June 2020

The Nation Reviewed

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By Jenny Valentish
Hands-off operations for sex-work dungeons in the time of COVID

From the outside, the dungeon is indistinguishable from the auto-repair shops that surround it. Upon pressing the buzzer at a discreet door you are led by the brothel manager through the gloom to a small reception room. 

There, as you wait for your fetish provider, you might flip through the book of services. These include electrical play, sensory deprivation, food sploshing, suspension, medical procedures, cuckolding, public humiliation and babyism. There’s a poster on the wall that warns “no condom, no sex”. Sex? How pedestrian.

But what can fetish providers do in the era of social distancing? On March 23, the owner of this Melbourne dungeon emailed its workers to say that the premises would be closed until further notice. On March 25, sex-on-premises venues in Victoria were ordered closed by the state government, although private workers were still allowed to operate independently, with the caveat that “no more than two people should share a space of eight metres squared”. On April 1, that changed. Up to $19,826.40 in penalties would apply if a sex worker was caught seeing clients.

Pre COVID-19, you’d find Sir James in such a dungeon, in a uniform of crisp shirt, leather braces, black pants, lace-up boots and surgical gloves. The tools of his trade were paddles and anal hooks. Now he’s manning different tools in his shed, using lockdown to focus on what had previously been more of a hobby: making and selling leather harnesses, straps and leashes for BDSM play (bondage, domination and sadomasochism). 

“I’ve gone from working 30 hours a week as a professional Dom to basically nothing,” he says. “Luckily I’ve saved up a decent amount.”

Sir James says he’s proud of the way sex workers at the dungeon he works out of were aggressively on the ball as soon as the severity of COVID-19 became apparent. “Management were asking our opinion, but all the workers – no matter how badly off they were – immediately wanted to do their part and stop working, even when the government wasn’t taking any sort of decisive action.”

Brothels aren’t likely to utilise JobKeeper to keep sex workers on board, as it’s more convenient to view sex workers as tenants. Some may be eligible for JobSeeker, and the Australian Sex Workers Association – known as Scarlet Alliance – has set up an emergency support fund. 

“Every sex worker I know is actually a subcontractor, paying rent to use the space,” says Sir James. “It offers some freedoms for the worker, but it does make it harder to survive during an event like this or during any downturn.”

Still, he says, “Having worked for everything from software engineering to furniture removal, I can’t say sex work is any worse as an industry.”

It’s likely that Sir James’s clients would be feeling an extra need to see him during this time of anxiety. It might sound odd, he says, but many people come to a dungeon to feel safe, in the same way that you feel the safest when you’ve come down to earth after a bungee jump. The previous moments were exhilarating, even frightening, but you were in safe hands and you survived. Those BDSM clients who are additionally into corporal punishment or other pain-play will be missing the endorphin release that can serve as stress relief. 

“I’ve noticed I’m really missing that sort of interaction too,” says Sir James. “There’s a massive hole in my personality where there should be really intense emotional and sexual experiences. It definitely makes me more stressed out.” 

Before lockdown hit, Mia Walsch was working on reception at a dungeon, as well as seeing regular clients by appointment. 

“The other day I got my work clothes out of my bag and hung them up in my wardrobe and wondered when I’d get to wear them again,” she mourns. “I don’t think I’d be good in a video setting. I prefer the one-on-one, or two, or whatever. For me, the thrill of the session comes from the buzz in the air and the electricity in my fingertips.”

Walsch does have a regular client who has provided some financial support without expectations, allowing her to buy groceries and pay bills. “It’s so kind, unexpected, and I’m extremely grateful,” Walsch says. “Some clients, especially regulars, you build a real relationship with. Mine become like good friends that I hurt sometimes. It’s really lovely to know that I’ve been an important part of their lives, enough that they might want to help me out when things get rough.”

In July, Walsch’s memoir will be published. Money for Something: Sex Work. Drugs. Life. Need. details with gritty humour her life as a sex worker. She’s psyching herself up to start talking frankly about all that, but in the meantime, she’s finding she can apply her Domme skills to lockdown surprisingly well. Her bondage work is proving handy in the garden and the house is faultlessly sanitised. 

“I have a sound knowledge of cross-contamination, from cleaning dungeons all those years,” she says. 

Mistress Audrey Fatale usually works out of a space in a Collingwood brothel. During lockdown, she’s seeing a few longstanding clients – mostly older men who are submissives – via Skype calls. It does limit things somewhat.

Her main client is “Rubber Slave”. He’ll wear his latex suit, while Fatale wears plastic underwear, a plastic boilersuit and a plastic raincoat. “He’ll say, ‘Are you wearing your plastic underwear, Mistress?’ and I’ll say, ‘Yes I am.’ ‘How many pairs have you got on?’ ‘I’ve got two pairs on today.’”

Fatale says that when COVID-19 shut down her industry she developed anxiety around competition, which had never concerned her before. “All of a sudden there was this massive expulsion on Twitter from all the Dommes and sex workers: ‘I’m online! I’m doing Skype! I’m doing phone sessions! I’m doing custom sex!’ I started to get really anxious around how I was going to find my place, because it doesn’t resonate with me. It tends to attract the type of clients I’m not interested in – fly-by-night wankers who are feeling horny and just want you to perform for their fantasy. You reach a bigger audience, but to what end? Suddenly you become a caricature.”

Instead, she’s decided to try two new directions. The first draws on her therapeutic background. Fatale worked for eight years as a counsellor and case manager in grief and trauma while simultaneously working as a part-time Domme.

“Over the years I’ve attracted clients that really want to talk, and the psychological aspect is a big part of the established relationship,” she says. A session might involve exploring the deepening of the client’s submission, the writing of contracts, the reporting on the minutiae of their day-to-day life through spreadsheets on diet, exercise and masturbation habits. “So that’s probably more what the online sessions will look like at this point in time.”

Fatale is also considering recording educational videos and uploading them to YouTube – a kind of Slave 101. “It would essentially be, ‘This is what to expect from a session, this is how to behave.’ I’m swaying towards that. It’s just that these things don’t happen overnight, particularly when you’re technologically disadvantaged,” she says. “I’m still waiting to find a tech slave – I’d call him ‘The Boy’.”

Jenny Valentish

Jenny Valentish is a journalist and novelist, and the author of Woman of Substances. Her latest book is Everything Harder Than Everyone Else.

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