Domina Elle is a former escort and current dominatrix who specializes in balloon fetish play. (Its practitioners are called "looners.") She is also a sex workers' rights advocate.
I like to call myself an adult play facilitator. The type of work I do is much broader than just BDSM or fetishistic type stuff. I specialize in helping people to open this part of their sexual selves, and be playful and creative. That's one reason I love balloons. It's a very friendly catalyst. It's erotic and playful, and yet it's not as scary as some of the other stuff when you start looking at BDSM.
For me specifically, balloons came out of my latex fetish. In general, looners are primarily men. Usually it started when they were kids and they got a hold of a balloon. It's a soft, puffy, nice thing. Humans are very tactile and sensory-based. They, for whatever reason, found an erotic stimulation there. About seven years ago, I saw someone on stage live-playing with big latex balloons. He was putting one or two people inside the balloons. I already had a latex fetish, and when I saw that I realized, Wow, I can get inside a balloon and have that wonderful latex smell all around me?
Balloons can be used for so many different kinky activities. The big balloons can be used to put underneath [yourself during sex]. You don't blow it up all the way. It's kind of exciting and scary to be on top of it while you're messing around. I love to fill a room with balloons. It's not as easy as it sounds because it really does take a lot of balloons to fill a room — like, thousands of them.
When you go to BDSM dungeons, they tend to be really stuffy. People are really serious. I would take the balloons to these very serious dungeon environments. I thought, How can I get this whole room activated? Once people see a couple of people get in, they start lining up. Then you have everyone in the room cheering and excited because they know there's a trick to getting in while the air is coming out.
It's been such a fun experiment to challenge boundaries and see everyone get so excited. I've been trying to get as many people inside [a balloon] as I can. I'm stuck on 13 and a half. I've been stuck there for about a year. [The big balloons I use] are advertising balloons that are 72 inches when they are inflated. I buy a brand called Rifco, which is from Italy. They cost anywhere from $20 to $50 each. I usually buy them 10 at a time. You can get clear and different colors. It's fun because the clear, everybody can see what's going on inside, which I really like. Then you can do fun stuff with neon paint and confetti. The colored ones allow people to be shielded inside so nobody can see what's happening in there. People feel more protected and in their own little world.
Part of the fun is walking up to someone I don't know and saying to them, "Will you get inside my balloon?" Wrap your mind around that. They visualize this tiny little thing at first. I cut the nipple off the edge of the neck and that gives it a little bit more stretch. You have to wrestle to get in that little hole. It's kind of a reverse birthing process. Most of the time, I'll get people down to their underwear right there. Sometimes, at dungeons, everybody just gets naked in there. ...
When I first arrived at the French Institute Alliance Francaise (FIAF) I filed into one of the few empty stadium seats left save for the neck busters at the very front. The place was packed for The Art of Sex & Seduction: Ceremonies of Love & Desire, I realized all eyes were pointed to a tiny, gray-haired woman immediately below and in front of me. She looked more like a gentle octogenarian nun than a famous dominatrix known for her cruelty. But every once in a while there were flashes of unflinching harshness delivered with a toothy, thin-lipped grin–there was a reason why people seemed to either tiptoe or burst into fits of uncomfortable laughter around Catherine Robbe-Grillet all night. She could turn even the most accomplished Tinder Queens amongst us to puddles of prudish mush.
The event began with a screening, bits of Lina Mannheimer’s short film and documentary (La Contrat and La Cérémonie, respectively) about Catherine and her decades-younger partner, Beverly Charpentier, who translated Catherine’s responses from French to English in the discussion to follow. The discussion was moderated by Toni Bentley, the journalist behind the Vanity Fair profile of Catherine Robbe-Grillet. Bentley had spent a couple of days getting cozy with the dominatrix at her 400-year old chateau in Normandy.
Before she left her seat for the stage, I got a close up look at Catherine. Squeezed between the filmmaker and Beverley, Catherine was childlike (she’s under five feet tall) her silver hair fastened in a tight, flat bun, a white headband holding her hair perfectly in place. She wore a prim black skirt and long-sleeve vest getup coupled with rimless oval glasses that sealed her look as an unusually compact, but severe junior nun. I guess you can’t beat the Catholicism out of the Catholic school girl. “These two ladies are atheists, but Catholicism and the props of Catholicism greatly inform their ceremonies,” Toni explained.
Catherine’s stature of course belies her powerful presence. All night, she delivered quippy responses and performed sarcastic, feigned innocence. In many ways, Catherine still has the mannerisms of a little girl down too– she squeals, gasps, and purrs, often widening her eyes in mock surprise. Her infantile movements reminded me of Toni’s piece: for Alain Robbe-Grillet, Catherine’s famous dead husband– the famed French writer, avant-garde artist, and intellectual–“Catherine embodied his lifelong obsession with young girls, resembling a little girl in her height, size, and manner.”
In the film, she described her relationship with Alain– a well-known sadist whose writing centered thematically on power structures, control, and lack of agency– as an “unusual” one. For a long time, she was his submissive. It wasn’t until he gave up sexuality altogether to focus more on writing (a detail hashed out in Toni’s article) that Catherine blossomed into a dom. The year was 1973. She’s been joyfully whipping whimpering subs ever since.
One audience member wondered if she’s ever wavered: “I was wondering if the Madame […] misses being submissive and wants to be dominated sometimes?”
Catherine answered simply, “Non,” and paused. “I relive my submission through Beverly, but I don’t want to relive it myself. I am simultaneously submissive and dominant, but my submission passes through her.” ...
In a clever sting operation, the feds nabbed creeps looking to buy ‘sex slaves’ for their home dungeons.
In March 2014, Steven Currence gave undercover agents a grand tour of the dungeon hidden inside his Montana home.
The subterranean hellhole contained a heavy wooden cross and a smattering of chairs. The walls were covered in whips, chains, and torture devices. Currence boasted of blacking out the windows to dash any hopes of escape.
Here was the sinister lair where the 65-year-old planned to lock his sex slaves. One kidnapped woman would sleep in the basement torture chamber, while the other would be chained to his bed—with a chain long enough to reach the bathroom.
Currence believed he would soon purchase the women from the agents, who posed as human traffickers. The creep previously told the agents that he wanted a “housekeeper with benefits” who would “take care of things, clean the house, take care of me,” court records reveal.
“These slaves will never leave,” Currence said. “I’m not looking for love, they’re just going to be in here and they are going to be serving.”
But Currence wouldn’t be the one doing the shackling. Instead, the feds cuffed him two months later when he traveled to Arizona to buy two women at what he believed was a slave auction.
In September of this year, Currence was sentenced to seven years in prison.
He was one of four men nabbed in an FBI sting operation targeting an extreme slice of the human trafficking underworld: people seeking sexual and domestic slaves.
Court papers paint a disturbing picture of the lengths all four fiends went to keep their would-be slaves hidden. They outfitted their homes with things like soundproof boxes, window coverings, and even a 500-pound therapeutic bed with chains.
One man hired a contractor to turn his BDSM “playroom” into a dungeon so secure visitors wouldn’t know someone was inside. Another ordered a “date rape” drug from China to knock his victim out as he transported her across state lines. ...
... After his arrest, Kandl tried telling law enforcement that although he knew the women weren’t consenting, he wouldn’t have purchased anyone who refused to go with him.
“Kandl was asked why he didn’t call the police and Kandl replied that he should have but his curiosity was piqued,” one FBI memo found in court papers read. According to the document, Kandl planned to interview the women to see if they were willing to go home with them. He told investigators he wanted to explain he could provide them with a better life.
When asked what that meant, Kandl said he’d provide a room, food, and clothes. He also planned to introduce his slave to the BDSM lifestyle, which he’d been engaged in for three years, according to the FBI document.
Kandl said the whole thing was a “bad idea” and that he “shouldn’t have done it.” He told investigators that in his life, “I did everything right until this stupid thing.”
For Kink Aware Professionals. Like everything on this blog, context matters. So if you find yourself acutely uncomfortable with a client’s material, what you do depends on when, where, and how it comes up. Some of these suggestions will not be helpful in all contexts. Some even contradict each other. Apologies to Mies van der Rohe, who didn’t first say ‘The devil and God are both in the details.’
Safety first, yours and theirs. Insofar as you can, do not back away from the material, and do not ask for details that you are not ready to hear and/or the client seems unready to discuss. You need the client to be able to observe their own responses, and for you to be listening to how it feels for them. Consent is critical in BDSM as it is in therapy. It is legitimate and often necessary to question the client about their consent when you reaction comes from ambiguity about whether they have agreed to whatever is disturbing you.
Ask yourself why you or the client are so offended. If the behavior violates your core values, or you are unwilling to do the work in understanding it in the client’s terms, maybe you need to refer the client out to someone who can. If the discomfort is primarily the client’s, then it may be resolved through therapeutic discussion. While the typical condition of human existence may involve some ambivalence, acute and intolerable ambivalence is a proper subject of treatment. Raw, unprocessed and out of control feelings do not advance the therapeutic process, and are signs that it may be premature to discuss disturbing material.
Give yourself permission to have your own feelings and do not rush to judge them a sign of inadequacy as a therapist. In order to use your own feelings in therapy, you must first have them and recognize them. Resolving countertransference is often a powerful resource in therapeutic change. It is often uncomfortable. Freud thought resolving transference was what therapy is all about, and countertransference was often how transference was first recognized. Even if you think your response is excessive, recognizing your feelings is the first step that can eventually lead to acting on them in ways that serve your client. If you have a strong therapeutic alliance with your client, any mistake you make is likely to be a point of learning for both of you, rather than ruin the treatment, if you deal with it honestly and directly.
Ask yourself if understanding and discussing the squicked material is essential to the treatment goals. Often a client’s kink is not central to the goals of therapy. If your client complains they are deeply troubled by their desire, obviously the details of their fantasies and actions are essential to understand. If they went to an event one time and had a bad reaction, you could be doing yourself and the client a favor to let the client vent as they need to, and return as soon as you can to the primary contract for treatment. And if you do not understand the relevance on any material, squicked or not, ask your client what connections they see. If neither of you see the relevance, let it go. One sure characteristic of treatment is that if you gloss over important issues, they will come up again, so if it is important, you are likely to get another good chance to discuss it.
Get more information. This holds the promise of helping you clarify why you are uncomfortable, and possible increasing your understanding in ways that make your reaction more manageable. The question is often where to get good information. Be careful of using sources like porn and fantasy sites, where there is a strong stylistic tendency to exaggerate for effect. On-line sources – yes, I realize Elephant in the Hot Tub is one of those – vary in their objectivity and reliability. Different Loving 2ed by Brame, Brame and Jacobs is a reliable resource for starters. Look also at reliable sources on edge play. It is wise when doing this work to have colleagues whose opinions you trust. Sometimes professional listservs and forums can be helpful. Triangulate information from multiple sources, and don’t simply cherry pick the information that suits your preconceptions. Do not take a poll on social media, or inadvertently out your client with specific information, even without names attached. Often edgy practices are rare or singular events, and public discussion creates the impression that people are being outed and confidentiality violated.
If you have such contacts, ask others in the kink community about how similar material is treated there. In this, you are not looking for advice, but trying to understand the context, contracting, consent, and community reactions to it. Kink communities differ, have their own micro-cultures and house rules, and are not unfailingly accepting or nonjudgmental. But understanding uncomfortable behavior in the likely context of the kink community can help you frame your own reaction, and perhaps, the client’s.
Know your strengths and limits. That knowledge is crucial in deciding which of the strategies listed here are most applicable to any specific case. In the Goode Olde Days, therapists had 5 years of psychoanalysis to deepen their self-understanding. That was good, but by no means a perfect assurance of self-knowledge. Nowadays you can practically get licensed by reading a few good books. Self-knowledge is fragile, but is also the best defense.
Get quality supervision from someone who knows about the scary practices that are vexing you. That does not necessarily mean falling back on an old supervisor who is a fantastic clinician, helped in your training, but knows nothing about kink. It is generally unwise to try to clinic such cases on listservs where just anyone can chime in, both for reasons of confidentiality, and for reasons that people unfamiliar with such material are at risk of being made uncomfortable too, and may simply and unintentionally reflect widespread social prejudices. That may mean cultivating professional relationships ahead of time with people who have a wide familiarity with outliers among the populations you treat.
If you think your own reaction violates your core values, or reflects incomplete work on your part, by all means return to psychotherapy. Being made uncomfortable by someone’s material is ultimately a problem you can walk away from. Be made uncomfortable with your own material is not.
Discuss your discomfort with an experienced and open client. This is their work too, and to the extent that they can cooperate in understanding together what your discomfort means, the client is an important resource. Ultimately, you are responsible for your feelings, but when they are a reflection of the client’s conflicts, showing the client you are comfortable with discussing your own discomfort can be good role modeling, and help them achieve important insight. When you lack a trusting relationship and good working alliance, discussing your own discomfort can be disruptive and drive away a client. It is wise to out-refer to someone better able to help. If a client is gaming you in a way that feels manipulative, make sure that you take steps to ensure your own safety. BDSM edge play, that is play that is known to be more dangerous and transgressive in the kink community, is mostly unsafe to discuss with severely personality disordered clients and clients with weak observing egos.
Therapy is a great way to fight social problems and social injustice in the world. But it operates under ethical guidelines that put the client first. Perhaps you can bring your own reaction into balance better by confronting some of the root problems that make you uncomfortable through teaching, advocacy, or direct social action and philanthropy better than through your psychotherapy with any one client. This is a special subset of my final suggestion:
Make sure that you are adequately supported in the clinical work you are doing. This may include your primary and secondary relationships, your institutional setting, your fees, office, training and other aspects of the context of doing treatment. It may include proper organizational affiliations, and friends who do similar work. And it includes collecting referrals and biblioresources that support the psychotherapy you are doing. All of these factors make it easier to understand intense and/or unexpected client materials if they suddenly arise and help you use them to better serve your clients.
That is a starter list, but it is far from exhaustive. Perhaps you can think of good coping strategies or additional resources I have left out. By all means, include them in the comments section.
Finkelhor, D., Araji, S., Baron, L., Browne, A. Peters, S. D. & Wyatt, G. E. A Sourcebook on Child Sexual Abuse. Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications, Inc (1986). 276 p.
Richters, J., De Visser, R. O., Rissel, C. E., Grulich, A. E., & Smith, A. (2008). Demographic and psychosocial features of participants in bondage and discipline, "Sadomasochism" or Dominance and Submission (BDSM): Data from a National Survey. The journal of sexual medicine, 5(7), 1660–1668.
Andreas A.J. Wismeijer PhD, Marcel A.L.M. van Assen PhD: Psychological Characteristics of BDSM Practitioners. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, Volume 10, Issue 8, pages 1943–1952, August 2013.
Patricia A. Cross PhD and Kim Matheson PhD in the book “Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures” (2006), published simultaneously as the Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 50, Nos. 2/3.)
“Psychotherapeutic Issues with “Kinky” Clients: Yours and Their’s” by Margie Nichols, PhD in Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures ed. P Klienplatz and C. Moser (2006) published simultaneously as the Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 50, Nos. 2/3.)
2015 Russell J Stambaugh, Ann Arbor, Michigan. All rights reserved.
Whenever we hear "sex education," most people imagine a high school health class teacher outlining the basics: monthly periods, the human development cycle, birth control, and maybe an uncomfortable informational film. However, the topics in these classes barely skim the surface of the depth and breadth of our human sexuality.
For each individual, sexuality is a process of self-discovery, and it can be one of the most invigorating journeys of your life.
Did you know that both male and female genitals come from the same embryonic tissue and are identical in the first stage of fetal development? During the whole first stage, the sex of the fetus remains undetermined. After the first stage, the addition of a Y chromosome produces testosterone, which leads to the external and internal sexual differentiation of a male, or an additional X chromosome will prompt production of estrogen, leading to a female.
Some theories espouse that these hormones actually encode our brains before birth -- and that the many external social factors we experience during childhood development do not determine our sexual and gender identity. Some medical researchers even theorize that our sexual orientation -- whether we consider ourselves heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual -- is something that is hard-wired into our brains.
As I was deciding to become a professional dominatrix and fetishist, I asked myself, 'Can I handle other people's judgmental attitudes about my sexuality? Can I accept another person's sexuality without judgment?' In the end, I decided I could -- or at least that I would try. It was a slow process that required me to first deal with my relationship to my own sexuality, and then to practice my free will enough to choose how I wished to express and explore it in my everyday life.
One conversation that never got old at the dungeon (the BDSM/fetish club I used to work in) was sexual preference. It was actually very empowering and freeing to hear a group of women speak openly about their sexualities. Never before had I heard women express with such confidence their gender preferences, curiosities about sex, and interests.
On my second day of work as a Mistress, we sat around the lounge creating my image. I had no clue how I was going to present myself as a Mistress, but I knew I wanted to operate with class and dignity. Seeing my hesitation, Mistress Deborah chimed in: "I'm going to tell you exactly who you are. You are the sexy cougar, mommy, aunt, school teacher, and so on. You are so sexy, I would fuck you myself, and I don't even like white girls!"
Well, hot damn! I thought to myself. I'd never heard a woman speak so openly about her sexual preference for the ladies in public! Lesbian, bisexual, straight, formerly lesbian now bisexual, formerly bi now straight -- the attitude around the dungeon was "change happens." In other words, whatever floated my boat six months ago may not be working for me anymore, and that's okay.
What it boils down to is personal growth, personal progress, and personal choice. ...
Fifty Shades of Grey has shaped a whole culture’s view of BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism). In that fictional world, a powerful man plays out his sadistic fantasies as a powerless woman indulges her masochistic ones. This narrative demonstrates what’s called the "playing out" hypothesis of sadomasochism: In sexual fantasies we re-create our daily power roles. A new paper, however, presents an alternative hypothesis and some surprising findings, including that, all else being equal, high-ranking executives are more turned on by fantasies involving sexual submission than are their underlings.
Joris Lammers and Roland Imhoff report on their "disinhibition" hypothesis in an upcoming issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science. They base their predictions on extensive research showing that social power — having control over others’ outcomes — reduces inhibition. In one 2003 study, for example, participants primed to feel more versus less powerful were more likely to reposition an annoying fan blowing on them. Other work finds that wealthy people are more likely to commit selfishly unethical acts than are poor people, by virtue of their feeling more powerful — and therefore less accountable and vulnerable.
Many people have sadomasochistic impulses — one meta-analysis reported that between 31 percent and 57 percent of women have rape fantasies — but such impulses go against social norms that separate sex from violence, affection from domination. Therefore, the thinking goes, many people inhibit them. And because traditional gender roles prescribe men to be active and women passive in many social domains, men should be especially likely to bury fantasies of submission and women fantasies of domination. But the disinhibition hypothesis predicts that power frees people to let their freak flags fly, increasing sadomasochistic thoughts in everyone and especially masochistic thoughts in men and sadistic thoughts in women.
To test their predictions, the researchers invited readers of a science website and a lifestyle website in the Netherlands to complete an online questionnaire, compiling data from 14,306 anonymous respondents. As a measure of power, people rated their professional position, from unemployed to top-level management. They then rated their agreement with items such as “It sexually arouses me to fantasize about torturing a consenting person” and “It sexually arouses me to fantasize about being tortured by a person on my own demand.” People also rated their desire for social dominance in everyday life, by evaluating statements such as “I like to give orders and get things going.” (The study could only measure correlations, but given the known psychological effects of power, a case for its causal influence on disinhibition in the bedroom can be made.)
Overall, men were more into fantasies of sadism than women were, likely in part because of socialized gender roles. Yet while real-world power increased women’s attraction to sadism (controlling for age and social dominance), the picture for men was split. Among those with an especially strong impulse to dominate others, more power was associated with finding greater appeal in sadism, but among men who shied from dominance, power decreased their interest in sadism. This pattern suggests the men felt free to take on the role that suited them personally — not the one that suited the masculine ideal.
Women, on the other hand, were more into masochistic fantasies than men were. Women with more versus less power were slightly more aroused by thoughts of masochism (meaning power increased their interest in both ends of the sadomasochistic spectrum), but power increased men’s appetite for masochism nearly twice as much as women’s. This is where the findings most strongly support the disinhibition hypothesis and challenge the "playing out" hypothesis: Powerful men are not enacting their typical roles of domination, but tapping into a buried interest in submission that clashes with societal expectations. ...
The wildly varied world of BDSM can provide a safe space to communicate, play, and release the pressures of everyday life.
At pre-dawn on a Monday morning more than 20 years ago, two friends and I sped towards a four-hour cleaning job that had to be finished before our uni classes started. We’d been out. Mr Bungle was blaring from the stereo, the chainsaw guitar and rapid percussion accompanied by Mike Patton’s uniquely tuneful bellow, It’s not funny, my ass is on fire. The three of us screamed along, because it was true. I couldn’t sit down through my classes all that day, and I took the next day off.
My introduction to BDSM was a public spanking at a Melbourne kink club back in 1993. It was prearranged by a friend as a Buck’s Night ’gift’, and I gave explicit consent; I just didn’t know what I was consenting to.
Three chairs lined the stage, and the spankers took their places. We were a clichéd trio of The Blonde, The Brunette and myself, The Redhead. We laid across laps and I faced The Blonde, and as my underwear was gathered up to expose my cheeks, I took her hand. A slap rang out, and I flinched, even though I hadn’t been touched. When I was, there was no doubt.
The initial spanks were pure shock. I felt fight-or-flight kick in, and cursed myself for getting into this position. A hail of slaps hit home, and a sobbed gasp in my ear confirmed I was not alone in my struggle. I reassured The Blonde with emphatic hushes, and the hotness of my arse became secondary to controlling my breathing enough to check in with my friend.
The next thing I knew, the slaps had stopped and a hand caressed me gently, a voice in my ear asking how I was. I found I was more than fine.
This experience fascinated me. The strength I felt was powerful; the connection sparked with my fellow spankees almost magical; and, later, watching my arse turn from maroons and blues to reds and yellows was an aesthetic and sensual pleasure. With hindsight, it’s certainly not an introduction I would ever recommend. Personally, I suggest having an idea of how hard the play may get before engaging, and a ‘safe word’, in case things get too much.