Sex & Relationships

Rise of the Dominatrix: How to Make $300 an Hour Doing Sex Work ... Without Having Sex

For some women who become pro-dommes, working in a dungeon can be one way to cope with a brutal economy.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia commons

Professional dominatrices (dominant women who submissive men hire for consensual sadomasochism) are not a recent addition to the workforce; before her death in 1836, a London-based dominatrix named Theresa Berkley operated an early 19th century equivalent of what would be called a BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism and masochism) dungeon today. Submissive men went to Berkley’s establishment to be chained up, whipped, birched and caned, and she enjoyed a loyal clientele. But in Berkley’s day, professional domination was very underground; for that matter, it was very underground as recently as the 1970s and 1980s. But with BDSM having become increasingly visible (at least a more softcore version of BDSM), professional domination has become increasingly plentiful. And in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, more and more women have (according to well-known professional dominatrices like Mistress Nina Payne in New York City and Mistress Bella Vendetta in Massachusetts) been looking to professional domination as a possible source of income.

The 1990s were a major turning point for BDSM, which invaded mainstream pop culture in a big way during that decade. Madonna, Nine Inch Nails, Joan Jett and other musical stars brought sadomasochistic imagery to their audiences, and Hollywood films like 1994’s “Exit to Eden” (starring Dana Delaney and Rosie O’Donnell) depicted sadomasochists as a combination of sexy, humorous, fun and edgy. References to BDSM have even found their way to mainstream television programs ranging from the sitcom “Frasier” to the long-running daytime soap opera “The Young and the Restless.” Before the 1990s, vanilla porn films (that is, porn films that aren’t sadomasochistic in nature) avoided depictions of even light BDSM; now, it isn’t unusual for vanilla porn to include scenes that involve mild spanking or light bondage. Clearly, the depictions of BDSM one found in “Exit to Eden,” sitcoms, daytime soaps and San Fernando Valley porn films during the 1990s were depictions of softcore BDSM rather than extreme BDSM, but even so, they made pop culture kinkier than it had been in the past. And as BDSM became more visible and more talked about, professional domination became less controversial.

With the public awareness of BDSM having increased considerably , struggling actresses and struggling singer/songwriters realized that there was more money to be made working in dungeons than waiting tables or working at Starbucks—and during the economic crisis of 2008-2011, people in the creative arts aren’t the only ones who are struggling. There is no shortage of unemployed women with advanced business degrees from major universities; these days, having an MBA doesn’t necessarily mean that one won’t end up working in a dollar store. And for some women who become pro-dommes, working in a dungeon can be one way to cope with a brutal economy.

In the BDSM world, some pro-dommes work on a full-time basis and don’t have any type of job outside of professional domination. But pro-dommes aren’t necessarily full-time pro-dommes; many pro-dommes approach professional domination as part-time work or temp work. And in a terrible economy, the thought of making $200 or $300 an hour (which is what some experienced pro-dommes are still making) is certainly appealing to a woman who is struggling financially. But women who are experienced in the BDSM scene are quick to point out that professional domination is much more challenging than some novices might think it is.

“There are always a lot of young girls wanting to get into stripping or pro-domming or some other kind of sex work, and they think it’s going to be a lot of easy money,” explained Massachusetts-based Bella Vendetta, who has been a professional dominatrix for 11 years and has done fetish modeling for, and other well-known adult websites. “But that is definitely not the case. It’s a lot of hard work. There is certainly money to be made—certainly more than working at the grocery store or some other minimum-wage job. But pro-domming is not easy money, and there are tons of competition.”

Susan Wright, president/founder of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (a BDSM rights organization), said that the majority of women who get into professional domination do so on a part-time or freelance basis—and she has found that many college students and single mothers like professional domination because of the flexible hours.

“A lot of women who go into pro-domination are looking for something to help bridge the gap,” Wright observed. “There are some women who go into pro-domination services and really feel a calling for it; it’s something they intend to make their long-term career. But I think the percentage of women who feel that way is smaller than the percentage of women who are looking for something to help bridge the gap. I think there is a larger percentage of women who are looking at it as something to do part-time or something to do until their career gets started. You find a lot of students doing it, and women in the arts are drawn to pro-domination services because they can do that part-time and still have time to devote to their art. It’s something they can do to make money without having to work a 40-hour week, and it’s also good for single mothers for that reason; they can spend more time with the kids.”

Wright added that women who get into professional domination also like the fact that they won’t be having vaginal intercourse with clients (unlike prostitution) and won’t be asked to take their clothes off (unlike stripping). Being a pro-domme typically involves restraining and torturing naked men, but the dominatrix, unlike the submissive, keeps her clothes on during sessions.

“Being a pro-domme is not prostitution and is not stripping,” Wright said. “It’s more a mixture of performance art and sexual stimulation. And a pro-domme is in a position of power, which is very different from being a stripper or an escort. That puts being a pro-domme in a very different category of sex work.”

New York City-based dominatrix/fetish model/BDSM educator Nina Payne, a.k.a. Kimi Inch, has been training pro-dommes since 2005—and Payne, who heads her own company Domi Dollz, estimated that perhaps about 20% of the women she trains are planning to pursue professional domination as a full-time career. “I would say that about 80% of the women who come to see me start off as just kind of curious,” Payne noted. “They heard that you can make good money doing this, they heard that it doesn’t involve sex or prostitution or whatever, and they feel that it is something they could be open to. All kinds of women have come to me; I’ve had pre-med students, I’ve had women that were in law school, I’ve had women that were dancers or actresses. It’s all types. I meet women who are 18 years old and just graduated from high school, and I have women who are 40 years old or 50 years old and have steady careers but are interested in pursuing it as a side job—and not necessarily just to make money, but also, for the excitement of it. But overall, I would say it is younger women who are in college or are right out of college and are trying to find that first job. They’re hoping to make some extra money and maybe learn some things about their sexuality.”

In the past, many people in the adult entertainment industry (which includes everything from Internet porn to BDSM-related activities to stripping to phone sex) claimed that adult entertainment was recession-proof or at least recession-resistant. But BDSM, like other areas of erotic entertainment, has been feeling the economic pinch—and Wright said that the economic downturn has been making professional domination both more competitive and more crowded. “I think it’s a double-edged sword,” Wright explained. “When the economy is tough and people are looking around for part-time jobs or alternate careers, I think you will have more women becoming pro-dommes and seeing it as a way to make a lot of money very fast—particularly if they’re trying to go to school. But the other side of that is that in a bad economy, there is less spending money—which means there is less demand for pro-domination services.”

Payne, in fact, has observed that while the number of women who want to get into professional domination is greater than ever, fewer submissive men are booking sessions. And Vendetta explained: “People keep saying that during an economic collapse, sex work is the one recession-proof thing—and I have seen that to not be true in the last few years…... It’s harder to make a buck now doing pro-domme work.”

Vendetta pointed out that for novices, professional domination can have a high overhead. The BDSM equipment necessary to create one’s own dungeon, she said, can cost thousands of dollars—and that is in addition to the expensive leather, latex or rubber fetish attire that pro-dommes wear during sessions. A dominatrix who uses someone else’s dungeon, Vendetta noted, typically gives a percentage of her tribute to the owners of the dungeon she is using.

The term “gig economy” has been used to describe a world in which more and more people are self-employed freelancers who work on a project-by-project/independent contractor basis instead of having full-time jobs. Most pro-dommes are very much a part of that gig economy, which means that if they live in the United States, they are likely to do a Schedule C on their tax returns and are probably buying their own health insurance. Pro-dommes can write off a lot of kinky purchases; handcuffs, whips, paddles, ballgags, blindfolds, leather masks, nipple clamps, butt plugs and other items are legitimate tax deductions if used in the line of work.

A self-employed pro-domme who does enough sessions might create a nice income stream for herself, but Payne noted that if a pro-domme is only doing sessions sporadically, it isn’t going to add up to a great deal of income. “There are a lot of ladies out there looking for (pro-domination) work,” Payne said, “and I think they kind of get allured by the hope that, ‘Oh, wow, I can make so much money in one hour.’ But what they don’t realize is that while you can get a large tribute for the hour, how many hours a week do you end up working? It’s totally a crapshoot. The fact that you could potentially make $250 an hour doesn’t mean much if you don’t have any bookings for the next three weeks.”

Payne added: “I do know that when I speak to (pro-dommes) and ask them how busy they are, they say that there has been a drop in business—and they aren’t as busy as they usually are or as busy as they would like to be.”

One thing that experienced pro-dommes often complain about these days is the abundance of women who get into professional domination despite having a limited knowledge of BDSM. “There are a lot of amateurs out there,” Payne commented. “It’s pretty horrendous.”

Vendetta said that some dungeons are more selective than others when it comes to hiring new dommes. Some dungeons, she said, require really extensive training, while others have a less rigorous training process. “There are plenty of dungeons around that will pull any girl off the street if she happens to be pretty, give her a ten-minute lesson and put a whip in her hand,” Vendetta asserted, “but La Domaine, the dungeon where I work, is not like that. It isn’t cookie-cutter Barbie Doll Land over there. It’s pretty intensive training.”

Vendetta added: “I think that now, BDSM is almost too mainstream. People think that if they wear a leather corset and hold a whip, they’re a domme. They don’t realize that it’s a whole lifestyle, a whole scene and a whole community of people—and there are all kinds of things going on.”

Indeed, there is quite a learning curve for women who become pro-dommes for the first time—at least if they want to do it well. Submissive men are not one-dimensional, and a skillful pro-domme realizes that five different clients will have five different sets of needs. One client might request a great deal of corporal activity (whipping, spanking, caning, paddling) and have a high tolerance for pain; another client might be into really hardcore bondage but with little or no interest in corporal. Some clients might enjoy a great deal of humiliation.

The importance of BDSM safety is something that reputable dungeons stress to new pro-dommes; if one is going to play with a cat-o’-nine tails and chain people up, it is important to know what is and isn’t safe. And Wright said it is crucial that dungeons continue to offer informative training to new pro-dommes.

“When bondage isn’t done correctly,” Wright explained, “you can cut off circulation. You can strain ligaments. One of the basics in BDSM is that you never leave someone alone when they’re in bondage, and women who are new to pro-domination learn that in the dungeon system. That’s why, at NCSF, we really do support the dungeons. When the dungeons in New York City were being raided and shut down, it was really a problem because we were losing the structure in which women are taught how to do BDSM safely. The most dangerous thing you can do is drive any type of BDSM education underground. We want our pro-dommes educated.”

The fact that some pro-dommes aren’t getting as much work as they were before the economic downturn isn’t a reflection of BDSM’s popularity but rather, a reflection of the fact that some of their clients have less money to spend; they’re tightening their belts not because they want to, but because they have to. BDSM’s popularity, Wright said, is showing no signs of decreasing—and Wright said that whether a new pro-domme hopes to make a full-time career of it or is only interested in being a freelancer, BDSM is well served by the dommes who receive the best training and education.

“In BDSM, having the proper skills is important; that’s why we have this entire network of educational groups,” Wright stressed. “You need to have skills in order to do BDSM in a safe way and in an interesting way. The more variety a dominatrix has in her repertoire, the more types of people she can satisfy. To be a really good pro-domme, you either have to have that real streak of being a dominant in you or you have to be a very good actress.” 

Alex Henderson's work has appeared in the L.A. Weekly, Billboard, Spin, Creem, the Pasadena Weekly and many other publications.