Public Image, Private Lives Bondage and Discipline Angela Wilson

March 3, 2017

Public images and private lives often do not match up. This is even more pronounced in the realm of professional bondage and discipline (BD), where service providers cater for a niche market revolving around fetish, role play and mind games. In research first presented at The IAFOR International Conference on the City 2016, Angela Wilson of Curtin University, Australia, analyses newspaper advertisements for these specialised services in order to compare BD advertising with other newspaper advertising, comment on public perception of this industry, and examine the blurring of truth and fantasy by service providers and their clients.


Introduction

Every city has an underground network where a number of activities and transactions occur. These include trading in illicit goods, money laundering and contacts between the criminal elements of a city. The sex industry is seen as part of this underground city due to the stigma often attached to working in this industry, although in Australia sex work is not illegal. While brothels provide a visible venue for sex worker-client interaction, not all sex workers or their clients wish to use such obvious premises. Newspaper advertisements are one way clients can make discreet connections with this industry.

“Newspaper advertisements provide the most public view of what is happening in the Australian sex industry, with the number of advertisements increasing.”

Demand for professional BD services is difficult to quantify, given the stigma attached to both working in this industry and using the services provided. Newspaper advertisements provide the most public view of what is happening in the Australian sex industry, with the number of advertisements increasing, according to anti-prostitution activists. Professional sexual and BD services are also advertised online, but one has to actively search for these, while daily local newspapers bring these advertisements into our homes, workplaces, schools and cafés.

Research was carried out in Perth, Western Australia, from 2010 to 2015, based on interviews with 27 women who were working or had worked as professional BD service providers, with a focus on women providing these services for men. I also interviewed 42 men who were clients in professional dungeons, or who used professional BD services. On several occasions, I was invited as an observer into sessions where the clients wanted someone to watch them being disciplined, cross-dressing, or as an adult baby. I examined the narratives in newspaper advertisements, then discussed these with professional BD providers, clients who used such services, and lifestyle bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM) individuals.

There has been very little research into the prevalence of professional BDSM and the experience of those who participate in it, either as service providers or as clients. Much of the existing research deals with therapy to “treat” individuals with BDSM tendencies. Generally, however, these people don’t see themselves as needing psychological treatment; they simply have a preference for different sensual and sexual activities. BDSM individuals have long been considered deviant, which has forced many participants to hide their fetishes, or to seek out discreet professional providers when other options are not available.

“Knowing a client’s boundaries and limits is vital so these can be reached and explored safely.”

Professional mistresses and submissives cater for this niche market by providing services to clients in a non-judgmental atmosphere. The focus of professional sessions is on fulfilling a client’s fantasy through activities that may involve psychological and sensory stimulation, engaging in erotic acts of domination or submission, role play, bondage, punishment, or humiliation. The extent of this exchange of power between the players is usually established before the session begins, because knowing a client’s boundaries and limits is vital so these can be reached and explored safely. Professional BD providers do not see themselves as sex workers, although they are part of the sex industry in Australia. There is usually no sex during their sessions; the focus is on erotic, sensual domination or submission. However, in the BD industry, what constitutes sex is, at times, ambiguous. This is where the truth can be blurred to suit the situation.

“It’s a fine line between pleasure and pain” is a line from a popular song. This comment seems to hint that pain can be pleasurable at times, which is the basis of much of the sensual BD play that occurs in what can be described as an erotic consensual exchange of power. The majority of participants in BDSM reported that they experienced feelings of release from the tensions of everyday life, with role play allowing them to explore their inner feelings, pleasures and fears. Endorphins released during activities such as bondage and physical punishment often made these pleasurable rather than painful experiences.

“The Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon has seen a huge increase in the sales of BD play equipment.”

Some BDSM practices seem to be making more of an appearance in films, television programmes and books, indicating that at least the images attached to these erotic acts are becoming more acceptable to mainstream Western society. The Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon has seen a huge increase in the sales of BD play equipment: fur-lined handcuffs, blindfolds and light spanking paddles. This, however, is all viewed as just a bit of fun. Serious BDSM players and those who provide professional services in this field are still generally misunderstood because the equipment they use looks more dangerous than these toys. Crime dramas have storylines depicting characters using bondage and discipline for sexual abuse, torture, and murder, with these characters often portrayed as suffering from mental illness. These images have a negative effect on public perception of BDSM practices, making people wary of sharing this aspect of their private lives with others.


BD advertising

When considering advertising in the sex industry, two questions come to mind. What is truth in a fantasy world? How far can the truth be stretched before it becomes a lie? Sales and marketing ploys often involve playing with the truth to sell a product or service, enhancing the good points and playing down the bad. The sex industry is no different. Advertising for the sex industry operates in a world of social types, where clients are attracted to stereotypes and specific fantasies, not real people. It is an industry that runs on signs and symbols rather than on reality, with advertisements written to entice clients who are seeking a fantasy experience, framed in a way that does not always reflect a true picture of the person behind these lines of text.

When writing their newspaper advertisements, BD providers tend to give very little information as to their age, nationality, or dress size, whereas these attributes seem to be a prominent feature in many of the advertisements for sex workers, although we cannot assume the information given there is strictly the truth. The focus of advertisements for sexual services seems to be on attracting clients to the appearance of the sex worker. The emphasis of BD advertisements appears to be more about the type of service and equipment provided than looks, although physical features do play a part in attracting some clients. Repeat business is dependent upon the ability to provide the required service rather than simply “looking the part”.

The advertisements in the personal section of newspapers are written in a coded language, dictated by what is currently allowed by the newspaper guidelines. As a consequence, a complicated system of abbreviations, words and phrases is used to describe services offered. However, abbreviations can lead to confusion, with potential clients not always certain what they mean. One of the drivers for banning specific words is pressure from lobby groups, who, according to one interview subject, “seem to spend quite a lot of time studying this section of newspapers, looking for words and phrases that might be construed as offensive by the general public”.

Another driver for abbreviations is the cost of these advertisements, which is considerably more than similarly sized advertisements in the same newspaper for something else like a car, furniture or hairdressing service. Some Australian newspapers also dictate the number of days per week a personal advertisement is run, with the minimum purchase being a full week. Working seven days in a row is not good from the perspective of occupational health and safety, but the high cost of this type of newspaper advertising makes it expensive for someone to advertise and then choose not to work on that day. This requirement to buy a full week of advertisements does not seem to apply to other services. It appears there is some unexplained discrimination against those who advertise sexual services.


Public perceptions

Newspaper advertisements for BD services are written to attract clients, not influence public opinion. However, the wording in advertisements can lead to misconceptions, prejudice and sometimes fear of the people working in this industry. These views are often held by members of the community who have never used the services of a professional BD provider or who have never knowingly met one socially. Framing advertisements to appeal to clients does not always give an accurate picture of the service provider. However, people who find the idea of BDSM abhorrent will use the narrative in the advertisements when forming opinions of those who work in this field, subjecting them to moral judgments, perhaps forgetting an advertisement of this type must be written more as fantasy than reality. These advertisements certainly describe some painful-sounding procedures and punishments, but professional mistresses and submissives are not necessarily depraved individuals who enjoy inflicting or receiving pain and humiliation. They have simply honed skills to accommodate the needs of a niche market. It does not imply that the BD provider really enjoys every activity; merely that they can provide for someone who requires a particular service.

The advertisements for BD services are representations, as each person attempts to attract clients in a world where competition is fierce and fantasy is the dominant theme. Each advertisement is a single entity, but collectively they provide a powerful appearance of coherence in an industry that in reality is a collection of private individuals who hide behind their invented public personas. Anonymity is paramount for the majority of these advertisers, for although they can be seen as providing a saleable commodity, no amount of framing mistresses and submissives as service providers will take away the stigma attached to this kind of work.


Public images, private lives

While the boundaries between a service provider and client may be relatively easy to maintain in many occupations, working in the sex industry has its own set of issues that make negotiating privacy a difficult balancing act. Others’ perception of us is influenced by what we choose to reveal, so blurring truth and fantasy becomes paramount in the provision of sexual and erotic services, where providers do not wish to expose their true identities, regardless of how intimate a session becomes. For example, professional service providers generally work under a different name to separate personal from professional life, creating a BD persona to provide for their clients’ different fetishes and fantasies. However, being convincing as a mistress or submissive can lead to problems when the BD persona is confused with the private life of the service provider. Fantasy and reality become difficult to separate when some clients are surprised to discover the professional providing a service is excellent at her chosen career, yet may not be into a particular fetish as a lifestyle choice.

A fairly common problem for professional BD workers is the client who wants a free session because the mistress or submissive he is seeing appears to enjoy their time together. A popular request is to exchange “slave” or “Sissy Maid” services such as cleaning, making coffee, being a willing body for the mistress to practise on, instead of payment. There is a common misconception among some clients that just because a session appears to be pleasurable, the BD or sex worker would be prepared to provide the service for free. Here we see blurring of enjoyment with the truth that someone is trying to make a living. Clients may confuse intimacy with friendship and read more into the relationship than is actually there. It is hard to think of another industry where it is frequently assumed, just because the provider appears to be having fun, that the fee could be waived. “A mechanic may love working on cars, but is not likely to fix yours for free.”


Conclusion

Newspaper advertisements for BD service providers do not reveal the real people behind them. They are constructed to portray an image designed to sell a service, representing a fantasy which, it is hoped, will attract clients. Unfortunately, these manufactured personas may be judged as deviant by some members of society as they read these small pieces of narrative. It would be difficult to understand the practices and complex relationships of either professional or lifestyle BDSM purely from outside these experiences, and yet judgments are made, seemingly without the benefit of knowledge.

Some members of the public may confuse fantasy with reality, viewing professional BD services as acts of sadomasochism.”

From my observations I have found the women who provide professional domination do not usually have some hidden desire to inflict torture on the men who visit them. Rather they allow their fantasy persona to act out the role of a mistress or submissive, while the reality may be quite different. They are filling a niche in a market which understands that people have different needs, wants and desires. The people I have met who work in BD seem to have a genuine understanding of various fetishes, whether they follow a BD lifestyle or not. It is the professional way they deal with client-specific requests that ensures repeat business. However, some members of the public may confuse fantasy with reality, viewing professional BD services as acts of sadomasochism, performed by sex workers who have a perverted view of sexuality, either wanting to dominate or to be dominated and abused.

There are many reasons why people use professional service providers to cater for their sexual needs, and while brothels are available, not all clients feel comfortable entering such public establishments, preferring to connect with private service providers who advertise individually. These connections form part of the underground network that can be found in Australian cities. While a city’s brothels may be visible to those who pass by, with a tell-tale red light and the name of the establishment on a sign, I found the professional dungeons of Perth to be indistinguishable from the inner-city or suburban homes around them.

Newspaper advertisements provide a window into this part of the underground city, through which one can catch a glimpse of what goes on. From the evidence I have collected, it is not the aim of sex workers advertising these types of services to influence public opinion about fetishes or their services, while they try to attract clients in a very competitive niche market. However, without knowledge of the limitations of these narratives, wrong impressions can be formed and judgments made about consenting adults who are simply making connections for business and pleasure.

Image | schenzai, Pixabay

Angela Wilson first presented this research, in greater detail, at The IAFOR International Conference on the City 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.

Select Bibliography

Although much of my evidence was gathered from ethnographic interviews, I found the following references interesting and useful:

Barker, M., Iantaffi, A. & Gupta C. (2007). Kinky clients, kinky counselling? The challenges and potentials of BDSM. In Feeling queer or queer feelings: Radical approaches to counselling sex, sexualities and genders, Moon, L. (ed.) London: Routledge, pp. 106–124. oro.open.ac.uk/17272/2/4AD665D2.pdf

Green, R. (2001). (Serious) sadomasochism. A protected rite of privacy? Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 30, 543–550. link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1010295302496

Williams, D. J. & Storm, L. E. (2012). Unconventional leisure and career: Insights into the work of professional dominatrices. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 15, 9. www.ejhs.org/volume15/BDSM.html

Angela Wilson

About Angela Wilson

Angela Wilson is a PhD candidate at Curtin University, Australia, researching in the field of international relations, following on from postgraduate studies in this area. Her doctoral thesis is titled “Human Trafficking in the Australian Sex Industry: An International Relations Perspective”. She is interested in the way this problem is handled by a number of different agencies. She is a regular participant in the Strategic Flashlight Seminars and the Annual National Security and Strategy Workshops conducted by Curtin University’s International Relations Department. She taught at the secondary school level for a number of years and is a Sessional Academic for one of the Humanities undergraduate courses.

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