Anatomy of Desire

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

"As you explore this loving exchange," she notes, "you start to learn their needs, their reactions, to the point you don't even need a safe word anymore."

A phrase often voiced in the BDSM community is "It's about pleasure, not pain," but Mistress Kali finds this to be more jargon than real observation. "For some people, pain is pleasure. Everyone has a different fantasy, and motivations are all different. I've seen people who are true masochists, who can take an extraordinary amount of pain -- and moan with pain -- but they may not understand verbal humiliation at all. A person who wants to worship a woman's feet cannot understand why anyone else would want to be tied up.

"BDSM is not always about sex," she adds. "It's about fetish. It's about fulfillment. It's about pleasure."

And it's about transformation and release, Kali says: "I see that in my work. I see that in people who walk in -- lawyers in three-piece suits who have been in high-pressure, high-powered jobs, all they want is an hour of escape. They don't want to make a decision for the next hour -- that is relaxation, that is a vacation. I see people who want to be cross-dressed, who feel like a different person, who feel comfortable and natural, who have women's names, who have fantasized about that -- and that's where they're comfortable.

"For most people, it's a way of expressing themselves. It's a huge relief. Most of my male clients who are happily married men, they just have to have a void filled in life. They feel they can't go to their wife, or they've brought it up in subtle ways and been rejected." Or they don't want these interactions with their spouse, don't want this to be part of their everyday intimacies.

A reciprocal relationship exists between dominant and submissive. She wants control; he wants no responsibilities. She wants to rule; he wants to surrender. There are submissives who so desire to escape the pressures of adulthood that their dominants diaper them like infants.

Mistress Kali doesn't involve herself in infantilism, but she participates in the stripping away of a personality, then aids in reconstructing that veneer before the client heads out the door: "It's funny, because it's tiring but exhilarating, too. I put out a lot of emotional energy, as does my client, or anyone. It's a lot of intense communicating between two people."

When the session is over, she says, there "should be a cooling-down session, just reconnecting." After an especially profound scene, where role-playing has "taken them completely away from who they are, I slowly bring them back to, say, Eddie Silva, writer, making contact physically, and send them out the door."

She talks about these forms of intimacy with great candor, sitting in a St. Louis Bread Co. as others come and go from their tables, talking about other things. There's the impression she's testing how explicit she can be -- the interview process its own exploration of boundaries between two people. She offers an invitation to explore her dungeon at a later date. Then, after talking about everyday matters, the various positives and negatives of a writer's vocation, she asks, "Do you ever wish someone would just tell you what to do so you didn't have to make so many choices?

"That's what all of my clients want."

The people directing the downtown-loft-restoration boom don't have this sort of space in mind.

In a building in the heart of the city, up the elevator and down an empty corridor, Kali unlocks the door to her dungeon. She's been in ahead of time, arranging the setting for full effect, lighting white candles on two black-iron candelabra. Just as she has described it, the wide room is subtle, clean and spare, yet at the same time warm. The lighting is soft, full of shadows. The most remarkable object in the room is a wooden throne, covered with symmetrically patterned spikes. The sharp points are actually pencil stubs, she reveals, pulling one out of its hole -- 1,200 pencils altogether. The throne is custom-built -- as is most of her equipment -- the design "based on a torture chair I found in a medieval book. It's functional, but I don't use it. It's a piece of art."

The walls are exposed brick; ventilation pipes are visible on the ceiling. The floor is carpeted in a thick brown weave. The stereo is tuned to Classic 99.

There's an antique wooden altar, engraved with the words "In Remembrance of Me." There are a couple of framed prints: one with a white-faced, masked figure, the word "Reality" written beneath the image; the other, a print labeled "Bizarre No. 10," features a woman with orange-red hair, gagged, a look of fear or anticipation -- or both -- on her face.

Across one wall is a row of long, thin mirrors, and shards of mirror. A firm leather chair with a slender back sits alone in the room. The St. Andrew's cross hasn't been set up yet. Hanging from the ceiling is an ominous metal hook to a 1-ton hoist.

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