Ring, ring …
“Hello. Thank you for calling the Sanctuary. May I have your name please?” …
“Thank you. I’d like you to know that this is a fantasy fetish space and there is absolutely no sexual contact of any kind. Do you understand this?”…
“Excellent. Do you have a Mistress in mind?” …
“Yes. She is available for that time next Friday. Please call an hour before to confirm your appointment. You will then be given the cross-streets. Call from that location 15 minutes before your appointment for the address. Thank you for calling Sanctuary”
The script for answering the phones at this Wall St dungeon is typical of the precautions taken when operating in a gray area of the law. In New York State, prostitution is defined as 'sexual conduct' for a fee. "Very vague and overly broad," explains Diana Adams, a Brooklyn lawyer and Chief Legal Eagle of the Good Doctor. "It's generally been interpreted as penetration which means strap-on butt sex in a domme session is what usually busts dungeons." There’s no law specifically against flogging a man, tickling him until he urinates, making him lick latex boots or putting him into a diaper. But it offends public decency.
Whenever some incident brings dungeons back into the public eye, it sets off a furor of yellow journalism and snarky headlines. The public gasps anew at the existence of dungeons devoted to bondage, domination and sadomasochism (BDSM). The NYPD typically responds to the press by raiding a few dungeons they find on Google. That’s what brought down Sanctuary.
Before the raid, Laura Thompson managed this dungeon located in a spacious apartment with excellent soundproofing. A mirthful blonde with streaks of pink through her hair, she’s riding high on the endorphin rush of a just finished tattoo (the Tardis from Dr. Who). She’s our guide to the inner workings of a Manhattan dungeon.
“In a lot of ways, it was the most normal job I ever had: a salary, steady hours, insurance, vacation time. Even the inventory seemed normal until I stopped to think about it.” She bought needles from a veterinary suppy site because they didn’t need a prescription. From a medical supply company, she got the rapidly consumed sterile gloves, puppy pads and adult diapers. The lube came in gallon jugs and Laura became a beloved customer at the female-centric sex shop Babeland.
Half of the business rested on their website selling BDSM and fetish movies.With most clients coming from the web, the professional dominatrixes also posted free clips to demonstrate their techniques. At least two pro-dommes always worked the Sanctuary chatroom to entice clients into booking sessions or paying for private video chats. Laura’s entire body shakes as she giggles, “My backdoor pass to the site was one of my favorite party tricks. I’d gather everyone around the computer and show the movie Mistress Chance made after she brought a blowgun back from South America.”
Carl ran the website. With uncharacteristic vitriol, Laura describes him as the “embodiment of the stereotype of a scumbag pornographer – an angular Jewish guy with greasy hair and an evil attitude. He treated the girls like commodities and didn’t care if they were sick or uncomfortable with the scene. The girls hated working with him.” His only goal was pumping out videos and making money. The pro-dommes only got paid 20 bucks for making a movie while the submissive clients didn’t need any pay at all. Laura kept a spreadsheet filled with executives who would gladly rearrange their business day to be beaten with whips or have their scrotums stapled into a corset.
William ran the dungeon. A fitting contrast to Carl, William believed in the power of BDSM as a therapeutic release and a way to grow closer to your partner. His girlfriend worked in the dungeon and in their personal life, they were heavily involved in NYC’s BDSM scene that forms a Tribe around consensual kinky play. He founded the dungeon as a safe place for the women to practice their craft on men hungering for their services.
William trained the new pro-dommes who never experimented with BDSM before. When they applied for the job (technically an independent sub-contractor for tax reasons and legal protection), Laura gave them a long checklist of kinks to determine their boundaries. Most were comfortable with golden showers but not many would perform the more lucrative brown showers. Only one applicant was interested in offering Roman showers, saying cheerily, “I’m bulimic so that’s easy.” William wouldn’t hire her because he didn’t want to encourage that destructive behavior.
He taught safe practices for needle play, techniques for asphyxiation and knots for suspension. Most importantly, he explained some of the reasons that clients came to the dungeon. With many businessman and Hassidic Jews as clients, “The most common motivation is control. At work and at home, they have all the responsibility. Every descision, every mistake lands on their shoulders. In the dungeon, they can give up control and feel safe to fly into sub-space.”
Sub-space is a key term to understanding BDSM. It’s a state of mind reached through punishment of the body and submission of the will. Often described as meditative and euphoric, many practitioners view flying through sub-space as a sacred journey. The glowing eyes during their descriptions are similar to those for religious conversion, Kundalini awakenings and psychedelic trips.
Ever since the Marquis de Sade horrified the Church with his constantly suppressed books, researchers struggled with the motivations and mental health status of sadomasochism. Thinkers like Freud, Sartre and Kraft-Ebbing offered competing theories. The original 1952 DSM (“the Bible of psychiatry”) listed sadomasochism next to homosexuality as a sociopathic personality disorder.
However, the practice of BDSM between consenting adults has become more widely accepted as a legitimate sexual outlet as long as the practice doesn’t cause significant harm to work, family or social life. An Australian National Survey of 19,000 people indicated that BDSM is not an indicator of past abuse. The participants are no more likely to have been sexually coerced than the rest of the population and there's no significant difference in the levels of happiness or anxiety. The survey found the practice of BDSM to be a different but healthy outlet practiced by roughly 2% of the population.
For Laura, her early experiments with BDSM helped spark a process of healing. After the bitter end of a three year engagement, she sank into a deep depression. She credits her exploration of BDSM with returning her self-confidence and happiness. “My domme made me feel beautiful and respected. He knew how to negotiate our boundaries so I felt empowered to say no. When he spanked me with a paddle or slapped me across the face, I could see that he treasured the experience of taking me deeper. It changed my life.”
“It’s maddening how many people assume the dominatrixes must be unhinged hot messes and the clients - twisted strange little men.” Like any fringe lifestyle, BDSM attracts some damaged people but Laura only remembers two with problems. One of the clients was a demanding annoyance who skipped appointments and had meltdowns during his sessions. They never banned him but none of the pro-dommes thought he was worth the hassle of scheduling him an appointment. Although the anti-drug policy at Sanctuary was strict, one domme was hooked on heroin, missing her appointments and leaving needles in the bathroom. However, she was the girlfriend of the loathed Carl and he declared that there was no problem. Laura finishes, “But those stand out because of their rarity. Overall, it was one of the most respectful places I ever worked.”
The clients sometimes formed long relationships with their dominatrix. One German accountant always spent his six weeks of vacation in NYC seeing Mistress T..... The pair might go to a Yankees game together where no one else suspects the remote controlled electric shocker attached to his scrotum. On holidays, he’d send a gift from the wishlist on her profile. The tools of the BDSM trade are expensive: Art Deco handcuffs, handmade floggers, steel punishment cages and vinyl sensory deprivation suits. But he was happy to shower her with gifts and worship. After so many years together, they had become close friends.
Often, the spouses of the clients know about the trips to the dungeon. This can bring out feelings of jealousy or begrudging acceptance but it's often the case that wives are delighted to have someone else pee on their husband so they don't have to. One of Laura's favorite clients, a Hassidic Jew who often stopped to chat with her after sessions, once flipped open his phone to show photos of his wife tied into a position of submission with heavy red rope. Looking at the face of the woman, Laura said strongly, “I don’t like it. She doesn’t look happy about it. I think you’re forcing her into this. I’m not going to encourage by looking at these photos.” A few days later, Laura received a voicemail from the wife who said in a soft trembling voice with a rather thick Eastern European accent, “Mistress, I do enjoy the games that Jakob and I play. There’s something so … trusting about it. I do not want to stop. Please do not make him stop.”
The source of fetishes and the broad scope of kinks that get people off never cease to fascinate. Gathering a group of dommes at a bar and whipping out a notebook is like waving catnip under their nose. It quickly becomes a sex researcher's dream: loud proud women in a competitive bragfest trying to outdo each other about the craziest kinks of their clients. One, nicknamed Mental Dental, brought in a bag of dentistry tools and pretended to remove the teeth of the dominatrix. Another easy client only wanted a medical checkup by a girl in a lab coat wearing a stethoscope. A Hassidic Jew came in often for two of the women to dress up as schoolgirls and spend an hour mocking his "bulbous nose."
Some people are born hardwired for the BDSM lifestyle while others might have taken up the predilection simply because it was the first porn they stumbled across. Laura smiles at the memory of an 18 year old boy who showed up on his birthday with puppy dog enthusiasm. His friends gave him money to buy a prostitute but instead he came straight to the dungeon because he’d been "waiting for this my whole life." She pointed out, “At that age, how do you find a girl to tie you up and spank you? When he came out of the session, he was glowing with happiness. He finally found what he’d been looking for.”
Of the dozen women usually working at Sanctuary, they roughly split into two distinct groups. The ‘lifestyle dommes’ carried over the practice of BDSM from their personal life while the ‘actress’ dommes found an entertaining way to pay the rent that “beats being a secretary.” The clients fell on a spectrum between two poles: a 'true' submissive got off on following the orders while the others tended to 'top from the bottom'. That's a commonly used phrase for a client who tells the dominatrix exactly what to do, "Don't stop spanking me yet. Do it for two more minutes and then do the feather duster in my arm pits. Finish with needles through the nipples." This type of client generally got along better with the 'actress' dommes. Your faithful reporter made an early mistake of asking a 'true' domme to throw out an empty cup for him and was quickly corrected by a rather ingenious method that I wish I could forget.
For these services of punishment, humiliation or a listening Ear, a client paid $200 an hour. One legal protection for the dungeon was that the clients never saw the pro-domme handle any money. After the secretary led the client into the session room, he received two envelopes. One contained a form with the name of the dominatrix and the cost of the session. The client inserted the cash and slid it under the doorway into the hallway. The other envelope was for tips and could be placed into a locked box in the room. Additionally, upon entry each client signed a waiver or approved the one kept on file. But none of the legal safeguards mattered when the cops decide to make their bust.
The series of raids that brought down Sanctuary and a few other Manhattan dungeons was sparked by an unlucky Canadian tourist. During a session, he was suspended by the neck and wrists. His high heel shoes allowed him to support part of his his weight but while the dominatrix stepped out of the room, he fell out of the shoes and almost strangled to death. The Canadian went to the hospital and the tabloids picked up the story and carried it with characteristic excitement.
Laura fumes, “I can’t believe that a dungeon allowed such a rookie mistake. Never ever leave a client alone in a position that might become dangerous!” The lawyer Diana Adams agrees, "This is a golden rule of BDSM that any trained practitioner should know. This highlights the problem of having untrained girls who don't know what they're doing." The legal recognition of dungeons and the institution of a training and mentoring program, perhaps similar to those for massage or tattooing, would increase safety in the dungeons and tax revenue for the city. But instead, the Press goads the Police into deploying the plainclothes.
Laura remembers the undercover officer – an unassuming client who attended a couple of light spanking sessions. He told the dominatrix he was curious about strap-on play. While she went out to get a dildo, he gave his team outside the greenlight. When she returned to the room, he arrested her for conspiracy to commit prostitution based on the evidence of the strap-on. Ironically, she was one of the few pro-dommes at the dungeon who wouldn’t do strap-on play. She only retrieved the toy to show it to a curious client. The police also arrested William for running a house of prostitution while Carl disappeared “in true scumbag fashion.”
Even though all of the charges were eventually dropped due to lack of evidence, the police spokesman got his soundbite about cleaning up the city. Legal costs and the confiscation of computer equipment forced the closing of Sanctuary. Laura sighs. “It’s too bad. It was a special place and we made a lot of people happy there.”
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