This piece has been excerpted from the anthology We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival, forthcoming from the Feminist Press in February 2021.
“I want to be punished,” Gerry stated, as a Bach fugue serenaded from speakers above and candlelight flickered across the lenses of his wire spectacles. His brow furrowed to convey gravity and I nodded, but not without a smirk. This was not an unusual post-cocktails request for me to hear, as at that point I had been a dominatrix for close to two decades. Gerry had been a regular client since my first year practicing as a professional in the Bay Area. As many sex workers can attest, client relationships with longevity of loyalty and good behavior can often evolve into something akin to friendship. There are clients we keep at bay and those with whom we relax our boundaries.
Gerry was what I deemed a personal client. Someone whom I allowed to know me beyond the professional, controlled S&M top service I offered as a job. I was also familiar with a greater part of his life, having met with his wife at social occasions several times, with full disclosure of our relationship. However, I made no illusions that the social downtime was still supported by the monetary relationship—a wad of cash or something like it.
That particular evening, we had met as usual at my private S&M studio, a spacious loft in the Financial District of New York City with bespoke bondage furniture for the immobility aficionado. With natural light pouring through ten-foot windows and grand mirrors poised to reflect one’s image ad infinitum, I had created my studio to be a space where one could feel an abeyance of time and identity. There, we enjoyed a playful session with rope bondage, spanking and a bit of delectable whipping, ending with a prodigious strap-on cock, so gargantuan in size that I actually had to lean back on my heels to accommodate the lolling weight. Gerry was a tall, rotund figure with the plump face of a man-boy. He was an IT programmer by day and a size queen by night. I was a dominatrix by day and by night, betwixt sessions, I was a writer, yogi-cyclist, drunk and sex workers’ rights advocate.
Unlike many of my other clients, Gerry had never divulged any stories of acute trauma. We had talked about his childhood, particularly about how his father had been a flagrant womanizer and adulterer, as we were transforming his daddy issues into scenes of kinky play. Gerry was proud that he had his (second) wife’s permission to engage with sex workers, rather than cheat behind her back. He was almost sanctimonious in regard to the payment for erotic services. In his eyes, the monetary exchange upheld the respectful equality between client and service provider, in judicious contrast to his father’s misogynistic philandering. I couldn’t agree more.
“I need to tell you something that I’ve never told anyone before…” Sex workers hear this all the time. We carry the secrets that men never tell their wives, their friends, not even their therapists. As whores, we are entrusted with the most profane and, I believe, the most precious personal stories. I have listened to stories of bones broken, of violent incest, of suffering war crimes from victims who are brave enough to come through my doors and seek ritualized reenactment. Some seek to re-face the trauma for closure; some seek to transform it into affirmative kink.
Kink sex work was a perfect career for me. It suited my personal inclinations of bondage, control and sadomasochism, and channeled my zealous sexual expression into cash. It also was a daily therapy for me to address violence in a consensual manner.
Sexual violence is part of my history. I was and am vocal about it. I learned the word “rape” when I was eight years old. As a daughter of Chinese immigrants, there was an abundance of words I had to look up in the dictionary, as my parents were learning English at the same or slower rate as my brother and me. My mother often recollects learning her English numbers from Sesame Street, which might be the root of her slightly comical pronunciation. “Rape,” however, was a word from my mother’s own mouth. She had used it in the story every child wonders about: How was I born?
I was conceived by rape. Though horrific-sounding now, this truth was less so for me at the time. The word just doesn’t carry as much weight to most children as the word “homework” or the presentation of a dark staircase. At eight, I didn’t even understand the mechanics of sex. I understood from my mother’s voice that it was a terrible thing, something that made her body curl up next to me in my bed, hiding from my father. The meaning of rape gathers its due thorns as we mature into beings who have either experienced it ourselves or have the empathy of decent humans. I later entered into the full understanding of the word “rape” first through the latter door, then the former.
A few months into our freshman year at college, Jen, a close friend from high school, called me from her Syracuse dormitory. A boy she had been smitten with had raped her after a party. I can’t recall all of our conversations, and there were many, but I know that I had urged Jen more than once to go to the authorities, to press charges. It seemed imperative that she try to stop this guy from inevitably doing the same to another woman. I feel ashamed now that I didn’t place her needs and safety first before a hypothetical future victim. I also realize now that I was experiencing her rape as an excruciating epiphany.
The sound of Jen’s voice, her tears and soul-ripping sobs, unearthed the deep memory of my mother’s story, the same hollow tone, the utter devastation of safety. I felt more than empathy for my friend. I felt my body shatter, fully coming into the understanding that this act was the seed that had planted me in the world.
It would be years later when I’d learn “rape” again. In 1994, my junior year of college, I was studying feminist theory and gender politics in the classroom by day. I spent my evenings with the drag queens, fire-eaters and strippers of the Blue Angel Cabaret in Tribeca, where New York City Neo-Burlesque was blooming.
I performed an S&M vampire lesbos act that showcased my sexual goth fantasies to a basement of strange men and swank hipsters. And though exposed through kitsch choreography, complete with fake blood that tasted like cherry cough syrup, I felt confused by these roles in private: top, bottom, sadist, masochist. These urges seemed to be regressive replicas of a childhood steeped in domestic violence: abuser, victim. I hurt and sought hurt with no rules.
One night, after a performance, I met my friend’s older brother. He was visiting the city, a beautiful man with full lips and a mane of dreadlocks. After my first drink, I grabbed his head by its ropes and drew him in for a biting kiss. I wanted to show him that this little Chinese girl was fierce and I was pleased when he grabbed me at the wrists, locking them by my side. He had just seen my act; he “got” what I was into. My friends phased in and out of our barroom foreplay. After the second drink, his thick hands seemed to multiply. By the third, my face was flushed and I felt like a sea plant, being pulled by a hard current back to his hotel. In the confines of the stark, anonymous room, all the rules of how far one could play in public vanished and I was naked. The man was rough and frightening and I had wanted it that way.
Then all of a sudden he was hitting me too hard. He smashed my cheek to the side and gripped my throat. I was caught in the undertow and I didn’t want it anymore but my playful wrestling just moments before had clearly meant “yes.” There was no safe word.
When he was done, I pulled on my clothes as though I were dressing a mannequin. I hovered over my body, watching. I remember that he escorted me downstairs in a bright, fluorescent-lit elevator, that he kissed me and said, “You’re bleeding,” in a gentle voice as though he were simply saying “good evening.”
When I got home, I showered and the water seemed to glaze off of me. I slept on my floor, unable to crawl into the loft bed. I hid in my apartment for days before picking up the phone and calling my mother for help. Later, while I was being examined by the family doctor, I uttered the word “rape,” but I felt I was lying. Though my friends encouraged me to contact the authorities, just as I had encouraged Jen, I refused to press charges. That man had beaten me and fucked me, but I didn’t think it was rape because I had asked for it.
Many twists, turns and several deep annihilation dives ensued in the following years of my life, including depression and addiction. I stopped dancing but was drawn to the sex industry again in my quest for control.
There is another reason that I fought with the word “rape.” It truly means victim. It means that I was not in control. If I was not in control, then it could happen again. I sought control and instead found consent. I began a career as a dominatrix.
Conducting kink sex work allowed me to interact with clients in a sensual and erotic manner, and though it reflected my sexuality, the commercial contract simultaneously reserved personal desire. Sex work can detach emotional vulnerability from physical intimacy in a way that allowed me to observe myself—the various desires of sadism and domination—and how my actions affected others. It taught me control over my inclinations for violence.
I am not the first or only person to declare my path of kink and BDSM to be one of healing, but in early 2000 it was not yet common in the professional field to be out about one’s own journey as a masochist and abuse survivor. The fear of stigma and assumptions of pathology are still so daunting in the business of erotic domination; exposing one’s personal rape history can feel even riskier. More by accident than from courage, I spilled my story onto my LiveJournal, writing into a dark screen with no analytics to comprehend where my words were landing. But my truth drew in certain clients—many of them abuse survivors as well as queer and trans people who were dealing with everyday trauma. A few of them had also suffered rape.
While BDSM/kink and many other arenas of sex work can provide therapeutic experiences, reeducation of consent and facilitation of cathartic rituals, they are not replacements for therapy and community. For clients who were dealing with a history of acute trauma or suffering from depression and anxiety, I urged outside counseling with kink-friendly therapists. Kink clients are often not involved in the Leather community, and so their professional providers may be the only people they have to talk to about their sexual orientation. This lifeboat dynamic is then loaded with so much more emotional gravity than the power exchange contract.
Even when we are not providing the sympathetic ear for personal stories, the work of sex work is active listening. The emotional labor involved in not only being empathetic to the most confidential sexual fantasies but also then choreographing the enactment is profound and widely unacknowledged. But as a storyteller, I usually enjoy this part of my job immensely, and so I sat with Gerry in my kitchen during our post-session decompression and urged on his confession, not at all prepared for what was to come.
Gerry told me that he had raped his first wife one night, after she had clearly refused to explore anal sex. He told me that, with a few drinks fueling his rage, he had held her down and forced his way into her body from behind. He told me that she had cried in pain, that she’d cried for him to stop, that she’d kept crying for days after. It was, he swore, the only time.
“I want to do some kind of ritual with you,” Gerry said. “I can’t ask my ex-wife for forgiveness [she had since passed away], but I can ask you, as a rape survivor. Could you… beat me, carve it out of my flesh—whatever anger you may have for your rapist?” Tears were pouring from his eyes. He fell to his knees with outstretched palms, repeating the words “I’m sorry…”
I had once observed a similar confession. I was a child playing quietly at the underbelly of my mother’s baby-grand piano behind the foliage of houseplants, my stuffed animals and myself unseen. My father walked into what he thought was an empty room and fell to his knees, weeping. It was just days after he had committed a horrific act of cruelty in our home. He was sorry, he said in Chinese, he was sorry again and again, but it was said to no one and no one answered.
An unknown witness, I didn’t forgive my father as I watched him supplicate to the emptiness around him. Fear and anger hardened my young heart into a fist. I hated him and wished him dead. The violence I had witnessed was enough, but it was also the everyday silent threat of violence, the stone face I had to assume outside the household walls—those tensions were wires that tightened across my chest and allowed no room for forgiveness.
Decades later, as I was bound in a web of rope, my naked back burning from the pounding of leather floggers and unrepentant whips wielded by a dominatrix I had paid for a ritualized-pain session, those wires were broken. As air expanded my lungs, space rushed in, and I was allowed to forgive, to let go. I had done my digging, uncovering my father’s own fatherless childhood, the abusive treatment by his adoptee uncle, and came to understand what it meant to live in a brown Asian body in an America where he was called a “gook,” a “slant-eyed,” a “ching-chong Chinaman.” I had realized that there was an undiagnosed illness within him and a world of brutality that had shaped him.
“Please forgive me,” Gerry said after a long silence as I took in his story. One of the tea lights had extinguished, his round face waned in the darkness. A tendril of smoke floated upward and along with it, I felt myself unhinge from my body and hover above, watching my hands that had just been holding this man’s body so close to my own, connected by a penetrating silicone shaft.
“No,” I said. I remember saying no, I could not share my anger for my father or my rapist with him. I would not punish him and I could not be his dominatrix for that scene. “It’s not my place to forgive you. I am not the woman you raped.”
“But,” I may have said, looking into his face, though not his eyes, “as a woman who has been raped, I am sorry for you.”
“We all deserve to heal,” a friend said to me recently. “Even rapists.” But it is also not the responsibility of the victim to heal the abuser. In our society, it is often those who are most vulnerable and victimized who bear the cross of educating the greater population on what it means to be humane, what it means to be tolerant, what it means to be kind. As a rape victim, as a daughter born of rape, as a sex worker who has helped victims heal, as a mother of two girls, I hold both these positions: what it is to forgive and to not forgive.
I don’t remember the rest of my conversation with Gerry that night, but we floated along without disruption to our professional relationship. I believe I must have drunk quite heavily afterward, as I was prone to do those years. Perhaps a better woman, a stronger feminist, a more professional dominatrix would have stopped seeing him, cut him off. Or perhaps she would have created a soulful ceremony of mercy. But I did neither. I shelved his secret in the same dark corner where I’d stashed a load of memories that pop out from time to time to wreak havoc as PTSD episodes. Healing is never done.
We met again for sessions, but never with the intention to address his confession. I also met him several times after we ceased professional sessions. We met to talk, as people who had shared time on earth together, as he was dying of cancer. The October morning I learned from Gerry’s wife that he had passed away, I cried with grief but also with immense relief, the same that had washed over me when my father had died.
May your suffering and that which you inflict upon others end. May your dust grow better things.
Art credit: Kim Ye, Fem Dom POV [mummification], 2015. Latex, pigment, silicone personal lubricant and hardware, 38 × 38 in.