Interview with Mistress Selina Raven

Back Originally written for Elder Gods' Rave #14, February 1999
Oh the people you'll meet

As the old saw goes, "Not only are people stranger than you think, people are stranger than you can think." If you aren't familiar with that one, then you need to update your button collection. I found out recently that someone I tangentially know works as a dominatrix. On an invite, I went to interview her and learn what I could about a business that I have no idea about. After all, how many chances do you get to talk candidly with someone in the sex industry? I only wish I hadn't been too shy to bring out my tape recorder and tape the whole conversation, because I learned a surprising amount about a world that is very different than I imagined it to be.

My friend the dominatrix, known professionally as Mistress Selina Raven, works out of a location called The Gates, which is commonly referred to as a "dungeon," with three rooms for entertaining clients. The Gates certainly didn't match what I was expecting, but since everything I knew about the S&M scene is pretty much out of a Trent Reznor video or hearsay, this isn't really surprising. The reality of the power exchange business, a small corner of the sex trade, is its own subculture, but it’s not as far off the mainstream as we might think.

First of all, The Gates doesn’t allow sex. I'm not talking about the same kind of thing where an escort agency 'doesn’t allow sex;" The Gates really means it. No sexual contact between client and dominatrix. If a penis comes out, it's immediately covered by a condom, and the client has to do all his own work. A dominatrix is not a prostitute, at least not at the Gates.

Direct sexual contact aside, what you can do with your time at The Gates hour is fairly open; from full body suspension to verbal abuse (yes, you can live the Monty Python sketch), golden showers, hot wax, or bullwhipping. The Gates offers a bewildering array of ways to pass the time, and donations start at $130 an hour and go from there. Only certain employees are willing to work on certain scenes. The Gates keeps a list of all activities, cross-indexed with each employee, indicating her willingness to be involved in a type of scene. Additionally, each woman has two columns—does she feel comfortable being the dominant in the scene, or playing the submissive? While it's very easy to have the skill and comfort level to scream obscenities at someone for half an hour, you have to know exactly what you're doing if you're wielding the bullwhip, and not a lot of people were willing to take that responsibility. One employee won't play any scene as the submissive, but her dominant category is wide open.

Everything is discussed at length beforehand. Boundaries are set, the client's specific scenario is discussed, and the house rules laid out. The Gates is a place of pleasure, not somewhere to have your pain threshold involuntarily tested, and definitely not a place for surprises. I found this rather surprising, especially considering America's fiction that 'spontaneous' sex is better, but apparently the power exchange community has long known that the best way to prevent accidents and problems is to talk the matter, and the scenario out. This way, everyone knows that they are getting into, and the situation is more enjoyable and less threatening for everyone involved. It also helps weed the destructive and the inappropriate out of the client pool.

The Gates is, first and foremost, a business. It has to make money, like any other splinter-market business, such as a comic book store. While most of us see the sex business as sex first and business secondary, this is not true of many establishments. Selina spoke openly and positively of the business practices of The Gates, which contained many rules you would find in any small, client-oriented business. "Two strikes and you’re out" was familiar — inappropriate behavior immediately stopped the scenario, and a warning is delivered. If the client steps out of  line a second time, their name goes on the same list as the individuals who have bounced checks. There are few of these, however, due to the before-the-fact discussions mentioned above. Looks are not a major factor in the hiring process at The Gates. During her job interview, Mistress Raven was never asked to strip. Having the perfect body is less important than knowing where to paddle someone and how hard. Experience is worth much more than Barbie-doll looks. It's funny to look at something as "offbeat" as The Gates as just another business, but that's what it really is; a way to make money utilizing an individual's skills and talents.

According to Selina, The Gates, or another establishment like it, is a good place to find out if you like dominance and submission games. It's much better to go to an experienced professional than to hand your girlfriend a riding crop and seeing what happens. The Gates is, despite the ferocious-looking equipment, a place of safety; somewhere to have a sexual fantasy fulfilled (up to a point) in a place where the people won't judge you.

Clients who visit The Gates are almost exclusively men. They come from all walks of life, all sorts of jobs, and virtually any economic background, although those who are more wealthy can afford to return more often. But they are virtually all men. Women very occasionally come to The Gates, but it would seem that women don’t have the same sex and power linkages that men do, or if they do, they can better equalize their desire and reality.

Does Selina feel strange for having taken this line of work? No. To her, this sort of work is simply an extension of everyone's lives, whether this finds an outlet in life or the bedroom, or not. Some people are natural dominants, and some are natural followers. Some men don’t get fulfilled by their job-allotted power quotient, or desire a period of "not being in control." That’s what places like The Gates are for, for working out these sorts of power imbalances in a controlled, safe environment.

Since working as a dominatrix, Mistress Raven has learned to spot a dominant man. Dominant men hold your gaze directly, and answer your questions in their own time, unrushed. When she said this, I immediately thought of Anthony Hopkins talking about Silence of the Lambs, and how he has never understood how women could consider his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter sexy. Now, I think, I know. And I find myself making longer and more direct eye contact when I want something at work.

It’s that moment of insight that I was looking for. Now I have a new perspective to look at things from; a new pair of eyes to see the world, and a fresh attribute to apply to my characters. Someday, what I learned from Selina is going to end up in a book. Not directly, but the landscape she's opened up is a fresh mine for character work. What more could a writer ask for?