When I penned this essay in 2019, I was just starting to write about my experience working at a commercial dungeon. In fact, I was still working at said dungeon. As I began sending out pitches, I never expected one of the biggest online publications in the world to express interest and publish my work.
In this essay, I talk about my naivety when I began working at the dungeon. At the time I wrote the essay, I was equally naïve about a different topic: the level of stigma and stereotype, prejudice and misconceptions aimed at sex workers in our society. Of course, I had some idea—I had spent six years hiding my dungeon work from most people in my life. I knew if my truth was exposed, I would probably get fired from my tutoring job. But I didn’t consider just how rigidly our society forces the sex-worker narrative into boxes—either empowered and sex-positive; or a helpless victim who was likely abused; or someone who hates sex work but can be forgiven for doing it because they are paying their way through school or supporting children. These are just a few examples, and they all deny the complex realities of sex work as a job that can be both empowering and demeaning, exciting and as dull as any other day job—because sex work is work, and sex workers are three-dimensional, complicated people.
Had I really thought about the public’s mindset toward sex work, I would not have written the essay I did. I can also see, looking back, that it was not wise to write—or at least publish—this particular article while still working at the dungeon. I was caught up in some of the more negative aspects of my job and its psychological impact, and this mindset led me to present myself as a victim. Not only a victim, mind you, but that was a part of my journey—and I now see that in widely consumed media, many readers will latch on to the sex-worker-as-victim narrative and believe that is all there is to the story. That there is nothing redemptive, worthwhile and empowering about sex work. In fact, this is completely untrue. I wouldn’t change anything about my time at the dungeon. Even the worst experiences taught me about human nature, taught me to dig deep within myself and find inner strength; and the best experiences led to wonderful relationships with female friends at the dungeon, close connections with clients, and personal growth.
Unfortunately, my essay was also edited to highlight the negative experiences I described and minimize the positive ones. At the time, I believed this article would be my “big break” and launch my writing career, so I agreed to any edits that would allow it to be published. Again, I can see how naïve I was—but also lucky. The essay was my “big break,” though not in the way I first conceived it. The judgmental comments on this article and others, as well as in feedback from publishers once I began submitting my memoir, forced me to understand the depth of anti-sex-worker sentiment in our society. At the same time, I began connecting with other sex worker writers because of my articles. I realized how many important stories we have that need to be told, and how I could begin to re-frame my own story to no longer see myself as a victim. Thus, this one article sent me on a years’-long journey to write authentically about my own experience with sex work, and to do my part to change a damaging cultural narrative.
Our culture’s stories about sex work are never just stories. The way we conceive of sex workers influences the laws we pass, the social support we do or don’t offer, and individuals’ ability to live safely and freely. Our treatment of sex workers has become a grim precedent to the government’s determination to strip bodily autonomy from so many of us. These are issues that ultimately affect us all.
Now, looking back at this essay I wrote in 2019, in its full form before the magazine’s edits, I can see the beauty in my words—even if I would no longer write them the same way today. Yes, at times I did see myself as a victim, but my experience also allowed me to become stronger and to grow in so many ways. As any practitioner of BDSM knows, there is great strength to be found in laying down your defenses, in becoming truly vulnerable even if it means your heart will be battered and bruised.
I hope I will continue to grow as a writer, but I will never stop writing about my wounds, my scars, and the journey forward.
Originally published, in altered form, in the HuffPost:
I chose to work as a professional submissive hoping for whips and chains, and in my first session, the worst I suffered turned out to be a man tickling my ribcage.
I arrived at Medusa’s, a long-running commercial dungeon in Southern California, terrified and with no idea what my new job would entail. I knew male clients would pay to session with me and that sex wasn’t allowed, but beyond that, my job duties were a mental blank I filled with images of strong, dominant men binding my wrists above my head and flogging me with expert precision. On my first day, I dressed in a miniscule schoolgirl skirt and thigh-highs, received a brief tour of the rooms where we session, with their spanking benches and St. Andrew’s Crosses I couldn’t yet identify by name, and then it was time for my first session.
Seventy-something Tickle Thomas—yes, we nickname clients for their fetishes at the dungeon, and no, we don’t use their nicknames to their faces—came to see every new girl who appeared to be under the age of twenty-five, and I could pass as a young ingenue even without the schoolgirl skirt. We interviewed, I told him I loved tickling though in reality I was indifferent to it, and we headed upstairs to the session room. I was so nervous I forgot everything I’d just learned in my tour, and Thomas, who’d been coming to the dungeon for decades, had to show me how to buzz the desk mistress over the intercom before we began. He had me strip to my G-string and lie on the bondage bed while he got down to his boxers, and then he brushed his wrinkled fingers over my legs, my ribs, my breasts so lightly I thought he was giving me a massage. Eventually I figured out this was the “tickling,” and I should have been giggling all along.
At the end of the session, Thomas lay down on the bed with his skin touching mine, and I understood he was searching for physical intimacy, rather than hoping to satisfy any one fetish—a trait I would come to learn many clients at the dungeon shared. I had the sudden and alarming realization that I’d never been this close to an elderly man in my life, and both of us were nearly naked to boot. He smelled like earwax. I was a truly submissive girl, and I didn’t want to disappoint him by pulling away, but at the same time I wished I could somehow draw my skin into myself and wrap a layer of protection around my heart. I didn’t yet know that, in my years to come at the dungeon, I would need that protection; I was only thinking about how many minutes were left in the session, and whether I would even come back for my next shift.
Then the voice of the desk mistress intruded through the intercom and into the dark room, telling us the session was over. I dressed, my discomfort receded, and Thomas, who seemed like a very pleasant and polite man when his bare flesh wasn’t pressed against mine, handed me two hundred-dollar bills. This was on top of my session fee of another hundred dollars, and at the time, my main income came from a part-time job that paid twelve dollars an hour. Now that I thought about it, the session hadn’t been that bad; I could try again, see if I got some of the impact play and bondage I’d been yearning for.
So I stayed. I got the impact play, the whips and chains—and that was only the beginning.
A few weeks before my session with Tickle Thomas, I had no idea that the job title of professional submissive even existed. I’d heard of dominatrixes, but as a shy girl who’d always harbored fantasies of being taken against my will, tied up and whipped, the possibility of becoming one had never crossed my mind. I’d never asked a boyfriend to dominate me, partly out of nerves but more because I wanted a man to see what I’d kept hidden, to force me to submit to my strange desires despite myself. But now Fifty Shades of Grey was a bestseller, and still the dominant man I’d dreamt of hadn’t come to find me. I’d also lost my full-time job, so when I came across an interview with a professional submissive online, it seemed like fate. Since I live in one of the largest cities in the US, a quick Google search determined there was in fact a commercial dungeon I could reach by bus, and they were always hiring new submissives. No experience necessary.
Before I could second-guess myself, I was walking through the gate of Medusa’s, a small, charming two-story house off a major boulevard—the last place you’d imagine scenes of torture and humiliation to play out. But inside, the deep purple and black décor, the leather furniture and dim lighting, felt more like what I’d expected. As the manager interviewed me in the lobby, where I was sure I’d be found out as a naïve imposter at any moment, I could see the wall of toys in the hallway behind me: thick leather floggers, sleek slim canes, ropes and cuffs and other implements meant to punish or control.
The manager went over the basics: all new employees had to start as submissives, meaning I would be at the receiving end of those paddles and riding crops that so intrigued me. I would work six-hour shifts with a group of other submissives, switches who performed both dominant and submissive sessions, and dominatrixes; I would only get paid if a client chose to session with me. No sex or exchange of bodily fluids was allowed, and I had to keep my G-string on at all times. To ensure I could handle a bit of pain, a girl on that evening’s shift spanked me, though it felt more like a few gentle pats, and that was it. I was hired. Just one more thing: I chose my dungeon name, Delilah, unaware I was taking on not only a new name, but a new identity.
I returned to my second shift at Medusa’s as apprehensive as I’d been for the first. Not only did I have next to zero personal experience with BDSM, but I’d never dabbled in any kind of sex work, or even stepped foot in a strip club. I wasn’t sure I belonged here, and I wouldn’t learn till later that quite a few of my coworkers started out as green as I did. On this day, however, I had the session that assured me this was a place I wanted to be.
Jason wasn’t a regular at the dungeon, so he didn’t have a nickname like Tickle Thomas, or Bondage Brian, or the others I’d get to know in the days to come. In his thirties, Jason was also younger than the average client, and he wasn’t unattractive—in fact, he was what we called “dungeon hot.” Most importantly, he was very dominant. Once our session began, he told me in a calm, quiet but deliberate voice to get on the spanking bench. Still nerve-ridden, I fumbled a bit as I climbed atop the leather bench that placed me on all fours a few feet in the air, with my back arched and ass raised, exposed. It was a position I would become intimately familiar with in the months to come. Jason spanked me with his hand, a leather paddle, a riding crop, and each impact reverberated through me like a wave landing on the shore. It hurt much more than the swats I’d received in my interview, but it didn’t feel like pain; it felt like I’d been drowning for years without realizing it, and now someone was finally administering CPR.
“This is what you need, isn’t it?” Jason whispered in my ear. After I’d spent a few years at the dungeon, a question like that would have made me roll my eyes, but at that moment, I could only answer, “Yes.” As Jason tied my wrists to a chain above my head, yanked my hair till my neck fell back and twisted my nipples, I allowed the pain to take me to a place where I no longer felt anxious or embarrassed or like I didn’t belong. I forgot all about the impulse I’d had the day before, the instinct to wrap my heart up and protect myself. I willingly abandoned my defenses, and I did so with pleasure rather than pain.
Jason never came back to session with me again, but it didn’t matter—there were plenty of other dominant men. As my weeks at the dungeon turned to months, I found my clients were split in an almost even 50-50 between the two types I’d encountered on my first days: the men who truly wanted me to submit, like Jason, and the ones who craved physical contact, like Thomas. I would put up with the latter if it allowed me to experience the former; and as I experienced more and more, I learned my masochistic streak cut deep. I progressed from stingy spankings with leather paddles and riding crops, to wooden paddles that made deep purple bruises bloom across my backside, and canes that created rows of welts down my thighs. Though I could use a “safe word” alerting clients to back off if the pain grew too intense, I rarely did so. If anything, I asked for more.
While I appreciated the physical marks on my skin—the signs of my submission—above that I loved becoming intimate with pain, learning the different forms of it. One strong blow from a flogger could knock all the breath from my lungs, while the pinch of nipple clamps would slowly spread through my body, sneakily consuming me. I savored the idea of being punished—something many of my clients would emphasize through roleplays of the naughty secretary or schoolgirl—and as time passed, I realized I was acting out scenes of deep-rooted guilt. When I was three, my sister had died, and I had lived with the buried fear that I didn’t deserve to survive. Now I’d found a way to atone for my alleged sins and maybe, eventually, to be absolved.
On a physical level, pain also brought a flood of endorphins, a high that I mistook for happiness. For my first year or so at the dungeon, life seemed almost too good to be true: I was making money doing something I loved, I’d become close friends with many of my coworkers, and I’d found a dominant boyfriend as well. I was so enamored of my new identity that I took to introducing myself as “Delilah” even outside of work. I didn’t care that my heart, which I’d neglected to wrap back up after my first taste of my submission, was getting lashed along with the rest of me.
But pain can act like a drug, a chemical reaction within the body, and over time, it stopped producing the desired effect. First it took more intense pain for my body to release endorphins, and then, most of the time, that euphoric rush never arrived at all. With my head clear, I could see what I’d been unwilling to before: while many of my clients were kind and respectful, others were not. These clients had crossed my own and the dungeon’s boundaries many times, yanking my panties down, hitting me with implements they didn’t know how to use correctly, grabbing me in places I didn’t want touched. No matter how many times I reminded them of the rules, they always tried again, and for too long I accepted this behavior. Even with clients who didn’t break rules, I began to feel like an object, and one in danger of being used up. I saw the words they repeated—that I needed to “learn my lesson,” that I was a “good girl” for taking the pain—for what they were: lines the men were delivering to “Delilah,” a girl they paid to submit to them for an hour or two, and not to the person I truly was. I had made the mistake of becoming Delilah, of giving too much of myself away, and now, I associated pain with greedy men who took and took.
In a way, I got what I’d originally wanted: I’d had enough punishment, and I no longer believed I deserved more. I no longer desired—needed—the pain. But at the same time, I lost a part of myself. Submitting in session became more and more difficult, and once my masochistic side faded, my boyfriend and I grew apart. Still, I had my coworkers’ love and support, and I didn’t want to leave Medusa’s. So I began training as a switch, learning to dominate men. I didn’t devote myself to domination the way I had to submission, but maybe that was a good thing. I wrapped my heart back up, protecting myself, and I came to accept the invisible scars that lingered underneath. They’re a part of me now, a reminder of my time as a submissive I’ll always carry with me, like the marks I used to wear on my skin.
Sometimes an experience—a love, a loss, a shock or a disaster—will damage us, but also open our eyes to new parts of ourselves, and force us to transform. For me, working as a submissive was that experience. There are times I wish I’d never been that naïve, giving girl I was when I first walked through the gate of Medusa’s, and there are times I wish I could become her once more. I can’t undo the choices I made; I can only allow them to make me stronger as I put down the whips and unlock the chains for good.
Stephanie Parent is a writer of horror and magical realism.