I’ve been following recent discussions about the double-edged meaning of ‘mistress’. Some of my dominant friends express a dislike for the term due to the other-woman or kept-woman connotations it can carry. I’d like to address that, as the theme pops up in my own life a fair bit and has recently raised its vexatious head again.
Shockingly enough, not everyone who wants me to lay into them with a singletail thinks that I’m the kind of woman you bring home to Mother. There is a constant and undesired tension between my romantic, sexual, and kink partners’ time with me and their everyday lives. For many people, the expression of submissive or bottomish desires is an intensely private experience that they wish to segregate from family, friends, and employers who may not understand that wiring or may be judgmental about it. If one is obviously and unabashedly an assertive happy alt.sex woman of forceful personality, many people quail at the idea of introducing you and your transgressive sexuality to the rest of their world. They don’t want to have to address the questions it would raise in vanilla society.
There are some people who make this into a kink in its own right. I have partners who can get very worked up by hearing that something is forbidden, transgressive, and popularly thought to be wrong. In a way, I find this almost easier to deal with… I’m often tempted to dig my claws into someone’s psyche if they give me such an easy hook. But the people who don’t get off on transgression yet nevertheless wish to shunt our relationship into the booty silo… that’s much more challenging for me. To be sure, it’s not always the dominance particularly that makes me a socially problematic Scarlet Woman — with my female partners, it’s often “I can’t bring a woman home, my parents would never understand”. Sometimes it’s polyamory — their co-workers have already met their live-in partner, you see, so it’s not anything against *you*, Ivy, just… they don’t want to have to explain. I would never be déclassé enough to start dishing details of my loved one’s sex life to their nearest and dearest without a thought for the damage I’d do them, but often my mere existence complicates the face that they perceive to be acceptable and wish to show to the world. I end up being their mistress in both senses despite my wishes. This is hardly pleasing.
For all of you who are about to ask why I haven’t ditched those people who clearly don’t treat me like the queen I am… consider how often this happens. I’ve been dating women for more than a decade, and in that time I’ve had one girlfriend who was willing to call me her partner to her family and co-workers. I have a lovely live-in boy whose family I’ll never meet — they are religious fundamentalists and would find almost every aspect of my existence detestable. Several of my partners have been former Mormons, and you can imagine how well bringing home a bisexual polyamorous dominatrix goes over there. I don’t want to force my partners to get themselves disowned, fired from their jobs, or otherwise socially shunned for having me as an important part of their lives, but the alternative of being their dirty little secret is nearly as unpalatable. Sadly, having the sexual power in a relationship does not automatically prevent exclusion from important areas of your partners’ lives.
I am sure other dominant, self-directed, and assertive women have encountered the same sad dichotomies; it’s not a new problem. If I’d been born in ancient Greece, I probably would have tried to become a hetaira — the educated, intelligent women with the freedom to follow their own intellectual pursuits were also unacceptable in the high society of the time. You could have your mistress, but on the side. Have your heirs with a respectably uneducated woman with no independence, if you please. Had I been born into Belle Époque France, I would likely have ended up a courtesan. I value having my own freedom, my own money, and my own power, and I’ll do exactly as I please with it… but there are times that it means I won’t be received in polite society. (But if I would just shut up and pretend I felt ashamed of my activities like a proper lady, it’d all be fine! Everyone who’s anyone, apparently, does that.)
Dominatrix. Domina. Domme. Goddess. Mistress. Princess. Lady. Maitresse. As a pro-domme, I’ve gone through a love-hate relationship with them all.
I really appreciate Ivy’s point that a lot of it depends on who you’re playing with: if someone just decides that they’re going to call me Mistress, it tends to turn me right off. From time to time in sessions, though, I would tell people to call me Mistress – usually in order to have an excuse to slap them if they forgot. I don’t love the term on its own: the meanings that arise for me include “adulterous female partner” and “lame feminine cognate for Master, as of lands and/or slaves.” Both strike me as archaic and referring to some strange feminine mystery in which I don’t care to participate.
Nothing quite overblows that feminine mystery thing, though, like “Goddess.” I never could stand being called Goddess – especially by people who just decided that’s what they would call me without asking my preference. Bah.
Variations on the “dom” root tend to be more self-applied than what one is called during a scene: I chose “Domme” because I liked how it went with “Delilah,” and because I didn’t want to be called “Mistress” like everyone else. Nobody ever called me “Domme”; it just sounds silly.
So that leaves the two questions still open: how do I think of myself when defining my sexuality, and how do I like to be referred to?
Mostly, when I’m approached by strangers, I’d prefer to be referred to by my name. I enjoy basic respect, not overblown pedestalizing; I find the latter presumptuous and alienating.
Surprisingly enough to me, I’ve found that the term I like best during some scenes is “Ma’am.” It’s short, sweet, to the point, has the cultural weight of respect and deference behind it. But mostly, being named during a scene doesn’t have that much power for me. Five things I’d sooner hear out of a submissive’s mouth during a scene than “Mistress” include: “please…” “ow, fuck!” “nonononono!” “fuck me,” “god, yes…” The list goes on, but even more than the words are the sounds, and even better than the sounds are the looks in the eyes: the fear, the desire, the adoration.
So the short answer for all of that is that I’ve found it’s not that important to me what you call me: depending on the context I’ve enjoyed “Lover,” “My love,” “Ma’am,” “Mistress,” and so on.
But what do I call this thing I do?
I called myself a “domme” for enough years that I refer to what I did as being a “pro-domme” rather than a “dominatrix,” though more people know what that means. While, like Ivy, I kind of like the word “dominatrix;” like Cal, I don’t like how the word others female dominants, and I don’t like what the word refers to: that cartoonish image of the hired female dominant. I find it as strange and pretentious to refer to myself as a dominatrix in a non-pro scene context as I find it for men to refer to themselves as Sir Thumpalot or Lord Wankmeoff at BDSM gatherings.
The word I use most often for myself is Switch, since that most accurately reflects my true sexuality. Topping or bottoming is more something that I do than something that I am, and so much of it – and here’s the key for me – depends on the relationship. My labeling system, as a bi poly switch, is by nature chameleonic: though all of my selves are authentic, who I am depends on who I’m with. My struggle, as a pro domme, was pushing up against the boundaries of who I didn’t want to be: I’m good enough at being what others want that I had to draw the line when it came to whom I’d play with.
I should touch on another place my favorite terminology tends to come from, and that’s the gay leather scene. I don’t do ageplay, but I love playing with a Daddy in the leather sense. On some very special days I’m a boy. I love the word Master and the word Sir and it turns me on whenever someone calls a woman “Sir” on Battlestar Gallactica. My absolute favorite porn book is The Leather Daddy and the Femme, and interestingly, my least favorite part of that book is the part where the Femme is given over to a classic dominatrix for training. I adore the second chapter, however, where the Femme fucks the Daddy in the shower. Go figure.
Words, words, words. It’s complicated. Call me Delilah. I’m a switch, and if you smell right to me, I may want to hurt you. How’s that?
Cal’s last post leads fairly well into the discussion about terminology that we threatened to kick off the blog with. When we were selecting a name for this blog, we considered basing it on some riff on our preferred terminology — in my head, I had irreverently nicknamed it “We Three Queens”, though I didn’t float that as a serious suggestion. However, when we got into discussing the words we used to describe our sexual orientations and practices, we discovered that we had significantly different preferences. In order to understand mine, a little divergence into my history will be helpful.
I have known people who were aware from earliest childhood that they were kinky and dominant. I wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t until I was in grad school that the idea of kink in the bedroom even occurred to me. My boyfriend at the time was, in retrospect, a switch who wanted to be taken down into submission. (This has since become a recurring theme among my male partners.) I was blissfully vanilla, or so I thought. I never looked at porn, having found it profoundly unerotic, the Internet was just beginning to stagger its way out of gopherdom, and I’d grown up fairly sheltered. So, effectively, I had no idea how female dominance was represented. Accordingly, I didn’t have any really bad models to base my kink upon. I am profoundly grateful for that lack, though it would have been useful to have some good ones. My boyfriend of the time, knowing my interest in martial arts, suggested that we take some of that into the bedroom and wrestle to see who was going to get to be on top. I cheerfully agreed to give it a whirl.
Reader, I put him through the door of the laundry room.
In my defense, it was a very flimsy door. I was enthusiastic but inexperienced. Since no one was more than bruised, it’s funny now, but at the time he was rather terrified of me as well as intensely aroused. I had to pay a considerable sum to replace that door. And we were both rather shocked to discover that I was considerably more thrilled by the forcible co-option of power than he was. Unfortunately, our experimentation rarely got much deeper than that… there was a lot of wrestling, and I always won, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do with him afterwards and I didn’t want a repeat of the Door Incident. I had no shortage of ideas, but given how much I scared him and how quiet he got in the moment, I didn’t know what he’d be okay with me doing. He didn’t either, and being as we were both young and stupid, couldn’t really tell me in scene or out of it. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t abuse my position of strength. He, of course, desperately wanted me to abuse my position of strength, but neither of us had the experience or the emotional deftness to recognize that and bring it into sane expression. So I’d take him down, and then we’d sort of blink at each other, and I’d try something tentative, and that ruined the mood entirely for him. He wanted assurance and direction, and I was communicating uncertainty and worry.
With time, I got better at reading my partners’ desires, at choosing partners who would be able to speak about them honestly with me, and at creating scenes that brought those wishes to life for them. I had a very rough patch early on learning to modulate my expression such that I didn’t scare the bejesus out of all my partners — the shift from everyday Ivy (much more cheerfully unthreatening in those days!) to kinkstress Ivy was stark and surreal for them. I got a whole lot of, “Aww, I just can’t imagine you as a sadist, you’re so nice… HOLY SHIT! HOLY SHIT!” It took me several years to work through that. The real cure was a year of putting on the dominatrix cap daily — nothing makes for skill like regular practice — and introducing a little more toothiness into my everyday life so that the transition to kink-space was not so disjunctive for my partners.
Since my formative experiences were significantly with people who viewed me as a dominatrix, I have a fondness for the word. (Also, I like the -trix suffix. It’s got that X. It sounds transgressive, complicated, skilled, point-of-choice. There’s a little St. Andrew’s cross in every utterance, and a crossroads.) I don’t mind “top” or “dominant”, as they’re clear descriptors of what I do, or domme, whose femininity suits me. I don’t think that it’s necessary to set aside a special word for women who do something versus men who do that same thing, but I like the feminine version nonetheless because it reminds people that we’re here. I do not assume a male default person. There are times when I prefer the genderfuck version; in specific circumstances and to specific people, I prefer “Sir” to “Ma’am”. (For starters, “Sir” doesn’t remind me of my great-aunts. I don’t want to think about that in bed!) But regardless of the equipment that I’m using, my sexual expression is specifically feminine. One of the things I enjoy about kink is that opportunity to be a terrifying incarnation of female desire. By using the female versions of most terms, I’m reminding people that we certainly are out there, and we’re defining and owning and enjoying our own expressions of what it is to be sexually dominant.
I have a particular dislike for people assuming that they can assign me the title that gets *them* off. If they’re my partner and they ask nicely, I’ll consider it, but random people “Mistress”ing me are likely to be annoying. (I don’t mind the Mistress title in the abstract, but it’s something that attains weight through relation, not something that anyone can use.) People choosing titles or words that I find actively unsexy (“Mommy” is the prime offender there) are likely to get a chillier reception still. It is moderately astonishing that people in search of female dominance often don’t realize that referring to us as we wish is part of the point. If you can’t even get *that* right, you’re unlikely to be a fulfilling partner in any other way.
I recently read Daniel Bergner’s “The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys Into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing”. One quarter of the book is devoted to his discussion of a “rare female dominant”. While there were many things in his description of her actions and psyche that I found myself nodding along to, just hearing that “rare female dominant” phrase caused howls of laughter among my toppy female friends, followed by the sober reflection that we had a PR problem and a lot of work to do. I’m a dominatrix, among other things. I know female tops and toppy switches, dommes and dominants, sadists and mistresses and ladies, capitalized and not. There are a lot more of us out there than most people think, and we’re working on that PR problem.
I want to start my first group blog experience by explaining why it is important to me in particular to start and write this blog on bdsm issues relating to women who top and dom. (We’ll get to the convoluted terminology posts later on, I suppose.)
I remember what it was like trying to first explore my sexuality and kinks, when I had nothing but pro dommes’ websites and terrible porn aimed at male viewers around to guide me. I remember what it was like to first – finally! – discover that I absolutely could top the way I wanted to. And even now, as an active duty pervert, I still feel marginalized by our culture’s portrayal of toppish women. Frankly, I’m fucking sick of having to struggle against a culture that tells me I must be secretly submissive, or that the only power I have is the power to withhold sex, or that I can’t possibly actually top anyone for reals unless I wear clothing that restricts my movement and sneer properly down at my groveling partner.
This is a social justice movement. I’m not going to go out and organize an unconference. I’m sick of going to local kink events and feeling like no one there is really my sort of geek. But this is important to me, and it’s about damn time for me to start speaking up and fighting back.
I was looking through my email archives earlier, thinking about a short email exchange I had back in undergrad. It turns out that it has been almost ten years to the day since I emailed a random pro domme in a fit of desperation, asking for practical advice on how to handle the fact that my then-boyfriend thought the ball gag we’d bought simply tasted too bad to use. In retrospect, I can’t believe that I actually emailed this complete stranger with what felt like such a ridiculous, stupid question. But back then my school didn’t have anything like CV, and I had nowhere else to turn. I’m sick of pro dommes defining the common perception of dominant women, but I’m still grateful that once upon a time, Ms. Morgana replied without a trace of snarkiness or condescension and gave me a few practical tips and words of encouragement.
Can you imagine? I felt so alone. I actually met Ivy just a few years after that email exchange, and was a bit blown away to finally meet another woman who actually, y’know, liked being in control and doing delicious and terrible things to other people. Not as a hobby or occasional way to spice things up, but as a sexual orientation. (Well, that’s what being a toppish switch is for me, anyways. I’ll let her speak for herself.) It was wonderful, even though we’ve learned over years of friendship that we have very different tastes and ways of thinking about what we do.
That’s pretty much why we chose to make this a group blog. I could write a personal blog about My Kink And What It Means To Me, and maybe it would help people out there who are into just what I’m into, but that’s not the point. The point is to show the world that female toppishness and dominance can encompass people me and people like Ivy and Delilah. It has room for all of us. And if that’s what you’re into, whatever your details may be, it has room for you, too.
For me, this blog is a thank you to the stranger who answered my first call into the dark ten years ago, and to all the other people who’ve helped me learn how to figure out what I want and how to get it. (That’s the real trick. Not tips on dealing with outdated sex toys. Though really, both are valuable!) That, and it’s a direct response to Maymay’s challenge for better resources, for Finally! Something that speaks to dominant women!
My goal here is to shift the discourse on female dominance. I know there are other women out there writing about this already, but we’re still underrepresented, and I want to do my part. It’s a feminist (yes, you are) issue, and a personal matter of changing the social discourse to better accept and encompass my reality.
I could sit here and quote Foucault at you all day, but it comes down to this: We have to move the Overton window such that concepts like ‘femdom must be entirely focused on the arousal of the male submissive’, ‘real men aren’t submissive’, and ‘women can only maintain control by denying sex’ are no longer within the window of conceivable claims.
The Overton window is a concept in political theory that holds that of the full spectrum of possible ideas on an issue, only a subset are actually acceptable in the discourse. For example, the discourse on abortion could theoretically range from forcing all women of reproductive age to bear children until their bodies give out to granting all women sole and sovereign control over their own bodies, but at this stage, the Overton window actually only encompasses statements in the approximate range from ‘women should only be permitted to to receive abortions in cases where the mother’s life is in danger’ to ‘women must have the right to choose abortions up until the stage when the fetus becomes viable’.
Anyways, the concept of the Overton window is neatly illustrated here.
According to Overton, the trick is to move the window such that previously acceptable ideas become taboo, and previously fringe ideas become acceptable in mainstream discourse. He believed the best method for shifting the Overton window is to promote extreme viewpoints in order to tug the window towards less extreme fringe viewpoints in the same direction.
Bitchy Jones is still my favorite example of an extreme voice doing brilliant work towards shifting the Overton window in the discourse on dominant woman. But if the rest of us come out of the woodwork to make our voices heard as well, friends, they may think it’s a movement. And that’s what it is. Because I’m sick of feeling battered on all sides by fucked up images and messages about my sexual orientation.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I have some windmills at which to tilt.