Touch Therapy / Talk Therapy: Intimate Labor and Nurturing Femininity

A common convention among women I interviewed was that some clients come to the dungeon for the intimate though not necessarily erotic, skin-on-skin experiences that they are lacking in their private lives. One pro-domme spoke to this phenomenon, as well as to the idea of the displacement of complicit masculinity in the dungeon, when she explained: “You know, people just don’t get touched. A lot of them, especially with older ones, it’s, ‘Since my wife died, I haven’t been able to feel vulnerable with someone.’” Another woman described her interactions with a specific client, whose wife had been undergoing cancer treatments:

He used to come see me to be able to dress up. He’s a cross-dresser and we would put him in ridiculous slutty, slutty, slutty outfits. And he’s like 6’4” and moderately big, so he required, like, [size] “extremely husky” [laughs]. And crazy wigs and lots of bondage on top of that–lots of feminizing bondage. And he would see me for a two-hour session, and I would dress him up, and then I would, like, cuddle him. And, really, what he needed was to get away from the stress of being really, really scared about his wife.

Since his wife’s cancer had gone into remission, the informant told me, “He doesn’t see me nearly as much. He’s not as stressed out as much.” Here, again, we see the dungeon framed as a therapeutic environment in which clients experience relief from real-world pressures, but we also see an assertion that the positive psychological effects of physical contact. Both pro-dommes and clients regularly spoke about dungeon visits in terms of “stress relief.” One clients told me, for instance, that he first began to engage in BDSM activities as a teenager. “Basically, it was an escape from stress,” he explained. “I didn’t have to worry about how my parents reacted to my grades or about school.”

This idea of escape is also inherent within the concept of “subspace”: a term many BDSM participants use to describe a trancelike state into which subs sometimes enter during the course of a scene. “Subspace is when you’re playing with someone who’s submissive, and with the beatings or whatever they go into almost a trance zone,” a New York indie explained, adding, “It is the most beautiful thing to see.” In subspace, according to many of the women I interviewed, subs become so deeply engrossed in the play that they make a temporary break with the reality of the moment–a psychological escape.

The dungeon provides an outsourcing of physical affection, also, in that it is not uncommon for a client to request that his dominatrix cuddle him and speak soothingly to him. These “cuddling sessions” were especially popular with pro-dommes who specialized in wrestling, perhaps because these women engaged in more extensive skin-on-skin contact with clients in general.

One such wrestling domme indicated that talking to clients was sometimes as important as administering touch. Asked if she had ever gone into the dungeon and done anything different from the scene that had been negotiated prior to the session, she replied, “Well, the one that comes to mind is the one where it was supposed to be a wrestling session and the guy was like, ‘I have a cold. Let’s just chat instead.’ I got to hear an awful lot about being a pediatrician that day. And I sat there in my tiny little thong, and he sat there, and we just chatted, and I think he was very happy that he got a chance to talk to someone.”

Other interviewees ensconced their rhetoric about the importance of conversation more explicitly within the therapeutic discourse, as demonstrated in the following excerpt from an interview with one pro-domme from Manhattan:

What do you like most about being a domme?

Mostly the power and control. And I like that you’re kind of a therapist to these people, and we all have something in common together. And even if it’s just for an hour, they’re really going to trust me to do what they really want done. A lot of the clients that I get, they usually talk to me about their problems because their wives or their girlfriends don’t wanna hear it. So they end up telling me about their problems, and sometimes they gcome just for that, instead of paying a therapist. But they also feel like there’s some stuff they can’t talk to their wives or their girlfriends about, like their interests and their fantasies. So they usually come to us instead, because they know that we cater to those.

Her response is illustrative not only of the precarious balance between remaining “dominant” within the exchange and providing a service but also of the companionate labor involved in this industry. As she indicates, clients come in to discuss general issues in their personal lives as well as issues directly related to their interest in BDSM–an interest about which they may experience emotional ambivalence. As one indie asserted, “I tell people, ‘I’m a sex therapist.’ Like, I help people fulfill their fantasies and work through their shit. And a lot of it’s therapy. A lot of it is talk therapy. And I don’t even have to do anything! Like, I just started doing phone sessions, and I don’t even have to say anything. People just call me and wanna talk about their fantasies.”

This concept of the dungeon as a confessional space in which the act of talking proves psychologically beneficial ties into my previous argument about professional erotic dominance as the outsourcing of intimate, emotional labor, and it also has correlates within other professions. Consider, for instance, the common image of the bartender as a kind of therapist who provides both alcohol and a sympathetic ear. Another parallel lies in the ethnographic process, in the relationship between the researcher and informant. In her book about sex workers, Bernstein describes an incident in which a man who had visited prostitutes “bubbled over with emotion when he noted at the end of our interview how much he appreciated talking to me, especially given how much cheaper it was than a visit to his psychotherapist” (2007, 198). Like the barfly who confides in the bartender or the informant confessing to the ethnographer, the client coming in “just to talk” gets interpreted as undergoing a healthful purging of the psyche. The therapeutic discourse suggests that, in postmodern American–in which there exist so many social prohibitions on speech and touch outside of intimate relationships–clients who do not have intimate ties, and even some who do, can purchase within the walls of the dungeon the kinds of emotional attention that such ties are expected to provide.

In making this argument about the emotional labor in which pro-dommes engage, I draw upon the scholarship of Dana Becker, who has argued that such labor–particularly within the context of “therapeutic” arrangements, broadly defined–sustains hegemonic relationships of gender and power. Describing the “myth of female empowerment” within our postmodern therapeutic culture, Becker asserts that the “repackaging of the psychological as power” has resulted in the colonization of women’s psyches: “What the therapeutic culture offers women . . . is merely a type of compensatory power that supports the reproduces the existing societal power/gender arrangements by obviating the need for social action to alter them, as women continue to perform the ‘emotion work’ of society, both domestically and professionally” (2005, 1, 3). My argument here is not that pro-dommes’ narratives about their work unambiguously reproduce relationships of gendered power; in many ways these narratives subvert such relationships. Looking at professional erotic dominance as a therapeutic practice through the lens of this theory, however, helps to bring into sharp relief the ways in which the femininity produced in the dungeon is indicative of women’s roles in society more generally.

This includes women’s roles within other forms of erotic labor. It should come as no surprise, in light of the previous discussion about the significant demands of emotional engagement required by sexualized work, that the concept of erotic labor as a therapeutic activity is nothing new. One faint but audible strain within pro-sex feminism has been a discussion about credentialing prostitution under the aegis of therapy. Feminist philosopher Laurie Shrage asserts, for instance, that by “redefining the ‘prostitute’ as an erotic artist or therapist, we hope to alter the kinds of qualities people seek and see in her, and to socially define her as a person that one can say hello to on the streets” (1994, 86). Chancer notes that the reclassification of sex work as sex therapy has been suggested by sex workers themselves (1993, 161)–a point supported by Chapkis’s interviews with female prostitutes. Discussing “strategies of redefinition,” which are “efforts to recreate sex work as a ‘wholesome’ and ‘normal’ service,” Chapkis explains, “One such attempt involves licensing sex works as credentialed ‘sex therapists’ or ‘surrogates.’ As licensed sex therapists, prostitutes presumably would have access to some of the authority and social status associated with those in the therapeutic arts” (1997, 193). While these authors allude to the issue of reframing pathologized erotic labor, specifically prostitution, as therapy, they touch on this concept only briefly, focusing on it mainly as a political strategy for the normalization and legitimization of sex workers. Looking at the content, rather than the feminist consequences, of the therapeutic arguments mobilized by the practitioners themselves, it is useful for examining how such arguments play into notions of gendered work.

(Scott has also observed that some commercial dominatrices view themselves as therapists (1997, 213). [Scott, Gini Graham. 1997. Erotic Power: An Exploration of Dominance and Submission. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel.])

The content of pro-dommes’ arguments about therapy suggests that, in addition to an aggressive femininity, dungeon interactions also generate a nurturing femininity. In many punishment scenarios, the “cruelty” exhibited by the domme is tempered by her solicitous acts of caring. One Bay Area woman explained, “I spend a certain amount of time petting people’s arms or stroking their backs or things like that, because so many of my clients are so touch-starved. And, you know, it’s the nurse who decided you needed an enema, and while she’s being mean and making you hold it, she’s also stroking your arm and it’s for your own good. She has your best interests at heart.” As noted, some women cuddle their clients at the end of punishment sessions. Others touch them comfortingly and tell them what “good boys” they are. It is no coincidence that, in their sessions, pro-dommes often transform into female archetypes whose functions in everyday life include providing comfort. Although pro-dommes also get requests for role-playing sessions in which they are military commanders, interrogators, or police investigators, more often they take on characters such as mothers and nurses, whose nurturing gestures go hand in hand with their infliction of pain.”

Lindemann, Danielle J. 2012. Dominatrix: Gender, Eroticism, and Control in the Dungeon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [Pp. 141-145, “Touch Therapy / Talk Therapy: Intimate Labor and Nurturing Femininity,” within chapter five, “Whip Therapy,” pp. 127-152. References reproduced as they appear above:]

Bernstein, Elizabeth. 2007. Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Becker, Dana. 2005. The Myth of Empowerment: Women and the Therapeutic Culture in America. New York: New York University Press.

Shrage, Laurie. 1994. Moral Dilemmas of Feminism. New York: Routledge.

Chancer, Lynn S. 1993. “Prostitution, Feminist Theory, and Ambivalence: Notes from the Sociological Underground.” Social Text 37:143-71.

Chapkis, Wendy. 1997. Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor. New York: Routledge.

One thought on “Touch Therapy / Talk Therapy: Intimate Labor and Nurturing Femininity

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  1. This is way too long a post to comment on fully & I’ll probably talk to you off-line over the first half. I did want to comment on the Shrage bit, however. It seems to me that so much of the appeal for the dommes’ services is wrapped up in a dehumanized version of Simmel’s “Stranger.” I see this especially in the discussion of the 6’4″ cross-dresser. This doesn’t seem like a man who would allow himself to be seen in such a vulnerable state, even by a respectable Stranger like a therapist or a bartender. Vulnerability which is expressed in this extreme way tends to be largely shame-based. If these women were seen as respectable members of society like other sorts of therapists then it is likely the men who need to get down to that shame-based vulnerability will no longer be able to do so.


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