Working as a professional submissive often makes you feel like an outsider.
Pro-subs and pro-switches are a relatively rare breed of service provider, which makes our work feel pretty esoteric from the get go. For every one of us, there are many more vanilla, in-person, indoor workers. In part, this could be because the need for resources like fetish equipment and dungeon access means that subbing isn’t an accessible entry point into sex work. However, there is undoubtedly greater stigma and misinformation surrounding the work which deters many people from working as subs. Because we offer services such as restrictive bondage, sensory deprivation, corporal punishment, and erotic masochism, subbing is frequently thought of as intrinsically unsafe. Far too often, we are perceived as having knowingly “put ourselves in harm’s way”, and into the path of sexual violence as an inevitable consequence. I’ve lost track of the appalled responses from both sex workers and civilians when I tell them I let men tie me up and hit me for a living. They fail to grasp that there is a fundamental difference between consensual, pre-agreed upon pain and abuse.
The consequences of this stigma became apparent very quickly when I first started working as a pro-sub in a professional dungeon. The management created an environment in which clients paid for the privilege of foregoing boundary negotiation with subs, and we in turn were paid to ignore these boundaries. By treating us subs as if we had minimal agency, both our clients and we came to believe this was the natural order of things. In my 6 months at my first dungeon—and in the previous years when friends also worked there—none of us could recall a single client being blacklisted for sexual violence, despite the fact that colleagues experienced numerous incidents of assault.
As pro-subs, our work is affected by stigma from within and outside the community. As sex workers, our labor is more stigmatized than other types of work, and as pro-subs, our job is often dismissed by those working in other parts of the sex industry. But why is pro-subbing so marginalized, and what effect does this have on us and our work?
At my first dungeon, the effect was extremely negative. Ostensibly, the setup appeared professional. For a total newbie with no savings, it seemed ideal. Unfortunately, it was a deeply unpleasant place to work. The management bullied and coerced workers, and kept us all isolated and competitive with one another in order to maximize profit. They also went out of their way to appease clients. A key component of this was issuing explicit statements that we subs would willingly take any punishment they wanted to dispense. It was here that I first encountered the attitude that submission is an inherently high-risk service, in which subs are paid to tolerate the non-consensual violence presented as an unavoidable part of the job.
As a skittish baby hooker, I quickly internalized the view that my job was essentially an exercise in mute endurance. If something scared me or hurt me in a way I was not comfortable with, or even if I changed my mind about a scene halfway through, that was my problem.
At my first dungeon, a nuanced understanding of consent didn’t exist. If we consented to one form or level of pain, we were understood to have consented to them all by default. This was made clear in the dungeon’s pricing structure. There was an hourly base rate for sessions, which included sexual services, role-play, and “unlimited hand spanking” (their phrasing—they disagreed with me when I suggested it sounded like a phone bundle). After that, particular submissive services were charged as an extra, with each service ascribed (an often very arbitrary) fee. Blindfolding, gagging, bondage, watersports, and nipple clamps were extras, but with no financial variation to reflect the different intensities of these services.
The lack of distinction between each act meant that a client would pay the same to use a small plastic ball gag as a large metal ring gag. Or the same rate to use light nipple clamps as weighted ones. The charge to tie someone in loose cuffs was the same as for putting them in painful mummification bondage. At the time, I thought this pricing approach was demonstrative of the management’s attempt to monetize as much as possible. However, if they’d actually been seeking to maximize income, it would have stood them in good stead to acknowledge the variation between these services and price them accordingly. Their approach reflected a common, entrenched attitude towards professional submission: That we had limited say over how we were dominated, and therefore, over our own safety.
This was also evident in the total lack of training or advice available to me when I first started at the dungeon. Unlike the opportunities offered to many new house dommes, there was no opportunity to assist or shadow in sessions. Management evidently didn’t believe that subbing required any skills beyond acquiescence. Industry-wide, in fact, our skill set is routinely dismissed, whereas pro-dommes are lauded for their technical abilities and immersive scene building. But pro-subbing does demand extensive expertise, both practical and interpersonal, as we habitually manage our sessions “from the bottom.” We advise, demonstrate, steer, and correct, all the while remaining in character and nudging scenes forward. In many respects, running a scene as a pro-sub can often be even more tricky than doing so as a domme, as the power dynamics at play allow dommes to lead sessions explicitly. But despite this, our job is almost always characterized as just having to lie still and take it.
This difficulty learning the ropes as a beginner pro-sub is exacerbated by the fact that while representations of the pro-domme have become more common in mainstream media, the pro-sub remains almost culturally invisible. There is a real dearth of online information about working as a pro-sub. Any resources one does find tend to be rose-tinted promotional interviews with people’s work personas, rather than nuts and bolts analyses of selling submissive services. As a result, what pro-subbing actually entails is often shrouded in mystery before one actually enters the business and hires on with a dungeon.
Some notable things have already been written on this blog about poor labor conditions in commercial dungeons and the prevalence of abusive management there. I agree with Serpent Libertine’s observation that “a lot of pro-BDSM people have controlling, volatile personalities and running a dungeon gives them a license to dominate their staff.”And yes, management at the subs dungeon where I first worked was undoubtedly bullying and manipulative. But more so than anything, their exploitative labor practices and management style were propped up by the belief that pain, discomfort and boundary transgression were all acceptable and expected components of professional submission.
Often, the arguments used to justify the idea of pro-subbing as inherently treacherous are reminiscent of those used by prohibitionists to marginalize all those within the sex industry. SWERF rhetoric claims that no sex worker can ever truly consent to transactional sex, and that even when we do, our work is so fundamentally risky that we are implicitly at fault when a client violates our boundaries. In the context of escorting and other “vanilla” services, we can see that this is a clearly flawed argument. Yet when it comes to kink, many people seem less willing to acknowledge that while we may consent to certain forms of erotic masochism within a scene, that does not mean that we should expect to be hurt in any other un-negotiated way.
It’s no coincidence that fetish and kink work is so widely misunderstood as inevitably violent when BDSM practitioners are still routinely pathologized as either abusers or damaged victims. This interpretation lends further credence to the notion that submissives place themselves in the firing line. This isn’t to say that abuse doesn’t occur within the kink community, or that, for some, kinks aren’t related to or born of trauma. People practice BDSM for myriad reasons, and I’m not seeking to perpetuate some homogenous “kink positive” ideology. However, when it comes to harm reduction for pro-subs, it’s crucial that we resist the urge to typify all transactional BDSM as abusive, and recognize the multifaceted negotiations that inform our work. Perpetuating the discourse that all kink is pathological informs and worsens working conditions for pro-subs.
It was only after leaving the dungeon to work independently that I realized quite how much of this harmful ideology I’d internalized. It took me a long time to reassert the confidence to speak up in sessions when my boundaries were violated, and to reject the idea that those violations were an inevitable part of pro-subbing. To this day, I often hesitate for a moment before using safe words, for fear of seeming “whiny” and losing clients.
When other sex workers shudder and tell me I must be brave to do what I do, it’s a further reinforcement of dangerous conditions for pro-subs. I am neither “brave” nor “lucky” to do my work unharmed. The notion that pro-subbing is inherently high-risk is ultimately far more dangerous to us subs than the work itself. Suggesting that submissive services are all violent legitimizes non-consensual violence against us, and limits our ability to negotiate the nuances of a scene.
Yes, some pro-subs experience traumatic experiences at work, but unfortunately, so do all other types of sex workers. In these instances, the onus of responsibility rests entirely on clients and bad managers, and that responsibility should not be erased through the suggestion that kink is fundamentally dangerous. The stigma we experience both from within and outside the community makes us subs feel that we are marginal and at risk in an already highly stigmatized demographic. By looking more critically at our work, we could go a significant way to making pro-subs safer.