.During the abu ghraib prison scandal, the Baroness received a flood of phone calls. The photographs that ran in the newspapers and on television, the images and descriptions of torture, especially the picture of an Iraqi standing on a box with a hood over his head and electrical cables running to his hands, stirred a surge of requests. Could she do that for the caller, inflict that kind of fear followed by jolts of electricity?
She was a clothing designer. Her sheath-like outfits had been featured in full-page liquor ads on the backs of magazines. Janet Jackson, newly thin, had posed in her clothes. So had Kim Basinger. Music video dancers snaked and twisted in her outfits. A kimono she’d embroidered long ago, when she’d worked with a different aesthetic, hung in the Smithsonian Museum Her boutique was a narrow storefront in Manhattan’s East Village, and in the basement, with its white-painted brick walls and tightly wedged worktables, she and her submissives constructed the garments.
Her clothing lines were all latex. She liked to show her submissives how to create a seam, setting one piece of material upon another, with adhesive between, and running a finger precisely, sensually, along the overlap. “Latex is a physical thing,” she said. “When I teach someone how to make a garment I teach them about touch. I teach them how to take their finger and lay down the seam. Don’t press too hard and don’t press too soft. Just feel it.”
Her basement was a place of pleasure, of lashing, burning, beating, cutting, gagging, branding. “My lips swell,” she described what happened when she gave pain. “My heart beats quickly, I’m sure my pupils dilate. I feel massive.” She stood at a worktable as she spoke, her eyes closed. Her hair was a stiffly teased conflagration of red and blond hues, like a tumbleweed bursting perpetually into flame. “I stay away from small equipment. I don’t allow myself a scalpel. With a scalpel I might just pop it straight through. Skin, muscle, organs. I feel like God. There is a stillness when I’m about to use the bullwhip, or my wand if I’m to set someone on fire. Have you ever watched an animal that is scared, caught in headlights or conscious of your presence, and scared—it just stops. And you, watching, you can feel time stopping. Stopping. It’s not just the animal, it’s time; the animal sucks time out of the air. And you stand there listening to something that isn’t there.”
She wore a red latex dress, cut low and pushing high at the bust, the lacing in back drawn tight. A metal leaf arrangement, fashioned from part of a candleholder, protruded from her hair. She wore emerald-green eye shadow, and as her eyes remained shut while she described her experience, her eyelids—parched and pebbled with middle age—trembled.
The clothes she sold tended to be minimalist in their lines, but some were as flamboyant as she herself never failed to be. She felt she belonged to an era more than half a century past; she drew inspiration from the thirties and forties. She had just begun work on a floor-length gown whose wide shawl collar and ruffled sleeves would be thick with lace—except that she would use only latex. And this posed a technical problem Latex is perfectly suited to cling, to encase, to lie thin and flat. It doesn’t serve well in creating volume, let alone in replicating blooms and clouds of lace, which was the effect the Baroness had in mind.
She stared at the sketch she had drawn, in which the woman’s face was partly obscured by a bit of veiling that descended from her hat—the hat and veiling, too, would be latex. She contemplated her dilemma. How to make lace from latex? It was the kind of question she liked to consider; for all her sense of fashion, she proclaimed herself a “geek.” She would stare and experiment, toss away and sketch and contemplate again. The insoluble generally got solved. She saw in her own way. “Arrange these,” she said to me, upstairs in her boutique. She pointed to a latex flower in silver and amethyst, a postcard, a figurine, a pliable bit of orange cable, and a few other small objects that happened to lie on the glass counter. I set about making formations, this next to that: simple patterns in two dimensions. The possibilities seemed limited. Then she took over. She bent objects around each other, entwined them, melded them, thus making new things. She saw that, with each other, the objects could be transformed.
She was that way with people. She was an evangelical sadist, offering revelation and aiming to shape a new world. Jacob couldn’t find a place for himself within the world that existed. The Baroness intended to create a world that was her place. “To have someone new is marvelous,” she said in her faint British accent. Her speech combined the clipped and the dramatic, the precise and the ethereal. “To watch the body go from stiffness, from fear, to watch it giving way and leaning into the whip. Once we reach that point I could be in a room of two hundred people, I’m not aware of their presence. I go basically deaf. Wine. The smell of a certain wine: your grandmother’s cheek and blackberries. It rushes over you. It is as delicate as that, but so strong that nothing else can intrude.”
She was happily married, a conventional union of twenty years. She had been collecting disciples for a decade. “I tell them I provide a safe place to do dangerous things. But that is a lie.” the doorbell rang, and the Baroness buzzed the customer in. He had a rim of gray hair and a British accent far stronger than hers. He asked to try on a black bodysuit. She instructed him in how to apply a body lubricant called Eros, which would allow him to slide the latex over his skin. “Okay,” he said.
“It’s not ‘okay,’” she corrected in a voice at once understanding and stern. “It’s ‘Yes, Baroness.’”
“Yes, Baroness.” He went behind the ice-blue satin curtain into the dressing room, its walls draped in satin of the same color. His sharp intakes of breath were audible throughout the boutique as he put on the lubricant and worked himself into the suit.
“I think I’m a submissive,” he said through the curtain.
She let some moments pass. “You think or you know?”
He emerged, and she started to fit him, tugging and smoothing the material. He acknowledged that he knew.
“Are you service-oriented?” she asked.
In this way, or by referral or chance, she was gathering her flock. Some became slaves, others
only followers. There was the Girl, known solely by this generic name in the basement workshop. A secretary in her early twenties, tall and chunky, with long brown hair parted in the middle, she had stepped into the boutique to shop several weeks earlier and been drawn to the Baroness right away. She was already owned by a man she’d met online, through Craigslist. But the man, it turned out, was willing to share her with a master whose reputation was national.
The Baroness had requested that formal papers be written up to delineate the terms of their coownership, and they met for dinner to discuss the details. The man’s chief request was that he be invited to watch any bodily punishment. The Baroness was known for severity. But she had been holding back with the Girl: rigging her face with horse blinkers and a ball gag, binding her limbs, instructing two assistants to cane her. As she was caned, the Girl screamed in a choked-off, high – pitched way from behind the gag, which propped open her jaw at an impossible angle. Her eyes lost focus. The Baroness didn’t take direct part in the beating, because the Girl was about to serve at her annual Christmas party, and the Baroness, who tended toward the extreme, didn’t want her marked.
There was Greg, a window-washer, his face rugged below short brown bangs, handsome in the manner of a cigarette ad. He wore a black T-shirt, a creased and faded leather jacket. It was easy to place him in a common pornographic scene: washing a large bedroom window, then beckoned inside by the woman sprawled on the bed. When he arrived each afternoon at the boutique, he presented himself to the Baroness, as he’d been trained, just inside the front door: on his knees, arms tight to his sides and wrists bent back so that his palms and straightened fingers were parallel to the floor. His hands looked like paralyzed flippers. She would direct him to hold this posture for several minutes, correcting him if his wrists started to droop.
At last allowed to stand, Greg started to polish the front door’s metal frame, a daily task, the weather quickly replacing any blemishes he managed to burnish away. As he polished, the mailman came. He and Greg said hello, exchanged pleasantries, a pair of simple working men.
“Have you rented Remains of the Day?" the Baroness asked Greg one afternoon. He’d just knelt before her, hands in position, to ask what his next task should be, after an hour at the door frame.
“No, Baroness. Forgive me, Baroness."
“You didn’t expect me to ask?" Two weeks ago, she had instructed him to watch the story of the faultless, self-effacing butler.
“It’s a hard movie to find, Baroness," he pleaded.
As he knelt, knees slightly splayed, she kicked him with terrific force in the testicles, connecting with the tip of her red boot. He shuddered and bent but made no sound. Next, he vacuumed the boutique. In the back pocket of his jeans he kept a small spiral notebook, as required, in order to take notes. “Please serve obey" were the words printed on one page. Another unpunctuated page read: “Always wear black when serving the Baroness never interrupt the Baroness always clean the front of the shop sweep wipe down never talk to the Baroness eye to eye." And a third: “When trying to get the Baroness’s attention always be in position to accept any discipline the Baroness feels I deserve."
After vacuuming, he returned to his knees to pour her a glass of champagne in the basement. Another trainee was bathing her feet in a little plastic tub before giving her a pedicure. The Baroness thought the pedicurist was more promising than Greg; she considered the pedicurist a slave-intraining while she doubted that Greg would ever rise above the level of servant. “The cerulean blue," she said, choosing a color for her toenails. A pretty young apprentice named Kathleen, whose father was an executive at a billion-dollar food company, and whom the Baroness often led around the city on a leash, leaned over a worktable, making a pillbox hat. There was a technical problem. The latex wasn’t providing enough structure. She brought the hat to the Baroness, and they stared together at the internal band, talking over the design—colleagues.
The Baroness directed Greg to move a cabinet from a corner of the workshop, her tone straightforward, not harsh. She said that the pedicurist should join him. Within their two-man team, Greg took easy charge. “You just lift,” he said in a street-corner accent, nonchalant, confident. “One, two, three.” Deeper into his notebook, he’d written: “Reasons why I want to serve the Baroness. To fix her seamed stocking while she cracks her bullwhip. To make things easier for the Baroness so she can devote more time to her fashion business and make more money and be happier, because she took her valuable time to train me to be the best slave she can ever have. To learn how to take the Baroness 16 bullwhips and never complain or cry.” on a worktable one evening, a man lay on his back in a red latex bodysuit and a black hood whose only openings were a pair of grommets at the nostrils. Blue ropes, run through large metal eyes at the rim of the table, held him down while a small black machine sent an electrical charge to a conductive ring around the shaft of his penis. The Baroness set the machine to respond to voices, told the man to tell me about himself, and closed the French doors on that section of the basement. Whenever the man or I spoke, the current surged, and when he groaned or screamed in pain, the voltage went even higher. She had made me complicit in his torture.
He had retired from Wall Street a few years ago, in his mid-forties. He’d wanted to spend more time with his children, who were in their teens, and now he helped them with their homework and watched Fred Astaire movies with his daughter. His wife, a homemaker who had once had a practice as a psychologist, inflicted pain in their bedroom, but not with the same spirit as the Baroness. His feet quivered, then flapped as the voltage soared.
“It’s about surrendering your ego,” he said, sounding as though he must be gritting his teeth behind the hood. “The first time, after forty-five minutes, I was in another world. It was like onion skins were being peeled off my psyche.” He talked about studying Plato, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard in his retirement. His feet shook so hard it seemed his Achilles tendons might rupture. The Baroness would hold him captive this way for at least twenty-four hours, maybe thirty-six. When the boutique and the workshop closed, she would switch the electrical machine from voice-activated to random, and leave him bound and alone for the night. I wondered about going to the bathroom
“You either don’t or you make a mess or she applies a Texas catheter. This would be up to the Baroness to decide.”
She told one of her acolytes to start shutting things down. It was around nine o’clock. No one would return until noon. I asked about his childhood.
“I was never raped by homosexual dwarves,” he mocked my question. “Is this a weird way to deal with life? Consider the man who bought Mark McGwire’s seventieth home-run ball for three million dollars. Who’s weirder?”
Genevieve she’d met at a fashion show. One of the Baroness’s models hadn’t shown up, and Genevieve had taken her place at the last minute. The Baroness sensed something about her, and soon they were out on a date at a mainstream movie theater, where the Baroness taped Genevieve’s wrists to the armrests, taped her feet together, taped her mouth. It was the beginning of one of the great loves of her life, coexisting with her love for her husband. Genevieve couldn’t serve the Baroness in her boutique or in her workshop, not productively, because they could never resist the temptation to “play.” The transcendence that came with inflicting pain depended on a depth of connection— physical, emotional, spiritual—with the one she was hurting. The Baroness had plenty of quick encounters that gave shallow pleasure, and she had an array of regular submissives who might give her slightly more. She and Genevieve had been created for each other; there was a feeling of destiny between them; and now, several years after Genevieve had left New York and gone home to Canada to resume college, the longing that came with remembering left an emptiness in every artery, every vein. Thinking back, the Baroness shut her eyes against the loss, as though her eyelids could keep the void at bay. She could scarcely say what had lain beneath the attachment, only that it had been grounded in something more than the ferocity of their play. Once, the Baroness had threaded the end of her whip through the hoop ring Genevieve wore in her clitoris, then ripped the hoop out through the glistening tissue.
there were psychologists who wouldn’t have thought the Wall Street retiree or Genevieve or the Baroness herself were pathologically weird at all—or, if they did catch themselves thinking it, would swiftly have cautioned themselves against subjective judgment. “Perversion,” Muriel Dimen, a prominent New York psychoanalyst, joked as we sat in her Greenwich Village office, “can be defined as the sex that you like and I don’t.” And Mark Blechner, editor of the journal Contemporary Psychoanalysis, said, “Remember that a century ago psychoanalysts were talking about fellatio and cunnilingus as perversions. As long as what she does is consensual,” he went on, after I’d described the Baroness’s life, “I don’t think it’s anyone’s role to judge.”
Dimen, whose dark gray ringlets of hair brightened suddenly to a dramatic white rim around her face, mentioned that perversion, in one current psychiatric conception, is characterized by “relationships in which relatedness disappears,” but added that sadists and masochists may feel a resonant union. Erotic excitement, she had written, can send “you into bodily and sensory realms of abjection foreclosed long ago in the necessities of maturation.” She used “abjection” in a psychoanalytic sense, to mean an infantile state before the boundaries of identity are formed—and to listen to the Wall Street retiree talk about surrendering and having onion skins stripped from his psyche, or to listen to the Baroness recall the violent and blissful merging of selves that had taken ungovernable hold whenever she and Genevieve were in the same room, was to hear a hint of the profound, the unbounded.
Dimen was reluctant to speak about causes of sadism or masochism; she worried about implying that such desires were disorders. But other psychoanalysts were less hesitant to see pathology. Doris Silverman, her hair dyed a soft, calming wheat-like shade, suggested that some lack of parental bond, some wounding absence or brutality, probably lay behind the sexual drives of people like the Baroness and those who submitted to her. Even Blechner, who refused to judge, suspected that the Baroness was responding to some long-repressed cruelty in her childhood. Then again, he warned that such psychoanalytic explanations had proved misguided in the past, that schizophrenia had once been attributed to cold and rejecting mothering.
Robert worked with computers and was the president of his local Lions Club. Under his leadership, the club raised money to combat diabetes and childhood eye diseases. He served in the apartment the
Baroness shared with her husband, cleaning and running errands and bringing her coffee in bed. He slept on her floor. A friend of his, who would soon become the first American reporter killed by insurgents in Iraq, had introduced him to the Baroness. She told me: “I love that people will come to me and say, ‘You changed my life.’ If you can leave a legacy of people better than they were before, you’re blessed. I’m blessed in that way.”
Other slaves she found by advertising in downtown newspapers. Applicants were instructed to arrive for an interview with a resume detailing any previous service. Kneeling for her questions, one man explained that he had made, from scratch, the paper for the resume he offered her.
Alex lived in a distant city. He phoned the Baroness at precise moments throughout the day— 12:55, 3:37, 8:12—according to her commands and their synchronized watches. At each call, she told him what to do: bind himself more tightly, contort himself more unnaturally, burn himself. If he missed the time she assigned, her instructions might be more severe, or she might withhold punishment altogether, which was terrible in itself.
Sam was a contractor to the wealthy, the well known. He had waves of unkempt, shoulder-length brown hair and a way of wearing his T-shirts that communicated an indifferent self-assurance. As an offering, he did carpentry in the boutique, which had opened not long ago; he had made the elegantly curved counter, and he waited for the harm she might give. Susan, his wife, taught science in the New Jersey public high school from which she’d graduated twelve years earlier. She had jet-black hair, a delicate nose, full lips, a slender body; the Baroness used her for a model.
The couple had never lacked for heat between them The first time they’d slept together, on a summer night, he’d gone to his freezer and taken out the tangerine sections he kept frozen there to run over a lover’s nipples and thighs till they melted and were eaten. Later they’d seen the Baroness interviewed on HBO and ventured to her shop to buy each other latex outfits. A three-way flirtation had begun, and along the way the Baroness learned that Susan had endured a childhood illness that had left her back heavily scarred. Hearing about them, seeing them, the Baroness was enamored of those marks. “I’m somebody she looks up to, somebody she trusts,” the Baroness said to me. “Everybody else tries to tell her, ‘It’s okay, they’re not too bad.’ I want to make her a dress to show off her back. I like the marks of life. Hers are massive. Marvelous, thick, like a ladder. You could climb down her back on those scars.” And Susan told me that the Baroness was beginning to transform her.
Even those who hadn’t entered the Baroness’s world, even near strangers, seemed to feel altered by her attention. A crippled teenage boy drove his motorized wheelchair along the blocks near her boutique. His neck sagged, his head keeled, his knees leaned together. His wrist was inverted over the chair’s little black driving knob. But when he saw the Baroness stepping toward him in her sidewalk-length leather coat, with her purple spiked heels, her fireball of hair, which sometimes contained a streak of white or magenta to complement the flames, her many silver rings, two or three to a finger, and her sleek iron cane, which she carried as an accessory and which looked like a gallant’s sword, all obliterating her age, making the nascent pouches of her face irrelevant, making any measure of prettiness irrelevant, substituting flagrance for conventional standards so that, even in the East Village, where the outlandish was banal, every eye turned toward her—when he saw her approaching his face brightened and, though perhaps it wasn’t possible, his neck seemed to straighten slightly, his head to lift.
It was the same with the woman who walked with forearm crutches, the same with another woman, who seemed not quite homeless but plainly dislodged, as disheveled in her mind as in her hair and clothes.
Sometimes, on the streets in the evening, she stopped to chat. Then the forearm crutches seemed momentarily unnecessary; the dishevelment disappeared, replaced by intriguing idiosyncrasy.
The effect might have been due to her flaunting her difference, to their recognizing a champion misfit. But she claimed another power. She said it was because she was willing to look at them Most people averted their eyes from the crippled and avoided the lost. She, strutting loudly in her spiked heels along a line as straight as her iron cane, gazed not only into their eyes but at their bodies and into their minds. To do anything less, to pretend not to notice, was, she felt, to cause shame rather than diminish it. She was willing to see them, without fear, exactly as they were, and that freed them, for a few seconds, to be themselves.
one torrential Saturday afternoon the Baroness took me upstate for an overnight gathering hosted by her friend Master R. I picked her up outside her apartment building, and her husband, Mark, walked her out to the car. He had a sharp nose and a sharp chin, a ponytail and a goatee, and the graceful reserve of men with plenty of height. A photographer, he kept his distance from her world, except to take pictures at the monthly parties she threw. That was as close as he wanted to get. He preferred to take portraits of dogs, which he considered his calling. He’d started a Web site, phodography. com, to advertise his vision: “Your dog is unique. (S)he is loyal. (S)he provides heart-healing humor and unconditional companionship. We understand completely.” He and the Baroness had been married almost a decade before she’d discovered herself. He was still perplexed. Before we drove off he leaned down to her open window; they kissed warmly, devotedly. “Good-bye, handsome,” she said.
On a hushed country road, Master R lived in a run-down bungalow he called La Domaine Esemar. There were deep puddles in the bald front yard and a feeling of manginess in the rooms within. He was a short version of Mark: a ponytail, piercing features. Wearing black velvet pants, he apologized to the Baroness, saying that because of the downpour the turnout might be slim—his guests tended to drive long distances from other rural towns. Then he led us down to the basement and introduced us to those who were there: a cherubic Asian car salesman; the owner of a restaurant chain and his wife, a hospital administrator; a transsexual in a black slip of a dress, with lush lips and large teeth.
Aside from the exposed air ducts, the basement was the best-kept part of the house. All was clean and orderly. On blond shelves sat an endless variety of clips and clamps and stainless steel weights to be attached to testicles—all polished and gleaming and aligned in tidy rows. A black box, its bottom cut out, dangled from the ceiling so that a submissive could stand with her head inside. From facial piercings, her lips and tongue, ears and nose and eyebrows could be stretched and fastened to screw eyes that lined the inside of the box. To larger screw eyes on the outside, her wrists could be hooked, so that her hands would remain for hours and hours at the height of her ears. The box hung directly above a revolving platform on the floor. The submissive would be sent spinning with her head in darkness, her hands latched helplessly, and her face stretched to the point of tearing.
There was a red cross, a trellis of whips, a chandelier of chains from which to suspend subjects, a dentist’s chair, a doctor’s examining bed. Plastic sippy cups, the kind toddlers drink from, were
lined on a shelf “in case a slave loses consciousness and needs water,” Master R said.
The Asian Chevrolet salesman started to bind Kathleen, the Baroness’s often-leashed apprentice, who had come along with us. Using heavy rope, he created a delicate corset, then cinched it tighter and tighter around her ribs like the step-mother suffocating Snow White. The artistry of Japanese bondage, he said, had begun centuries ago, when Samurai policemen devised elaborate ways of roping prisoners according to their social status. The restaurant owner and Master R listened while lashing the transsexual’s back. Wispy streaks of new blood crossed lines of old scabs. She gave out deep groans of arousal, lips and teeth parted wide. Her head lolled forward and wagged. Her groans reached orgasmic levels. They lashed her thighs, which trembled, then pushed her down on all fours. Master R pinned her head to the concrete floor with his boot. She groaned from a yet more central place, utterly animalistic.
The Baroness was unmoved. “There isn’t going to be any oneness for me tonight,” she muttered; no one here would desire the extremity of pain she needed to give. Two years ago, in Master R’s backyard, she had roasted a horse buyer named Elvis on a revolving spit.
Soon the hospital administrator, unclothed, had her ankles and wrists tied to a pair of freestanding poles, which were held upright, one by her husband and the other by the car salesman. They leaned the poles backward slightly; if they let go she would crash to the floor, her skull cracking against the cement. A woman who’d just arrived in a diaphanous skirt put her mouth to the administrator’s crotch. The administrator floated on air and trust as the woman began to lick.
Released by Master R, the transsexual told me that as a man she’d been a neo-Nazi skinhead with a wife, a five-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son, and a job as a computer specialist at a law firm Her kids still called her Dadda, though she had injected spectacular doses of estrogen into her body, dropped from two hundred and fifteen to one hundred pounds, and had only the shrunken vestige of male genitalia, which would soon be surgically removed. “They’ll always call me Dadda or Dad,” she said. She wore a slender silver ring on each hand, one for each child. “They’ll never come off.”
As a male she’d been walking alone on a beach one afternoon, flooded with anti-depressants but sobbing and saying aloud, “God help me.” She’d known for years she simply wasn’t meant to be what she was. “That guy died that afternoon. When I was a neo-Nazi, I didn’t hate people, I hated myself.” She paused, contemplative, tranquil after the violence that had just enveloped her. “The beating here pulls out my inner female; it goes so deep; I want to receive. It’s like heroin. It takes me from a high head space, down through all the levels, down to someplace at my core. Everything gets brighter. Everything gets amplified. This is where I learn the whole. I stay with Master R for the weekends. Leaving is agony. The other world is agony. I have a hard time coming down. I’m jonesing. The law firm was good enough to keep me on after the sex change, but this is where I belong. It’s two different worlds, this and the vanilla. This one is totally alive. That one is dead.”
Master R handed me his unpublished autobiography, and I went upstairs where there was enough light to read. Much was about the obliteration of boundaries, the annihilation of identity, the finding of a new, undelineated being through the giving and receiving of pain: “I slipped the ropes around her waist, pulled them tight, took the working end and ran it between her legs. I could almost see her lips engorge as the rope cut deeply into her labia. I felt my own cock swell in communication with her lust. Slipping my hand down I felt the wetness. My own pussy sighed in joyous communication and her cock hardened in my hand. I felt my nipples turn to hard little berries as the cock in my hand became rigid.” And as twine stitched through her labia was pulled taut: “I rubbed my wetness against him and moaned in return, as I stroked my cock and rubbed my clit. We were both lost in the intensity of our metamorphosis.”
No one had an easy time leaving at the end of their stays, he claimed. He talked of a young corporate lawyer’s adjustment each time he walked out the bungalow’s peeling front door and drove back to his life in Manhattan. “How can you go out into the world afterward? People are trembling physically.”
The Baroness was not trembling. But she recalled the day with Elvis. They’d agreed that she would roast him, and she’d called Master R for assistance. One of his slaves, a welder, built a massive spit: huge bases supporting a metal pole that was about ten feet long, a wheel at one end and spoke handles at the other. It joined a vegetable garden behind the bungalow. Maple and birch trees rose around it, leaves in brilliant color on that bright autumn afternoon. Slaves spread coals onto the bed. Elvis, naked except for a leather jock, was led from the house blindfolded, strapped to the pole, basted with honey and ginger. The coals glowed; the spit was a foot or so above them
Skin turned red, on the verge of blistering. Elvis screamed while around him the guests, masters and submissives, entered into an orgy of pain inflicted and received. Under the Baroness’s direction, slaves turned the spit slowly. The roasting went on for three and a half hours. When the pole was at last raised away from the heat and Elvis removed from it, he couldn’t stand upright. His eyes were glazed. He collapsed and was carried to bed, guests forcing him to drink water and trying to keep him from going into shock.
“My thighs press together just to think of it,” the Baroness said. She spoke about the different kinds of orgasms she experienced in vanilla sex with her husband, to whom she was faithful as far as vanilla sex went, and in the rest of her erotic life, which some might not have recognized as sex at all: it involved no intercourse, no touching of breasts or genitals. The orgasms in conventional sex were “spikier.” The others were far longer, deeper, left her half-blind, mostly deaf, mute, slack-jawed.
in the S-M world, Master R told me, orgasms without typical sexual touching weren’t uncommon, especially for women. He mentioned training a slave to climax when he brushed the roof of her mouth with his finger. And I thought of the woman I’d met after a lecture the Baroness had given, the speech therapist for stroke victims, who reviled her own orgasmic sensitivity: if a sadistic lover whispered in her ear in the right way, she could come without any touch beyond the grazing of his breath. An Orthodox Jew whose grandparents had been slaughtered in the Holocaust, she felt tormented by her own craving for harm.
There was science to support such orgasmic claims. Beverly Whipple and Barry Komisaruk, professors at Rutgers University, along with Gina Ogden of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, had collaborated in measuring the increased heart rate, blood pressure, pupil diameter, and tolerance for pain during orgasm in women who said they could come—without any touch at all—by imagining lovers or phrases of music. In the lab, the women were strapped to monitors. They rested their chins on an ophthalmology platform and stared through the eyepieces of a pupillometer. Then they made themselves climax both merely by thinking and by stroking their clitorises. No matter the method, the measurements were similar.
I wondered not only about the Baroness’s orgasms but about the law governing how she got there. Was roasting someone on a spit legal? Did a submissive’s consent mean that the sadist couldn’t be prosecuted? In legal terms, could a person rationally agree to be assaulted, or was such willingness viewed as inherently irrational and legally void? The law was blurry. Probably the most relevant case involved a doctoral candidate in microbiology who, in the late 1990s, spent almost two years in prison for allegedly raping and burning, beating and biting a college student while keeping her roped to a futon for twenty hours. The conviction was eventually overturned on appeal, because the trial judge had refused to allow the jury to consider e-mail messages sent by the girl to the defendant laying out her masochistic desires. Consent, the ruling implied, couldn’t be disregarded.
The S-M community had its own standards, its own principles. “Safe, sane, consensual” were the hallowed words. Neither the Baroness nor Master R had much use for them “Safe is limiting,” Master R said disdainfully. “And what is sanity?” Consent was just a beginning. He preferred to adhere to a different code, “the code of love.” He loved his slaves, he said, and expounded on the meaning of the word, paraphrasing the philosopher George Santayana: “Love is a physical drive with an ideal intent.” at dawn, after my night at Master R’s, I walked outside to the spit, which remained, two years later, next to an untended vegetable garden, tomato and zucchini stalks from seasons ago softening to mulch beneath a riot of blackberry bushes. The sky was clearing fast, clouds skating toward oblivion. The gray steel immensity looked like one of Richard Serra’s outdoor sculptures: hulking, incomprehensible. “That day had that wonderful incongruity,” the Baroness had said. “The gorgeous autumn weather, the sun, the blue sky, and the next thing you know you’re at the heart of darkness.”
We drove back to the city. As we came close to Manhattan, the Baroness phoned her husband to say she was almost home. “Hello, handsome,” she began adoringly, and the affection stayed in her voice throughout the conversation. She called again a half hour later to say she was very near. When we reached her building he was waiting there to kiss her and welcome her back.
the Girl in her horse blinkers, Greg with his spiral notebook, Elvis on his spit—all were in important company. Jean-Jacques Rousseau spent his life yearning to replicate the whippings of his childhood governess but never, he wrote, “daring to declare my tastes.” And in ancient Athens, in the marketplace, the philosopher Peregrinus Proteus masturbated while Athenians lashed him at his request. He later cremated himself at the Olympic Games of 165.
Richard von Krafft-Ebing, an Austro-German psychiatrist, coined the terms “sadism” and “masochism” in the late nineteenth century. Sadism he drew from the Marquis de Sade, the French aristocrat and author who, a century earlier, lived in an ecstasy of assaulting women—slicing, poisoning, whipping—and lived often, too, in prison or a lunatic asylum. “Sex without pain,” he said, “is like food without taste.” Krafft-Ebing derived masochism from Baron Leopold von Sacher – Masoch, the nineteenth-century author of Venus in Furs, an autobiographical novel of submission that some of the Baroness’s acolytes treated as a bible.
“A differentiation of original and acquired cases of sadism is scarcely possible,” Krafft-Ebing wrote. “Many individuals, tainted from birth, for a long time do everything to conquer the perverse instinct…. Later, when the opposing motives of an ethical and aesthetic kind have been gradually overcome, and when oft-repeated experience has proved the natural act to give but incomplete satisfaction, the abnormal instinct suddenly bursts forth. Owing to this late expression, in acts, of an originally perverse disposition, the appearances are those of an acquired perversion. As a rule, it may be safely assumed that this psychopathic state exists from birth.” He believed the same about masochism and most other erotic deviance: the conditions were inborn. And in Psychopathia Sexualis he recounted hundreds of case histories of the afflicted.
“Case 21. Vincenz Verzeni, born 1849: ‘I had an unspeakable delight in strangling women, experiencing during the act erections and real sexual pleasure…. The feeling of pleasure while strangling them was much greater than that which I experienced while masturbating.’”
“Case 28. In the 60s the inhabitants of Leipzig were frightened by a man who was accustomed to attack young girls on the street, stabbing them in the upper arm with a dagger. Finally arrested, he was recognized as a sadist, who at the instant of stabbing had an ejaculation, and with whom the wounding of the girls was an equivalent for coitus.”
“Case 57. ‘I am thirty-five years old, mentally and physically normal.. Even in my early childhood I loved to revel in ideas about the absolute mastery of one man over others.. In reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which I read about the beginning of puberty), I had erections. Particularly exciting for me was the thought of a man being hitched to a wagon in which another man sat with a whip, driving and whipping him’”
Krafft-Ebing’s heir, Magnus Hirschfeld, a German physician whose library on sexuality was burned by the Nazis, collected cases of deviance in a similar way. But with the desire to give or absorb pain and degradation, Hirschfeld saw an impulse so widespread that the word “deviance” couldn’t fairly be applied. Soon after his death, his students put together a book of his teaching, Sexual Anomalies: “In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the flagellomania of Englishwomen became a sort of epidemic. One of the most remarkable manifestations of this tendency was the formation of female flagellation clubs, whose members were recruited exclusively from the upper classes.” The women would meet one evening each week, much as a book club might, to whip each other, and brothels specializing in whippings were a popular and even accepted part of London life.
To read Krafft-Ebing and Hirschfeld between spending time with the Baroness was to see her within a long history but also to understand her rarity. Both scientists suggested that female masochism was common enough. But true female sadism was so hard to find that Krafft-Ebing, for all his avid assembling, related only two cases in Psychopathia Sexualis, both of women whose erotic charge came in sucking their husbands’ blood. Krafft-Ebing and Hirschfeld included any number of prostitutes adept with whips and wives implored to enact scenes of punishment, but there was no woman to match Sacher-Masoch’s ideal lover, the fictionalized master of Venus in Furs, who was compelled by her own desire.
The Baroness would have stood out in Krafft-Ebing’s and Hirschfeld’s research, as she did now in the night world of New York. There was no shortage of professionals. To type in “dominatrix Manhattan” on Google’s search engine was to find Mistress Troy and Mistress Elizabeth and Mistress Rebecca. It was to read about a mistress who specialized in “kidnapping and abduction” and “full toilet training,” and another, Mz. Black Mistress, who declared, “I will confiscate your worthless nuts when you bow down to me baby.” There were hundreds and maybe thousands of others who made or supplemented their living by supplying customers with subjection at an hourly rate, but, except possibly in a broad psychological sense, there was no sign of their taking pleasure. Some of them attended the monthly parties the Baroness threw at a bar near her shop: a tall, knifebodied black woman; a pygmy-sized white woman whose makeup was pale as plaster; an art student with multicolored hair who hoped to find customers to help pay her tuition. They laughed as they gave out their floggings. They spat derision and condemnation as they flailed away with studded paddles, causing not only flesh but spines to shudder. They smiled as they ground their spiked heels into the testicles of men who lay beneath them And perhaps they took satisfaction in having such power over the gender that, as a rule, had more. But they didn’t speak of pleasure the way the Baroness did. They didn’t speak of lips swelling. They didn’t talk of protracted orgasms. They didn’t talk, as the Baroness did when she remembered Genevieve or another slave, a man she’d named Luminous, about a transcendent connection, about a mutual desire so strong that sadist and masochist couldn’t keep themselves away from each other; they didn’t talk about being desperate and destined for each other; they didn’t talk in terms of each other. They didn’t speak—didn’t come close to speaking—about being in the thrall of love.
The Baroness was a true female paraphiliac. There weren’t many, except in the realm of masochism. In all the other categories, from acrotomophilia to zoophilia, women were, according to every sexologist I talked with, drastically underrepresented. Some estimated the imbalance at ten to one. Most refused to estimate; the statistics just weren’t there. But no one doubted the disproportion.
One theory, at least with the paraphilias that centered on body parts rather than sexual acts—on feet, say, as opposed to floggings—was that male desire arose much more from the visual, and so it was more vulnerable to misdirection. The theory was frequently linked to the idea of imprinting. In 1935, the Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz had performed an experiment. As a brood of goslings hatched, he made sure that he, and not the mother goose, was the first being the hatchlings saw. The goslings, who would normally have followed their mother everywhere, instead followed Lorenz. He had successfully become their mother by presenting himself during the brief window when the goslings’ brains were innately programmed to take in and store their mother’s identity, to be imprinted with this information. Some sexologists believed that similar factors might be at work with the particulars of male desire, that during boyhood periods when certain hormonal surges occur, surges that may be momentary or protracted and that come most likely before puberty, the brain is open to imprinting that then defines erotic attraction. A boy’s endocrine and neurological systems are intertwined so that, at these susceptible times, his erotic ideals become fixed in the brain. The times for imprinting may not be as limited as the goslings’—a few seconds or minutes don’t necessarily determine the direction of eros. No proponent of the theory was sure about the windows of susceptibility, or about all the hormones involved, or about the mechanism of imprinting. When it came to desire, few sexologists were sure about anything.
And such theorizing didn’t fully address the question of why women are so rarely paraphilic—or address the problem of how female desire finds its direction. Meredith Chivers, a psychologist in Toronto, had chosen to devote her young career to these unknowns.
In her lab, in a faceless concrete building belonging to one of Canada’s most important psychiatric teaching hospitals, on a floor of sexuality researchers where she was the only woman, she wore narrow, stylish rectangular glasses and graceful black boots that laced up almost to her knees. Her blond hair fell over a low-necked black top.
She joked that she’d been studying sex since the age of five, when she first contemplated the reasons for kissing: “I was sitting next to my mom in our family’s giant Chevrolet Impala station wagon, and feeling very small—cars have always made me feel small—and my five-year-old brain was chugging away. Why would they do this, why would people kiss? My parents weren’t kissing at that moment, but I’d seen them, and I’d seen other people, and I wanted to know why this would occur. We were pulling out from our compound of townhouses onto Three Valleys Drive. It’s bizarre to me that I remember this one event in such detail. As we were going over the curb, right at that instant, the thought suddenly went through my head: That’s why they do it; men and women kiss because they’re going to have babies.”
Twenty-eight years later she was not only alone as a woman among her colleagues but alone in studying female eros. When she’d first arrived on the floor of sexologists, Kurt Freund was still alive and doing research there. She asked why he never studied women
Half a century earlier, in Czechoslovakia, Freund had been employed by the Czech military to help catch conscripts who were trying to evade service by pretending to be homosexual. He developed a mechanism, called a plethysmograph, to quantify male arousal to various stimuli. A glass tube was placed over the penis, with an airtight seal around the base of the shaft. Images were shown. A gauge detecting increases in air pressure measured the swelling of the organ. If the air pressure didn’t rise when Freund showed erotic slides of young men, the conscript was headed into the army.
Freund was, meanwhile, among the first modern-era psychiatrists to argue that homosexuality arose from prenatal biology rather than childhood experience, and that it could not be treated. At the start of his career, he had tried to cure gays through psychoanalysis; eventually he called in his patients and gave back their money. He worked to repeal Czech laws that criminalized gay sex, and later, after he’d fled Communist rule and settled in Toronto, his understanding of homosexuality as permanent and harmless helped to convince the American Psychiatric Association, in 1973, to remove the orientation from its list of psychiatric disorders.
Bald, with big ears and a nose like a scythe, Freund answered Chivers’s question with his own: “How am I to understand what it is to be a woman? Who am I to study women when I’m a man?” And in his words she heard an affirmation of what she suspected, that when it came to the workings of erotic attraction men and women might be entirely different.
She knew of an unpublished study showing that the degree of genital arousal in heterosexual women watching videos of heterosexual and lesbian sex was “undifferentiated.” The women, Chi vers said, “were responding to everything.” In a series of studies of her own, she replicated this result and added other stimuli, including a video featuring the copulation of bonobos, a species of ape closely related to the chimpanzee. She made the bonobo movie herself, finding footage of bonobo sex. Because the soundtrack was insufficient (“bonobos don’t seem to make much noise in sex, though the females give a kind of pleasure grin and make chirpy sounds”), she dubbed in some animated screeching. She led both women and men, heterosexual and homosexual, into her lab to watch and listen.
The lab consisted of two small rooms. One held a brown vinyl chair, a small TV sitting on a table, and, depending on the subject, a penile plethysmograph or the bulb and wires of the vaginal model. The bulb was long and slender, about a quarter-inch in diameter, with a broad stopper at the base to prevent it from slipping in too far. The light from the bulb was reflected off the vaginal walls; a photocell measured the reflection. The greater the flow of blood to the genitals, the more light bounced back. On a computer in the adjoining room, Chi vers controlled the videos and monitored the subject’s level of physiological arousal.
As the bonobos humped, blood ran to the women’s vaginas. It didn’t take long; physiological excitement was immediate, just as it was—no matter what the female subject’s sexual orientation— when the screen showed women going down on women, men going down on men, men screwing men, and men copulating with women. The male subjects, though, grew physically aroused mostly in categorical ways: straight males responded to images of lesbian or heterosexual sex, gay males to scenes involving men. And the male subjects were unexcited by the apes.
Every thirty seconds, a question popped up on the subject’s screen: “How sexually aroused do you feel right now?” The subject punched in a number on a keypad. The males answered in ways that corresponded to the measures of the plethysmograph. Their minds and penises, their subjective and objective scores, were in agreement. The females replied in ways that were much less related to the responses of their vaginas. They reported no immediate arousal to bonobo sex. To lesbian scenes, heterosexual women reported less excitement than their genitals indicated, to scenes of gay men they reported a great deal less, and to heterosexual scenes they reported much more. For women, all seemed confusion. Adding to the muddle, Chivers pondered a study demonstrating women’s arousal to sexual assault, and a report showing that some women reach orgasm during rape. Her own experience as a clinician confirmed this.
The muddle, she believed, might be due to thinking about female sexuality in male terms. Men’s genitals responded to specific categories of stimuli, and these responses matched their psychological desires: if this was the standard, then women were a mess. But what if it was only a standard? What if, for women, physical readiness for sex was distinct from the lust for it? What if there was another legitimate system of desire?
“I feel like a pioneer on the edge of a giant forest,” Chivers said. Between stints in Toronto, she’d done another version of her obsessive research, while working under Michael Bailey, a renowned sexologist at Northwestern University in Chicago. Looking at Chivers’s data showing swift vaginal engorgement to images of all sorts of human sexual activity, Bailey had suggested that women are inherently bisexual, but Chivers had balked at this idea. It seemed to apply a male paradigm— heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual—to something deeply unknown. “I do think that for women preferences exist,” she told me. “Women do choose to have sex with men or with women or with both. But I don’t know if it happens for the same reasons men seek out partners. I don’t know that it’s driven by a sexually motivated system, by sexual desire in and of itself. Is there a basic sexual rudder for women?” she asked, and said that she suspected there might not be, that “emotional kindling” might prove to be far more important in the erotic directions women took.
There was an “interesting relationship,” she wrote to me later, describing the work of another researcher, “between sex drive and attraction to same-sex or opposite-sex people. As sex drive becomes stronger in men, their attractions to men and women are more polarized. Women, however, show greater sexual attraction to both women and men as sex drive gets stronger. This suggests that sex drive is working in concert with a mechanism in men to direct sexuality toward one gender or another, whereas in women this mechanism may not exist and therefore greater sex drive is expressed with both genders.”
“There’s this gravity,” she said, “in the academic world, to look at male and female sexuality from the perspective of equality, of sameness. Any indicators of difference are seen as socially constructed—or else the methodology of the research is seen as flawed. I feel like I’m going to fight an uphill battle in saying, ‘No, male and female sexuality are really different, and you’re going to have to look at them differently. ’”
She didn’t know what she would find in the forest. The genital arousal to assault she and others saw as self-protection; in evolutionary terms, prehistoric women had needed to be vaginally receptive to sexual aggression in order to avoid laceration and tearing. Perhaps female responsiveness to bonobo sex was related to this. Perhaps the sight of an erect penis was all it took to stir this primordial system of self-preservation. But then why the physiological arousal to lesbian scenes, an arousal more powerful than to scenes of homosexual men? And why—as she added videos —the arousal to a lone naked woman more than to a solitary nude man? And what would happen if she replaced the apes with chickens? How closely did the sexual participants have to resemble humans? What exactly were the women responding to?
Young though she was, Chivers knew that a lifetime of research might take her barely inside the forest’s edge, might allow her only a dim glimpse of the factors that shaped female desire. “One of the things I think about,” she said, “is the diad formed by men and women Certainly women are very sexual and have the capacity to be even more sexual than men, but one possibility is that instead of it being a go-out-and-get-it kind of sexuality it’s more of a reactive process. If you have this diad, and one part is pumped full of testosterone, is more interested in risk-taking, is probably a bit more aggressive, you’ve got a very strong motivational force. It wouldn’t make sense to have another similar force. You need something complementary. And I’ve often thought that there is something really powerful for women’s sexuality about being desired. That receptivity element. At some point I’d love to do a study that would look at that. We just don’t know much about it right now.”
On her floor of sexologists, Chivers was surrounded by men studying paraphilias, and she wondered if the scarcity of female deviants was the result of male definitions. If the system for women was fundamentally different, then the paraphilias would be different as well. They wouldn’t be on the existing list. For women, the map of the typical and the aberrant hadn’t yet been drawn. The mapmaker would have to work her way through the giant forest. But in terms of traditionally defined paraphilias, it made sense to her that women seemed most likely to be masochists. Flesh bared and waiting for the whip, or limbs bound, or body suspended from the ceiling, the masochist was desired, receptive, the focus of the sadist’s lustful gaze.
Chivers knew that women might be undercounted among traditional paraphiliacs. The man who flashed his erection at a toll booth would be arrested and perhaps treated for exhibitionism; the woman who flashed her breasts would more likely win applause. The expectations and allowances of the culture might be distorting the numbers. And she knew that the forces of culture might be affecting her own research. Physiological arousal to wide-ranging stimuli might be, as Freud had argued, the natural state for both males and females. Was it simply that the culture taught men more emphatically to restrict their lust to limited sets of targets while female desire was allowed more freedom? Was it merely that men, having internalized these lessons at the deepest level, responded physically within categories that were learned rather than natural? Were men and women different primarily because of experience rather than the innate? Chivers and her husband, Michael Seto, one of the researchers on her floor, talked about someday attempting an experiment that would use a type of magnetic resonance imaging to test whether particular inhibitory regions of the brain were more active in males than females as a variety of erotic stimuli were shown. And Chivers had already tried to eliminate learned inhibition as an explanation of her results. She had included male-to-female transsexuals among her subjects. These medically created women, both those who were heterosexual and those who were homosexual, showed categorical response patterns. They responded like men. This seemed to point to a system that was inborn. Yet one could argue that the forces of culture, of learning, had taken permanent hold within these subjects long before their surgeries and their emergence as females could have shifted the culture’s input. Chivers couldn’t fully isolate the innate, knew she might never be able to. The forest often looked impenetrable.
But one thing was almost certain: women like the Baroness were nearly alone.
And for much of her life, feeling a difference she could not identify, she had wanted to die.
around the time of our trip to Master R’s, the Baroness heard a Latin phrase. She had left school at thirteen. Now she listened to Proust on tape, was proud of her self-education, and was enamored, right away, of the words sui generis. The phrase means “of its own kind.” She felt this described her perfectly, felt she had been generated as though out of air. The hardships of her growing up, she insisted, had little or nothing to do with who she had become. They couldn’t explain her style or power or sexuality. “I am sui generis,” she said, elated, then paused in contemplation. “Yes. I like that.”
She’d grown up in group homes and small orphanages in Britain until she was twelve. “There was nothing really horrible going on. The crudest thing I remember is having to eat Spam, throwing up, and being made to continue eating it.” Much of her time had been taken up by reading. She’d been captivated by a series of books called The Famous Five: four kids and a dog hunting treasure and tracking down thieves. She wrote her own version. “It was a compilation of all the kids in one character. There was no damned dog, not even a cat. She was orphaned at a young age, free and independent, and I took my book around to the neighbors to sell.”
At twelve she was adopted; her new parents soon moved with her to the States, to Los Angeles. At thirteen she began running away repeatedly. She spent long stretches of her teenage years in San Francisco during the sixties. “This is how I remember that period. I was awake and muttering for days at a time. I was frightened of people. The police picked me up off the street. If you’d told me there was something about me that was fabulous, I certainly wouldn’t have believed it. I had suicide headaches. For two or three years I saw only in black-and-white. I had shock treatments. Two times? Three times? Thirteen or fourteen would have been the first one. I feel I deserve everything I have now because I paid for it.
“I remember being happy for the first time. There are moments when you know you’re truly happy. I’d just taken about sixty Seconal, and I thought I’d succeeded. But then I didn’t die. Some of this stuff is so embarrassing. I went down a tunnel. It’s so cliched, and the last thing I want to be is common. There was a white light at the end, a triangle glowing white, and a conversation with some sort of being, invisible, at the center. Basically I was told that I couldn’t leave because I hadn’t realized my purpose in life. I said, ‘Tell me what it is. I’ll do it, and I’ll be right back.’ And the voice said, ‘No, you have to find out. ’ And I felt myself being pulled back out through the tunnel.”
Decades passed, decades of too many drugs, decades of designing costumes for movies and the theater (she had taught herself to sew at one of the British orphanages, and in San Francisco as a teenager she had made clothing and sold it on the streets), blurred decades of incidents impossible for her to place in time, partly, she felt, because the electroshock treatments had damaged her hold on chronology, but partly, too, it seemed, because an indifference to time fit with her sense of who she was and how she’d become herself—sui generis—with feeling that she had simply arisen. In the midseventies she moved to Manhattan. Two decades later, at a birthday party of hers—her birthday was on Halloween—a guest arrived dressed in rubber and carrying a bullwhip. He held out the whip toward her.
By that point she’d been married to Mark for almost ten years and with him for thirteen. They’d met at Chemical Bank’s headquarters, where he was a corporate photographer. He’d just moved to New York from Wisconsin, where he’d grown up as the son of a man who built water-softening machines and sold them himself across the Midwest. Her boyfriend at the time, who worked in Mark’s department, stood her up for lunch one day. She had come to the office wearing “the most conservative clothes she could put together,” Mark remembered. “A white blouse with big sleeves, a huge collar, a short white skirt. Far from corporate.”
They were drawn to each other right away, he to her boldness, to a woman he called “the only person I’ve ever met who is completely unfettered by convention,” and she to his stability, to a man she saw as “my rock.” Knowing her affection for the thirties and forties, he proposed to her at the Rainbow Room, between dances to the swing band, and they honeymooned in Paris, where he discovered his love for taking pictures of dogs. He began with a beagle that he noticed trying to drink from a bottle of beer. Soon he was photographing pugs and labs and dachshunds in adorable poses, tongues out, ears cocked, eyes plaintive, heads tilted fetchingly. “We are passionate about pets,” his Web site would later announce. “And we love nothing more than finding and capturing the unique character of each one we meet.”
After their honeymoon, they settled down in the East Village. Their erotic life was traditional, with a coil of desire tightened by the months when she traveled to make costumes for films and they were apart. Then, at her Halloween birthday party, the guest offered his whip.
“I believe I literally took several steps backward. I put up a barrier. I knew it—I knew that if I touched it I would be doomed. Nothing happened that night. But we got to know each other. I carved a V into his back shortly afterward. With a pin, but I do mean carved as opposed to scratched. With a fair amount of blood. We learned a lot together, he and I. It was on his body that I learned to use a whip the way it should be used. It’s one of the ways that I’m a geek. I like to do something over and over until I’m good at it. It should feel like touching.”
Early in her education, her birthday guest, whom she later named Luminous, took her to the city’s best-known S-M club. What she lacked, then, in skill, she made up for in unrestrained lust. “Everyone is going to be talking about you,” her partner promised at the end of the evening. About “safe, sane, consensual,” she made it plain from the start that she didn’t observe rules.
Before Luminous arrived in her life, she’d had some inkling of her unconventional yearnings. She remembered excitement, long ago, as she’d watched an old black-and-white movie: a British sailor bound to the mast and flogged. After his arrival, she felt she had found out something central about herself and, in expressing what had lain dormant for so long, that she “became a more balanced person, a nicer person.” And the question of purpose, posed by the voice within the white triangle, was answered. “I can give people their dreams. I have the power to change people. I get to do so much good.” She could liberate “the core of being” in the city’s masochists just as her own sadism had been freed. She could save them from the unhappiness and self-destruction that had besieged so much of her life. She could be, she said, “a beacon” to people like the Girl and Greg and Genevieve and Elvis and the countless others she had lured into confronting their desires for the first time or into receiving what they had needed.
The clothing she designed was part of her plan to unbury the erotic truth in those who had endured thwarted lives. She saw the city as filled with women and men waiting, consciously or unconsciously, for such unburying. They were like homosexuals who suppressed their desire and distorted or destroyed the rest of themselves as well. The same was true for the masochist. The same had been true for her. She envisioned a multiplying flock finding their way to her, and the latex was one of the ways she pulled them in. The lubrication of the body that was required to slide the garment over the skin; the sudden encasement; the immaculate smoothness of this second flesh; its gleam, for she had her submissives shine every item in the boutique; the materiafs capacity to create something sleek from the contours of any person of any shape; the way the wearer’s nerve endings responded if so much as the back of a fingernail was dragged lightly over the surface, a response somehow twice as electric as if the same gesture was carried out directly upon the skin—before anything explicit had transpired, her customers were already in a state of partial surrender.
outside New York’s annual Black and Blue Ball, the sidewalk and street were thronged with guests and onlookers, photographers, security guards. When the Baroness emerged from a taxi with Kathleen on a braided leather leash hooked to a collar, it seemed that everyone coalesced. The Baroness wore a floor-length gown of amethyst-colored latex with a pattern of ruffles cascading down the back and a train that Kathleen lifted off the pavement. Cameras flashed and people called out to her and someone from the ball’s staff guided her away from the main line and directly toward the door.
Inside, amid the crush of men in top hats and tails and women in black wigs and rubber corsets and men naked but for leather jock straps and women clothed only in thin leather bands, guests paid homage to the Baroness. The loud pulse of dance music made their words difficult to hear, but again and again, on all fours, they kissed the toes or heels of her shoes or, heads bent and bodies bowed, pressed their lips to the back of her hand. It didn’t matter if they were leashed to another master. White men being led by black women; bare-chested women crawling alongside male owners or female dominatrixes—they showed their reverence for the Baroness without objection from those controlling them
The ball was less an occasion for play than a yearly convocation and night of greeting. Up on the brass-railed balcony above the dance floor, the Baroness ran into David, who approached her without any gesture of deference. Once, they had tried to develop a way of talking with their whips, each on separate rooftops; they had imagined a Morse code of whip-cracking. His face was haggard and, in a tank top, his arms were like wires—he had AIDS—but he could stand in the middle of Union Square Park and make the windows of the surrounding buildings, sixty yards away, rattle as the end of his whip broke the sound barrier.
Below the balcony, an MC interrupted the dancing to announce that Carrie, one half of the lesbian couple that hosted the ball, had just given birth to a baby boy. David drifted away and Eliza and Ben drifted over.
They were long and narrow, with dark hair and faces that seemed to belong on the covers of magazines. She worked as a fund-raiser, he as an architect. Sheathed in the Baroness’s latex, Eliza in red, Ben in black, she wearing six-inch heels and he platform boots, they might have been a pair of cartoon heroes ready to kick their way through animated adventures. But their adventures were erotic.
Eliza hadn’t always looked so arresting, not in this way. She’d had childhood arthritis. She’d used a walker and crutches and a cane through adolescence, spent her summers at a place she called “cripple camp,” endured her own terrifying oddity growing up in the Maine town where her father owned a hardware store. “I felt no control over my body,” she remembered the years of illness that hadn’t ended until her late teens or early twenties. “I was sick, the pain was constant, and this is part of what that did to me: I don’t want to be powerless; how can I have power? This is one way to experiment with that. There are times when I’m totally dominant. But there are other times when I’m completely submissive. I want that intimacy, that pain. I want to feel: I’ve been here before but not like this.”
I’ve been here before but not like this—her words echoed the psychological theory that we eroticize what has frightened us, shamed us, wounded us. In this way we attempt to escape our deepest hurt and confusion. Eliza didn’t dismiss explanations the way the Baroness did. She saw her arthritis as central to her sexuality, not only because it had made her long for both power and pain but because the strangeness of her young body and the alienation it had caused her made it easier to embrace difference now. She sought it out. And when she thought of her friends from cripple camp there seemed a high percentage who later found themselves on alternate sexual paths.
Ben couldn’t conjure explanations, only early beginnings: the basement game he’d devised for himself and his neighborhood friends at the age of four or five, ending always with his imprisonment in an old unused diaper bin; the game in the woods at the age of twelve or thirteen, culminating with his being tied to a tree and two or three girls jabbing him with sticks.
Through his twenties he’d been in love with a documentary filmmaker. “She was very liberal politically but personally very conservative.” He’d endured their vanilla sex life by spending his early morning hours staring at S-M Web sites. A chance meeting with a professional dominatrix, a Japanese woman who was a graphic designer by day, pulled him past fantasy. He booked a session at the dungeon where she worked.
“The Baroness will call bullshit on all professionals,” he said. “For her it’s a purely human relationship. But they do offer an opportunity for guys who have this predilection, guys who are driven crazy, guys who are just, like, I really want to figure out who I am”
The session with the graphic designer helped Ben in the figuring out, and by the time he met Eliza at a bar, his yearning leaped out in the first flirtation. “If I have to have vanilla sex one more time,” he told her, “I’m going to shoot myself.” Without knowing exactly what he meant, she sensed he was what she needed. She’d been dating a man who wanted to marry her, and whom she couldn’t love because of something she felt missing in bed between them
Now they spent their nights and weekends at play with each other. “When we first got together we were two subs,” he said. “Clearly someone’s got to top. And once we started doing it, it expanded our experience.” This kind of versatility, too, the Baroness held in some disdain. But one recent evening he had burned thirty welts into Eliza’s buttocks with a cigarette. On another night he had come as, lightly, she whipped his penis. “It was so demeaning and so hot,” he said.
To be the one in control was far more demanding. “You might commit yourself to carrying out a certain form of bondage,” he explained. “And then you think, I want to do that, but now she is all tied up this way and in order to get there I have to get her out, and it becomes inorganic. You want everything to flow. It requires choreographing. Like throwing a dinner party: come in, how are you, let me take your coat, sit down, something to drink. But if you walk in and right away there’s a three – course meal sitting in front of you and it’s only six-thirty: no. Things have to make sense next to each other, to emerge from each other.”
“Sometimes it’s seamless,” she said, “and sometimes it’s, Oh fuck oh shit.”
“We forgive each other.”
“I love being in a relationship where I care about Ben to the nth degree.”
Lately they had begun wounding and debasing each other in public, at parties thrown by friends they’d met at clubs or through the Baroness. “We love the public degradation of it. The audience adds to the humiliation.” So going to parties meant packing gear: “The first few times, it was like we needed a checklist. Clothespins. Ankle restraints. Wrist restraints. Ball weights. Leash. Collar. Gag. Masks. Opera-length rubber gloves. Carabiners. Flogger. Whip. Lighter. Locks. Keys. It’s great to go fetish-shopping at Home Depot. Three sets of keys each for six regular and four mini locks—one set on a rubber band around the wrist, another set in the bag, another in a coat pocket. You don’t want the love of your life chained up and no way to release her at the end of the night. All that equipment and you’re decked in latex and then, ‘Shit, we forgot cigarettes,’ and we can’t go into our corner deli looking like that. But all the preparation is worth it. The humiliation is so sensual.”
Their play, their lovemaking, could go on for hours and hours. Still, when it was all over, when the submissive had stopped crying out in abject ecstasy, recovery wasn’t as difficult as it might seem “There’s a feeling of complete exhaustion and exhilaration,” she said. “It’s not like I have to crawl out of a hole that’s six feet under.” And he: “I just curl up in her lap.”
They had a saying, a vow they’d taken: “Everything always.” Not with anyone else—they were faithful to each other—but between themselves. And not if it meant exposure within their other lives. They feared for her job if anyone at her organization found out. They feared for his commissions. People might be intrigued, might feel a tremor of self-recognition, that they possessed at least an element of similar yearning. But few would admit it. Most would react badly. Most wouldn’t want them around. Even in downtown Manhattan, where they lived, they rarely walked outside for any distance in their latex, out of worry that the clothes would give them away to strangers on the street.
They felt that the Baroness truly was, for them and even more for the many others who were more secretive, more fearful, a beacon. The name she’d given herself, the boutique she owned, the way she appeared every day and night on the streets of Manhattan—Eliza and Ben saw her as a herald for the gift that, despite their fears, they felt lucky to have received. “It is difficult to live this way,” he said. “There are social obstacles. But if someone said, ‘I can take care of this perversion, you won’t even miss it’—no way. This brings us too much. We wouldn’t trade this for the world.” “people don’t believe it’s an equal partnership,” Mark said of his marriage to the Baroness. “They assume I play the role of a submissive.”
He didn’t, he told me. He had fallen in love with a woman with another name; he had married a woman who showed no signs of what she would become. The first time she used a whip he was stunned. It was in their living room, with Luminous, who had once been the highest-ranked chess player in the state of Arkansas, receiving her lashes. It was difficult for Mark to watch, to realize “that the woman I love has an interest in treating people this way. But it also seemed like a fluke, like it would be just that once. Had I known it was the start of a trend maybe I would have said something. Every year she seemed to enjoy inflicting a little more pain, taking a little more blood.” He remembered his jealousy when she’d carved the V into Luminous’s back. It had seemed so intimate.
She was his when it came to conventional sex. And gradually he had come to terms with her needing something more. “I think of it as two aspects of the woman I love. If she enjoys dispensing pain and humiliation, I’m glad that there is someone to take it. I have zero interest. I’m an outsider in her world. I’ve become acclimated. But I have no real friends in the S-M scene because that is what they have in common. It is still foreign to me. I still don’t understand it. The more equal I feel with someone, the closer I feel.” one evening the Baroness invited me to drinks with her oldest friend. She had known Celeste for almost twenty-five years, since they’d met while working on costumes for a Broadway musical. At the quiet wine bar where we talked, Celeste wore black pants, a lavender cardigan, a necklace of small glass balls. Her voice was as delicate as the glass. Her brown hair was cropped short in the aftermath of cancer treatments that had accomplished what they could. She had a brain tumor; she was dying.
“The Baroness and Mark were the second people I told.” She talked about her years of friendship with the Baroness, years of going to plays and the opera. And she talked about the Baroness’s recent loyalty, her frequent visits, her willingness not to turn away from weakness and death. Celeste mentioned, too, that the Baroness had dispatched one of her submissives to help her with chores around her apartment. “I wouldn’t have gotten through it without this woman sitting here as my friend.”
“She has a brain tumor, she can’t be trusted,” the Baroness said, smiling, deflecting some of the sentiment.
Then Celeste said abruptly, “I’m not sure I’m over the shock yet. She was, before, extremely antiviolence. She couldn’t even stand it if I got angry. She hits people. She hurts people. I was really, really shocked to see what she was doing to Luminous; it made me want to throw up. There were times, after her change, when I thought I could not be her friend. She was cutting and branding him I couldn’t deal with that. It wasn’t him specifically, it was that she was doing this to another human being.”
The Baroness stiffened. Her metallic eye shadow did nothing to brighten her wounded eyes. The conflagration of her hair seemed to collapse, the colors fading.
“I saw Charles, who is black, chained and serving as a slave at her apartment,” Celeste went on in her fragile voice. “And when I protested, she said, ‘This is sexy.’”
“As it was.”
“And she talks about liking intelligence in her slaves.”
“As I do.”
“But doesn’t it get in the way of their intelligence when they cower in front of you?” Celeste turned from me to face her friend.
“All their potential is wasted until they become who they are.”
“Don’t you destroy intelligence by tearing people down?”
“Have I mentioned”—the Baroness glanced at me—“that she has a brain tumor and can’t be trusted?”
They laughed together.
“It’s scary,” Celeste said. “She really is happier as the Baroness.” for her Valentine’s night party the Baroness wore pink latex gauntlets that rose to her shoulders and a black latex dress with a high sheen. Her hair was sculpted into a flaming arch. It was early. The bar she and her flock took over on the first Sunday of every month wasn’t half-full. Two middle-aged men, both in latex bodysuits, chatted about the routes they’d taken to reach here. One had come from Pennsylvania, the other from New Jersey, and they complained mildly about the weather and the traffic as they might have done if this were a holiday gathering and they were relatives with little else to discuss. They’d both wound up in the Holland Tunnel; they compared their luck in the different lanes they’d chosen.
Then they were distracted. A lithe woman in her early twenties had climbed up onto the small stage. She spoke to the Baroness, who sipped a cocktail. They walked over to a chair her submissives carried from her apartment each month on these occasions. It looked like an old-fashioned electric chair. Made of wood, it was large and sturdy, straight-backed and spare. The woman, curly blond hair cut short and wearing only an ivory-colored slip, knelt backward on the seat. The Baroness locked her wrists tightly to large screw eyes. The woman’s neck hung over the back. Her ankles were soon immobilized, and her waist was pinned by heavy tape, wrapped round and round from waist to wood.
The Baroness stepped about twelve feet from the chair and used a backhanded technique. Each lash against the woman’s shoulders brought a gasp, a cry. Then the Baroness set aside the whip to attach dozens of clothespins to the woman’s neck and shoulders and arms, and a metal clip to her tongue, which now protruded unnaturally, painfully, from her mouth. After more lashes, one of the Baroness’s submissives removed the clothespins. A chain of wefts decorated the flesh. Someone raised the woman’s slip to expose more skin, which, with more flogging, began to bleed.
The Baroness paused again. “I try to force myself to slow down, to make it last,” she told me afterward. “Especially with someone like that who wants it so badly, so openly.” She approached the woman and stroked her lightly under the chin and along the neck. The woman laid her head to the side, worshipful. Her clipped tongue lolled. Around it her mouth tried to smile. Her eyes gazed supplicatingly at the Baroness, who gazed back like a lover in the midst of intercourse, positioned on top, ceasing her thrusts to look tenderly, almost pityingly at her partner before bringing them both to climax.
She resumed, slowly at first and then, after a few lashes, more quickly, harder. The woman’s lower back and buttocks were streaked red, and between the streaks the skin looked as though a bulb were shining from underneath; it glowed a dark, garish pink. The gasps and cries became agonized, sensual groans. The Baroness’s eyes had a manic flatness, a half-seeing focus. The whip struck and struck. She was silent, in a trance.
Afterward she moved close again. I watched with Sam, who had recently begun to receive her lashings and whose wife had the ladder of scars that the Baroness adored. The Baroness placed her fingers on the wounds she’d just made. Her eyes were closed. She touched gently, almost without pressure, slowly shifting her fingertips. The heat from the damaged skin spread through her hand the way a child’s fever floods the lips of a kissing mother. Her eyes remained peacefully shut. The woman was still. The fingertips traced the topography of lacerations. “That’s the Baroness,” Sam said. “She nurtures you.”