, educating groups, play groups -- people who have gotten to know each other, who have scenes with each other." Perhaps the strongest bond they share is that, when they're together, "we don't have to live with this giant secret."

A noticeable change comes over people who have found something wholly their own, when a self that's been locked away is released. You see it in people who have experienced religious conversion or spiritual illumination, people whose sexual identity has heretofore been closeted -- you see in such people a new self, a self liberated through its own recognition. You see them newly confident, radiantly so.

Rose Johnson

She realized that her desire for control could not only be fulfilled but that she had an instinct for domination. She was good at it -- submissives she played with told her so. She felt she was good at it. "I can throw a single-tail whip with the best of them," she brags, "but I can get the same effect by whispering in their ear at just the right time."

She began to explore the possibility of becoming a professional dominatrix, or "prodom" for short. A prodom who was involved in the local BDSM scene even before there was a scene "took me under her wing. We talked a lot. She recommended books, and she started including me in a few of her sessions, first letting me watch and then letting me participate." She took on a moniker of her own -- let's call her Mistress Kali, because many prodoms take the name of "Mistress" or "Goddess" connected to a powerful female name, sometimes with a reference to myth. Mistress Kali's tutor we'll call Lady M.

Lady M, Kali says, is recognized as a pioneer of the local scene: "She takes people into her life like members of a family. She makes friends and keeps them for years. She's one of the most generous people I've ever met.

"She's one of the first women allowed in the gay men's leather scene. She was the first one." Mistress Kali says there has been a history of segregation between different outsider groups, between gays and straights, women and men. "Lady M allowed for different groups to cross."

Lady M also devoted herself, her knowledge and her body, to Mistress Kali for the novice's tutelage. "Because Lady M's been on both sides," both submissive and dominant, Kali says, "she was able to tell me what the experience is like from both sides. I was able to practice on her. What I learned about myself was that I can push my own boundaries. The first time I ever threw a flogger on somebody's shoulder, I thought I couldn't possibly do this, but he responded with such happiness and such eagerness. The more I did it, the more he liked it."

Mistress Kali began to take on clients of her own, which meant gradually acquiring pieces of equipment and, just as important, costumes. "I love putting on a corset," she says, "thigh-high boots. It's different from my normal life. I love the feel of leather. It's a powerful feeling." She loves shoes with 6-inch heels, loves shoes in general. "I've been into shoes since puberty," she confesses, and she has at least 75 pairs tucked away in closets -- not quite Imelda status but still a significant personal inventory.

The timing of her entry into the profession proved fortuitous. She quickly tired of hauling her various apparatus and costumes to motel rooms. Then Lady M chose to go into semiretirement and sold Mistress Kali her "dungeon" for a flat fee. "My dungeon is a renovated loft downtown -- very quiet, very clean, very subtle. No one's in there except my clients and me."

The décor of a dungeon is as individual as the people who use it. Kali figures there are about five prodoms with dungeons working regularly in St. Louis. She knows of at least 10 private dungeons: "For some people, it's just putting hooks on the wall; for some, it's getting a spanking bench. Some people have full setups in their basements."

What goes on in those spaces is as full of variety as the human imagination can contain. The St. Louis scene motto, one promoted by the BDSM group Leather and Lace, one that appears in Different Loving: The World of Sexual Dominance and Submission (a kind of primer for the novice), sets the requirements of "safe, sane, consensual."

"If you don't have all three things, you shouldn't be playing," says Mistress Kali. "All scenes are negotiated beforehand. Limits and guidelines are discussed. 'Safe' words are established -- words a submissive can use to stop a scene at any time." For example, a word such as "stop" or "don't" might actually serve to intensify a scene, so words outside the context of torture are employed.

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