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"Taut and Bound"

on Sunday, 13 April 2014. Posted in Front Page Headline, Media Updates

Wallace Prize Third Place Nonfiction

Yale Daily News

By Isabel Ortiz

A few weeks ago, Lady Elizabeth had her pain slave over for coffee and a “medical scene.” He had brought his camera with him, and, lying supine on the operating table, he managed to snap a few pictures of her as she performed urethral insertions on him with a long, silver needle. “He gets points for having steady hands,” she told me. No nurse get-up was donned that day, and she had foregone her standard head-to-toe latex: the dominatrix who appeared in the photographs wore jeans, a tank top, and something like a snarl twisted across her doll-like features. “Wow, I’m a really nice person when I’m not hurting you,- but gosh” she said, flipping through the photos later. Ever attentive, her slave was quick to reply. “Well, you’re a really nice person while you’re hurting me, too! It’s okay!”

When I ask her to describe the woman in the image, the question extends between us like a tightrope -— smooth, slippery, and a little slack. “Diabolical,” “scary,” and “perverted” are all words that skim past as we fumble. As Elizabeth settles on “real,” there is something of the teetering quality of a funambulist in the way she plucks the word from the ether. The term is unsatisfying to both of us. I am not yet sure what the “reality” of the professional dominatrix looks like to her — I cannot tell you exactly what she saw in the image — but this sense of verbal instability, she tells me, is part of her job description. As a professional dominatrix, Lady Elizabeth lives in constant suspension between planes of communicable wants and the dark, moving shapes of the physical realm. Her purpose: to bind together the known and the unspeakable, coagulating desire into its most powerful corporeal embodiment.


If the dominatrix’s profession is based in part in physicalizing the abstract through language, Lady Elizabeth is particularly well-equipped for the challenge. In addition to her job as a dominatrix, she holds a PhD from an Ivy League university and has written a dissertation on gender, language and meta-communication in S&M communities. As one immersed in both the study and practice of her field, Lady Elizabeth’s position as a BDSM practitioner is twofold—she is immersed in the reflexive academic project of talking about language, and, as a practicing domme, traffics in modes of communication that can only be experienced through nonverbal means.

It is fitting, in this sense, that I first encounter Lady Elizabeth through her website, where the seduction of image tugs against her purported affinity to word. Flipping through her photo gallery, readers need not be able to articulate their fantasy so much as point to the visual aid that renders it in dazzling Technicolor: Lady Elizabeth in a hula skirt, coconuts in hand; Lady Elizabeth in white riding pants and a riding crop; Lady Elizabeth in a cowboy hat and jeans, brandishing a bullwhip. Lady Elizabeth in a floor-length black latex tube dress, red hair swept over one shoulder, testing a plaited leather cane in her tightly clenched fist.

I discover the site on a Monday. By Tuesday, I’m an addict. Lady Elizabeth’s webpage is only one of many within a labyrinthine online kink community, home to The Pervocracy, Fetlife (Facebook for fetishists!), and CollarMe, a dating site for locating “like-minded kinksters in your area.” These woods are dark and deep — like many other pro-dommes, Lady Elizabeth has a Jessica Rabbit physique, the vinegared gaze of a video-game villain, and a lengthy list of talents including remote-control TENS unit capabilities and a specialty in nanny/teacher play. However, it has not escaped me that her namesake, Lady Elizabeth Foster, duchess of Cavendish, was a novelist from the early 1800s who was famous for her ménage a trois with the Duke of Devonshire and his wife, Georgiana Cavendish. Lady Elizabeth Foster is famous for her dalliances in French intellectual circles, her riotous parties, and her slew of illegitimate children. In her letters to Georgiana, Lady Foster refers to the Duke by their pet name for him, “canis.” We need not have been there to hear the two of them whisper it in his ear — this kink (their kink) takes place on the page.


A “safe word” is a previously agreed -upon code word which, when spoken, halts uncomfortable physical action during a bondage scene. To me, the phrase seems somewhat redundant. As a student of literature, I have always thought of words as “safe,” and the project of learning to wield and manipulate them as means of self-armament. Confronted with the sharp-edged patent leather ambiguities of the domme world, however, I find myself on unsteady ground. With its plethora of double (sometimes triple) entendres and unending scroll-down menus for preferred role options (on Fetlife, you can choose among “ageplayer,” “babygirl,” “bottom,” and “top,” along with 39 other self-identifications), this language is not English as I have encountered it in my academic life or elsewhere. I am not only BDSM illiterate, but unversed in the principles of articulating desire through these words — be they safe, dangerous, or otherwise.

The voyeuristic pleasures of my one-way mirror vantage into domme world soon become impossible to sustain. On Fetlife, users who only look at others’ accounts but do not engage with them are quickly dubbed creeps; a few weeks into my idle membership,  the site’s webmasters send me an email which includes the phrase, ‘FetLife is not a meat market.’ With this, my road out of the virtual realm and into Lady Elizabeth’s dungeon is swift, though paved with stuttering. When I first call her, Lady E’s voice has all the lilts and cadences of a slightly huskier-toned (albeit phone-sex-proficient) Terry Gross, and, though I am the one doing the interviewing, I can’t shake the tics of a first-time guest on “Fresh Air”. Mumbling. Silence. The sense of being stuck in a role play scenario that’s struggling to get off the ground. On the day of our meeting, typos riddle my confirmation texts, to her glib reply: “great, will be here playing secretary (as in emails, not the hot film)”. ...

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