Fay leaned forward in her chair. The 21-year-old Lang student’s eyes wandered across the empty cafeteria to the two students eating their lunch a few feet away, but neither the assertiveness nor the clarity in her voice wavered. “You know, it’s all legal, so there isn’t really anything we have to worry about. We’ve had undercovers come in and they don’t really have any shit on us because our girls don’t have sex with anybody; we’re actual dominatrixes,” she said.
A recent study conducted by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce revealed that 40% of all undergraduate students in the U.S. work jobs alongside their classes. Though it may not be the most conventional of jobs, Fay is yet another undergrad trying to balance completing her screen studies major with a part-time job. “I work at a BDSM dungeon as a mistress/dominatrix/switch,” said Fay, who declined to use her last name for privacy reasons.
“Just the fact that I can do something that is technically considered sex work – but legal sex work because there is no actual sex involved – is a positive experience,” she said. Originally from Philadelphia, Fay has been working at the dungeon for almost two months now but is still considered a “new girl” among seasoned dominatrixes in their 20s and 30s.
Another Lang student has been working at the same dungeon as Fay for ten months. The student requested to be referred to as Joan in this article in order to protect her job. “I try to educate people. A lot of people wish I wouldn’t. Some people tell me ‘you shouldn’t talk about what you do.’ But I think if people knew what being a dominatrix really was like, it wouldn’t be as taboo,” she said.
The 21-year-old junior spends her weekdays working on her screen studies major, her weeknights with her boyfriend at their Queens apartment, and her weekends working in the BDSM dungeon. “On a normal night I usually show up in sweatpants, my hair out, no makeup on. There are big comfy couches, there’s Netflix, so I usually chill until I have an appointment. then I’ll see a client for an hour or two,” Joan said. “You have to keep consistent shifts. That way the clients know when you’re going to be there, just like any other job, like a hairdresser might only [be] in on Tuesdays or something. People like consistency.”
A typical shift at the dungeon lasts about eight hours and takes up most of the night, though both women said that a slow night can include a lot of downtime. “I can work on school while I’m there. I can also take a nap while I’m there. Actually, that’s one of the [reasons] why I like my job, and why I’m not trying to get a more normal job, like say at a coffee shop,” Joan said. “Sometimes I’ll already have clients waiting for me, sometimes it’ll just be a dead night shift where there aren’t any clients at all,” Fay explained. Both Joan and Fay make $80 an hour with clients. “A lot of girls aren’t happy with the money because some weeks you might be making nothing, other weeks you might be making thousands,” added Joan.
“It’s hard being a college student and I don’t get much financial help from my parents, so I try to support myself. School is obviously number one. It’s a hard balance, but being a dominatrix allows me that balance,” Joan said. Also a Philadelphia native, she moved to New York for her freshman year of college and found herself struggling to maintain a full-time student workload and her waitressing job, which had taken up most of her nights. “It was really bad for my mental health. I’ve struggled with depression before and having a busy schedule like that just weighed me down even more. Even though I was making more as a waitress, it wasn’t worth it. My schoolwork slipped, I was very depressed,” she said.
Joan came across a job posting for the dungeon on Craigslist and responded on a whim. “I don’t think of myself as a particularly nasty or disgusting person. I mean, I have good hygiene, I take care of myself, and you know the stereotypes about Craigslist. But the first girl I met [at the dungeon], she was in her 30s, she was a graduate student, she was hygienic, she was good-looking. I was like, yeah, these are the kind of people I want to associate with,” she said.
When a friend told Fay about the BDSM dungeon, she was originally uninterested. However, upon returning to New York City this fall, she found herself in need of a job. “I get financial help from my legal guardians – as much as they can give me – but I really don’t want to break their bank. I do want to be independent,” said Fay. “I was kind of judgemental about it and I didn’t really trust what [my friend] was doing, but after seeing that she was fine after eight months of being there I was like, ‘Oh okay, it is feminist and respectful and the women do have all the control,’” she said.
Fay believes in being open when discussing her work. “I’m very upfront about my work just because I feel like school and work are a huge part of my life and there’s no way I could be friends with a person if they didn’t understand what I did,” she said. On a recent first date, her candidness was met with complete shock. “I told him I was a dominatrix and he was like ‘You need to get out of there right now! That’s not a good place for a lady to be!’ and I was just like, ‘Okay, I don’t think this is going to work,’” she said, stifling a laugh.
“If we’re talking about dominatrix work, then that also ties into the politics of how BDSM is stigmatized,” explained Geeti Das, part-time faculty in the Global Studies Program at The New School, who currently teaches Global Gender and Sexuality at Lang. Das said that people can sometimes unintentionally stigmatize sex workers by “framing sex work as a homogenous condition of victimhood.”
“There’s more and more research being done, at least in the US context, of how much white respectability politics is emerging in BDSM activism and organizing,” said Das. “I think it’s similar to a critique that was made of what’s become a more mainstream lesbian and gay movement – the idea that you have to play into respectability politics and say, ‘Oh, we’re just like everybody else except for this one thing that we do that is private and behind closed doors.’”
For both Fay and Joan, being a dominatrix does more than pay the rent. For Fay, it means feeling empowered. “The dominatrix job really puts women in a position of power and because of that, it’s helped not just me, but I’m sure a lot of other girls to be able to trust men and feel like they actually have some kind of control. Especially for women that come from lower middle class areas — like me — where we’re sort of raised and taught to be more submissive and passive. It’s kind of helped me be able to put my foot down more,” she explained.
For Joan, dominatrix work means self-expression. “I’ve had some trauma in my past, and it’s really helped me to overcome that. I see that for a lot of girls, too. I feel it’s a method of expression that’s very healthy,” she said. “One of the reasons I would never quit is because I’ve met people in my line of work that I connect with more than anyone.”
Joan explained that dominatrix work isn’t all sex, whips and chains. “Novels like 50 Shades of Grey have it all wrong,” she said. “One, it’s not about sex. My clients [and I] – we’re both clothed. Also, it’s all about consent,” she said. Joan’s description of one of her more memorable sessions sounded as though she were spending time with a friend. “The whole session was basically just us reading each other poetry and hanging out. He was older, he was probably in his sixties and I just think he was very lonely,” she said.
Joan said she prefers corporal punishment sessions to building a connection with a client. “Some men like more of a girlfriend experience. They like cuddling, they like flirting, they like being sweet, you know, while you’re also spanking them or whatever. Those I personally don’t do anymore because I just found those very exhausting. It’s one thing to go to work to spank someone – you don’t feel that emotional toll – but when you actually have to connect with someone, they suck a little bit out of you,” she explained. Then there are the clients with the bizarre requests. “My most recent client just wanted to do anything gross so I made him clip my toenails,” Joan said.
“One of my clients was sessioning with another girl as well and he crossed a boundary. He wanted her to remove her skirt and she refused. He got very angry, she got very angry, the manager came in, and the manager got very angry,” recalled Joan. “It was a very awkward situation because as dominatrixes we try to stand together, but at the same time this is someone who’s giving me money, who’s paying my bills, against someone that I’m working with.” Men who misbehave in the dungeon face being banned, but losing a client comes at the expense of the dominatrix. Joan still sees the client. “Some girls don’t want to be in [just] their underwear, or something like that, and that’s a personal boundary. It’s important to keep those,” she said, adding, “Obviously you should never cross any boundaries and he was in the wrong, but I also couldn’t afford to lose that [income].”
Despite having to juggle late work nights with early morning classes, Joan plans on continuing her work in BDSM at least until after she finishes at The New School. “Look, I’m in college, I’m not going to do this forever, but I’m making enough to pay my rent. I’m happy and I’m stress-free,” she said.
Fay, however, has since stopped working at the dungeon after finding it difficult to balance her school and work. “I’m very disappointed in myself and I miss working there a lot, but I probably won’t be able to go back until I’m no longer in school. I could go back if I really wanted to but my grades would suffer,” she said. “It’s nothing to do with the dungeon.”
Illustration by Camille Petricola