I’ve been highlighting some pretty shitty responses to my “Prologue to Consent Is Not Enough” post (because, hello, my name is maymay and I’m awesome at pointing out shitty things, and less good at pointing out awesome things), but this professional dominatrix’s reflections are pretty interesting. I find myself agreeing with a lot of what they write, save a couple notable exceptions, which I’ll share after you check this out:
This is something I think about, more as a professional practitioner than as a lone player (because I really don’t get involved in the kink “scene” anymore, and my personal taste in play has gotten more physical and technical and less psychological/power driven in the last couple of years, which may or may not be a phase) — what are my best-practice obligations to my clients? (I say best practice to address the fact that not all clients meet me in a place of equity, and I’m not too concerned with the personal development of people who actively attempt to abuse or assault me.)
One of the reasons that I love my job, and consider myself to be a long term or “career” worker is that I believe really seriously in the idea that what I do makes people happy. It may make them “better” or more at peace with themselves, or more able to be good partners or good people, it may give them understandings of their desires that lead them to live more fulfilledly, but that’s icing on the cake. That’s an awesome day, not a good enough day. A good enough day is simpler than that for me — I want my client to be happier than they were before they saw me. I probably can’t fix the big, overarching problems in their lives (remind me to tell y’all about my days as a baby domme, where I thought I was going to get all of my clients to come out to their spouses and everyone would all go to big kinky orgies together. Just call me Mistress Save-A-Bitch, I guess.) but I can make at least an hour of one of their days better than the hours that came before it. And so far, that’s been enough for me (although one time, I did diagnose a dude’s clubbing and convinced him to see a doctor, which led to him getting life saving double bypass surgery, so that was pretty fucking cool. For the record, dude never tipped.)
So MayMay’s words make me think — should that be enough? I have clients who I have been seeing for as long as three years, and I have clients who I see on a weekly basis, like clockwork. Should I be crafting a long term goal for these people to eventually “graduate” from my care? Certainly, it would be unethical to enhance situations that keep my clients dependent on me (case in point: a terribly problematic regular of mine has many times asked me for help crafting his okcupid profile, and while I’ve always given him honest advice, I’d be a complete liar if the thought hadn’t occurred to me to give him booby trapped recommendations that would keep him single. Fortunately, despite my best efforts, dude remains an irredeemable assface, so my income from him is reasonably secure.), but does it go beyond that in any way?
For me, at least, the answer has got to be on a case by case basis, and there are some big factors that make it a very different relationship from the ones MayMay talks about in his essay. First and foremost, professional dominatrix is a service industry job, so the way in which I might have power over “my submissives” is at best, extremely nuanced, and more frequently, ime, nonexistent. If I whip a client, I might enjoy it, sexually and/or intellectually, but I’m not facilitating my kink in any way (I know some dominatrixes operate this way, or claim to operate this way, but that’s a discussion for another day) — my pleasure, rather than my professional satisfaction and payment, is a bonus. If I make the focus on facilitating my personal kinks, then in many ways, I’m doing an irresponsible thing (not to mention, probably not a very lucrative one). So I guess in that sense, dominatrixes start from the position that MayMay thinks that scene dominants should aim towards — the focus is already on facilitating the submissive’s desire to submit, and inherently removed from the “True Submission Means Doing What I Say, Even If You Hate It” trope.
Certainly, I have had clients who I have seen for a limited period of time, who have had specific goals around their kinks — to experience and explore certain things, and ultimately to move on to seek out new things with me or with different people. Or to use kink to process particular feelings or traumas, rather than as an ongoing part of their sexual orientation. And those clients have unfailingly been some of the most pleasant, easy to work with, and rewarding clients I’ve had. The baby domme that remains lodged in my brain absolutely appreciates the opportunity to achieve something “big” that way. But if you universally apply the “obsoletism” goal to a sex work relationship, you run smack in to the assumption that sex work clients seek out providers because they can’t source unpaid relationships, and that the paid relationships they build are by nature lesser or less real and satisfying for them. And in my experience, that is not the way it works. When I do have clients who are seeing me because they’d rather have an “amateur,” those are inevitably experiences that are pretty shit for all parties concerned. These people are more likely to push my boundaries, more likely to take the “No’s” I give them with bad grace, and rather than graduate, they are usually expelled after a period of time. My best clients are the ones who specifically have a place in their life that I fit — for whom the professional and strictly boundaried relationship is as much of plus as my technical skill or (admittedly fabulous) ass. And with clients like these, I don’t feel that I’m serving their interests well by making the goal to move them along a pathway where they don’t need my services anymore. BDSM as a source of personal growth is a beautiful and electrifying thing. It has been, at some points, a wonderful experience of just that for me. But a comfortable plateau is not necessarily a negative thing either — for people who have come to a point where they are happy with the place that submission has in their lives, I think that looking “ever upward” can be every bit as damaging as your typical Gor-ean scenester.
So, thanks for sharing that, and it’s a pretty cool perspective. It just has this glaring problem:
But if you universally apply the “obsoletism” goal to a sex work relationship, you run smack in to the assumption that sex work clients seek out providers because they can’t source unpaid relationships, and that the paid relationships they build are by nature lesser or less real and satisfying for them.
This is wrong. Or rather, it’s implicitly assuming that “universally applying the ‘obsoletism’ goal to a sex work relationship” also causally implies an assumption that the only reason clients seek sexual labor service providers is because “they can’t source unpaid relationships” of a sexual kind. This is just not true.
As I’m sure you know, there are many, different, legitimate reasons why a client might hire a sex worker than only their lack of access to partnered sex, just as there are many, different, legitimate reasons why someone might want to have partnered sex in the first place. If (and maybe only if) one assumes that the only reason to hire sex workers is lack of access, then it makes sense one would also naturally consider sex with someone who didn’t want financial compensation to be “better” and “more satisfying.” But this makes as much sense as saying people eat at restaurants because they can’t cook at home.
From listening to what the sex workers in my life have told me, and from reading what others have written, I know that’s not how it works.
The reason I bring this up is because I reject the idea that the “goal of obsoletism” is not applicable to “a sex work relationship.” It very much is, just as it is for every other job-relationship. I can flag my political activist cred with the best of ‘em (“sex work is work,” and all that), but the crux of this issue is that it is immoral for a society to require anyone to work in order to have access to basic needs such as food and shelter, and that means working for money is, at its core, complicity with the abuses of capitalism. Sex is irrelevant.
Does that mean you should not do sex work (or any other job)? No, of course not. You’re being threatened with starvation unless you do your job, and this is certainly a threat you should take seriously. But it does mean that if you can replace money in as many ways as possible in your life, then you should do that. Do that not only because it is more ethical, but because it is safer; every time you work to take down a system of oppression, you take down a threat against yourself.
The point of working to “obsolete” yourself in a job is therefore two fold. First it is the only ethical way to accomplish “a good job.” And second, it is the only ethical way to exist in capitalism while working to end your complicity with capitalism.
With respect to power, there are two relationships worth considering independently:
- employer-employee and,
Employers obviously have more power than their employees but the scales are not so clearly weighted in the case of employees and clients. That’s why, in my Prologue, I only spoke of employers. And although I agree with you when you say “professional dominatrix is a service industry job, so the way in which I might have power over ‘my submissives’ is at best, extremely nuanced,” I find it impossible to believe that it is ever “nonexistent.”
For one thing, consider the situation where some clients seek your services because it is their only available opportunity for some experience. Capitalist jobs—including sex work—are premised on the scarcity of a thing. The thing that’s scarce for your particular clients might be “access to partnered sex,” or something else, but regardless of what it is, if the thing they lack is a thing they want that you have, you have a power over them.
For another thing, you’re a professional dominatrix—that means in sessions with your clients, dominant, right? So you do have a power over your clients. The influences of domism do not vanish in a puff of smoke just because you were paid after the scene.
Systemic powers are not like sound waves or differently signed numbers; structural influences don’t cancel each other out. A systemic power of one kind (like dominance, or whiteness) does not void power of different kinds (like maleness, or financial wealth).
Caring about ethics means having to account for each structural influence; all of them, all the time, all at once. It’s not a zero-sum game. And if you’re evaluating “who has more power” by assigning weightiness to influences themselves instead of in the context in which they exert force, you’re doing it wrong.
So, is having some specific power creating a situation in which you ethically should and can safely work to “facilitate [your client’s] growth so as to make yourself obsolete”? I don’t know. That depends on the powers at play, on you, your client, the circumstances of your lives, and how all those things interact together at a certain place, in a certain time.
But don’t model yourself after throngs of others who are so quick to dismiss the importance of actually assessing this in the situations they find themselves just because those situations involve sex work. That’s not ethical. That’s lazy.