Home Pro-Domme The Commercial Dungeon Experience: Abusive Management And Exploitation

The Commercial Dungeon Experience: Abusive Management And Exploitation

(Photo by flickr user sharyn morrow, via Creative Commons)
(Photo via sharyn morrow’s flickr and the Creative Commons)

Dungeons are often a launching pad for newbies entering the industry as the work seems safer and often more socially acceptable to the general public. In recent years pro-domme, sub, and switch work has gotten more popular than ever. Meanwhile, commercial dungeon management continues to prey on people entering into the industry looking for an “empowering” job and finding out that it’s the exact opposite.

Serpent Libertine began her career at commercial dungeons in Chicago and later moved onto escort work. She is currently an organizer with SWOP-Chicago and part of the team behind Adult Industry Truth, which conducts research about human trafficking in the sex trade.

Cathryn: I started out doing fetish work independently, mostly spanking fetishists alongside my friend. I transitioned to indie pro-domming and escorting. My first time ever working in a house was last year but I’m back to independent work now. I’m what I like to call a prostidomme. I’m basically an escort, but I do the weird stuff.

Reina: An old friend from high school started Domming at a professional dungeon and told me the work she did at her dungeon was fun, but sometimes the work (and management) was crazy and weird. I was always drawn to the ‘weird and crazy,’ so immediately I was curious about what could possibly be so jarring that she had to leave that place and seek a new dungeon. I was there for a full year before winding up at another commercial dungeon for another year, before going independent in February.

Selene: I have worked as a pro-domme at two commercial dungeons; a year at each one. I learned about it through an acquaintance of mine at school who told me “I’m a Dominatrix.” I was taken by the title and my interest rose until I finally called the dungeon. However, I had no idea as to what was in store.

What was your initial experience working at a commercial dungeon? What sort of expectations did you have?

Serpent: Pro-domme work was my introduction to the sex industry. My roommate was working at a dungeon that this  guy ran out of a basement apartment near Wrigley Field. He resembled the singer Tiny Tim (google him), but was even more creepy looking, with a huge pot belly and frizzy hair. He never showered and had a voice changer on his phone so he could pretend to be one of the dommes while setting up appointments with clients. I’d become well-acquainted with him via phone calls to our apartment asking for my roommate so eventually, I asked to come into his dungeon for an interview to work as a pro-domme. When I arrived, first he first seemed pretty cool and funny, but after talking to him for awhile, he laid down on the ground and began sniffing my feet, without my consent. He would continually talk about these fetish videos he wanted to shoot and ask my roommate and I to do a “screen test” to see how we looked on camera. Later I looked in his kitchen cabinets and found dozens of videotapes, likely of other women who had come into “interview” with him. Tiny Tim dicked me around and never gave me a shift at the dungeon but later phone harassed my roommate by calling her over 20 times a day after she quit working for him. I accompanied her to court when she pressed harassment charges against him and he was ordered to stop contacting her.

After that, I began working at one of the large commercial dungeons in Chicago. If I was nervous at all, I don’t remember, but I had no experience in BDSM activities at all. My training was to sit in on a few sessions with the other dommes and then start doing solo sessions. Our “dungeon” was just an apartment and we sat around bored most of the time, waiting for clients. I had purchased some rather pricey latex fetish clothing but at this place, most of the other dommes did sessions in lingerie or cheap fetish clothing.

Dreaming of the perfect dungeon co-workers (Illustration for "Once Upon A Planet" by J.J. Aller, via flickr user Tom Simpson and the Creative Commons)
Dreaming of the perfect dungeon co-workers (Illustration for “Once Upon A Planet” by J.J. Aller, via Tom Simpson’s flickr and the Creative Commons)

Cathryn: When I first started working at a commercial dungeon I had been out of the sex industry for almost six months, and previous to that I’d spent three years sticking to sex work that didn’t involve touching dicks, such as stripping and doing phone sex at the behest of my whorephobic boyfriend. By the time I broke up with him, I didn’t feel ready to return to any work that involved interaction with men for a long time. When I did decide to return, I figured a commercial dungeon would help give me a refresher course on how to do one-on-one, in-person, intimate sex work. It also seemed to be a good way to make more money than I could starting out as an independent.

Overall my experience of working in a commercial fetish house wasn’t terrible, at least not compared to the things I’ve heard other girls have experienced, and for my first few months at the house things were really good. The woman I was working for is the best boss in the world for the first few months you work there, she’ll toss her really high-paying clients your way and you make a lot of money with very little bullshit. The community was really great, and I was really happy.

Reina: What my first dungeon was like and what I imagined it would be like were two completely different things. I imagined torch-lit passageways, grey stone walls, whips and chains displayed at every turn. Kind of Game of Thrones meets BDSM Cleopatra meets Eyes Wide Shut. It ended up being more like a high-class kinky brothel.

In the beginning, it was a fun learning experience; they lent you a bunch of books and a big binder with interesting information about BDSM and fetishes, and you were put in one of the rooms to study for a couple hours. The senior mistresses would answer almost any question you had. If I was lucky, I’d get to observe one of the sessions or participate in very light play with an already trained mistress and her sub. My lack of technical skill was masked by my book knowledge of BDSM and fetish, and the clients I had were very kind and would “top from the bottom,” or guide me until I knew the ropes.

You weren’t allowed to talk to the other ladies outside of scene, to have your phone on you, to go to any of the restaurants in the neighborhood, to leave the building for lunch or order food to be delivered, to control your e-mails to clients, to take public transit at night, or to pick and choose your clients. Your limitations were pushed, and if you pushed back you were accused of not being a team player or not wanting to make money. You always had to be doing something “productive,” cleaning, reading, practicing your flogging or bondage. But management made sure that, for the most part, every lady working there made something, even if the week was particularly slow, and if the week was good, they made sure everyone got a cut from some of the more elaborate and expensive sessions.

Selene: Working at a dungeon was the first time I was ever immersed in sex work and BDSM, other than a foot fetishist neighbor boy I amused for free rides to school. I started off at a large and beautiful dungeon that prided themselves on being the grandest in Chicago. My first day it felt like being inducted into a prestigious secret society. I was under the impression that it was a group of ladies who encouraged female empowerment and treated everyone like a friend. [Editor’s note: Trigger warning—description of abuse follows.]

I began to feel uneasy when I was made to hide from a client under the stairs and heard him drunkenly make his way up to the top floor. When I was allowed to come out, they told me I was to be introduced to the scene. I immediately told them I was not comfortable interacting with a man who was under the influence of hard drugs or alcohol but they just laughed and told me that I was making a big deal out of nothing. When we reached the top floor, I was told to undress into my bra and panties. I was confused about this because they had told me that we didn’t come close to being naked. Upon opening the door, I saw the client and one of the ladies both completely naked, lying on a leather bed embracing each other. My heart started to race as the manager grabbed my arm and led me to the side of the bed. I remember thinking “Are they going to make me have sex with this man?”

I instantly became mechanical, scared, and unsure of how to react. I had my ass grabbed and spanked and then was sent away. My manager kept trying to push my presence onto this man, who clearly wanted nothing to do with me. He became angry and started yelling and finally she allowed me to leave. But I was made to stay on my hands and knees, bowing my head to the ground in the next room over so he could see me before he left. I was instructed to stay in this position until someone came and told me otherwise. After an hour passed by, I came back downstairs on my own and realized that they had forgotten about me. Not only were my boundaries pushed and my comfort disregarded, but I was also completely neglected.

Dungeon rules (Photo by Stella Djuma, via the Creative Commons)
Dungeon rules (Photo by Stella Djuma, via the Creative Commons)

What was ownership/management like at the dungeons you’ve worked at? Did they have rules for the staff there? Was there camaraderie with the other dommes/subs or was it an unfriendly/ competitive environment?

Serpent: The second dungeon I worked at was well-known for its infamous douchebag mafioso owner, complete with a neck-warmer haircut and a framed photo of a stack of $100 bills in his office. “Vinny” ran his dungeon similarly to his former telemarketing business—it was essentially a sales job. He made it clear that all our sessions were either being video or audio taped so he could later critique them and give us pointers for “improvement.” We were encouraged to walk in on other domme’s sessions and ask if clients wanted to “extend the hour” or do a double-domme session. It all seemed so trashy. The final straw was when I was booked for two sessions at once, leaving a medical fetish client sitting alone in a room for several minutes at a time while I tended to another (very good regular) client. I offered a free enema (normally $50) to the first client who was angry and about to leave. Once the owner caught wind of this, he told me I would be suspended. Instead, I walked out the door and never returned.

A few years later, I worked at another large commercial dungeon owned by a woman and her boyfriend. He was a savvy businessperson but a cold-hearted asshole who dominated all the staff at the dungeon. I once made the mistake of announcing I had received a generous tip from a client and he said, “You split all your tips with us 50/50.” Never made that mistake again. Later, I would find out he outright raped several dommes that worked there.

The camaraderie with the other pro-dommes was my favorite part of working at the dungeons, but I rarely kept in touch with any of them after I left due to restrictions on socializing with other dommes put in place by the two large dungeons. Later on, while working for escort agencies, I was isolated and rarely came in contact with other sex workers until I began going to industry socials and organizing with SWOP.

Cathryn: The woman who owned the dungeon I worked for also sessioned. The idea was that we were all one big happy whore family. The rules boiled down to stuff like not giving your personal number to clients, contributing to the upkeep of the house by doing chores, making sure all activities were protected, and not upselling clients under the table. There was a manager under the head mistress who would make sure everyone was doing their part and would handle grievances between girls. At first there was a lot of camaraderie, but the place was a revolving door because the head mistress was so difficult to work for, so the dynamic was constantly changing.

Reina: My first dungeon was owned by a man to whom we hardly ever spoke, but was treated with reverence by the three senior Mistresses whenever he was around. The only time we ever really interacted with him was when we had a big meeting where he lectured us about how poorly we were doing raking in the cash.

The three senior Mistresses were all very different and two were prime examples of the legendary “Mistress Syndrome.” Head Mistress Ruby was a former military officer and would not think twice about screaming in your face. Head Mistress Courtney would insult ladies to their faces and scream at you for being stupid and incompetent. I ended up getting fired by her and Ruby after a year because I called Courtney a cunt and refused to apologize.

Head Mistress Dolore was creative, wise, funny, and knew so much about the sex industry. She was also highly protective of me and the other ladies. At first, the other ladies were very suspicious of me until I proved that I intended on sticking around. We developed quick friendships, what I like to call “foxhole bonding.” I acquired some of the strongest, funniest, most intelligent, and interesting best friends I could have ever hoped for.

100% done with this place  (Photo by Sabine Mondestin, via the Creative Commons)
100% done with this place (Photo by Sabine Mondestin, via the Creative Commons)

Selene: The management at my first dungeon wanted to make sure that their pro-dommes were submissive to them as well as afraid to speak out. Only one of them treated us with some degree of compassion and kindness. They never did any real training. And don’t even think of trying to go to the other ladies for help: speaking to each other or even spending too much time on the same floor together was strictly prohibited.

You were also never allowed to speak with your clients and expected to start the scene immediately once you entered the room. Often, the scene would be poorly explained to you through either rushed talking, or a piece of typing paper that had random words and phrases scribbled onto it as if a child had written it. I was given the wrong clipboard on a busy day once and started a heavy corporal scene on a man who was simply a fetishist.

The management at my second dungeon were very relaxed, but it came at a price. We were allowed to talk to each other and hang out, encouraged to have each others’ phone numbers for work purposes, and allowed to watch TV during the slow hours. We had the opportunity to actually talk to our own clients and conduct our own interviews. For a while it seemed too good to be true, and indeed it was. Two of the owners/managers felt they were entitled to do whatever they pleased since they lived there. Many times they had arguments in front of clients, while on the phone with potential clients, or while a scene was going on. This would make the mistress look very unprofessional, and I prided myself on professionalism.

What were some of the worst experiences you’ve had with dungeon management? What types of exploitative labor practices did you encounter?

Serpent: The worst working conditions I experienced were at the second dungeon, where the owner made all sorts of restrictions on how you could communicate with the other dommes who worked there. We were forced to work phone shift as if it was a telemarketing sales job, with the whole “pitch, sell, close” formula. Since I was not a natural-born salesperson, I was picked on relentlessly by the owner for not bringing in enough clients.

Later, I apprenticed with an older, independent mistress who ran a dungeon out of her home. It was an ideal working environment and she was like a mother figure to me, buying clothes and giving me pointers on my session techniques. A minor infraction abruptly ended our working relationship. I realized that a lot of pro-BDSM people have controlling, volatile personalities and running a dungeon gives them a license to dominate their staff in ways that should have been reserved only for submissives. After that, I moved on to escorting and even though escort agencies were a whole different bag of bullshit, they were rarely as bad as the dungeons.

Seriously? (Photo by Daniele Devoti, via the Creative Commons)
Seriously? (Photo by Daniele Devoti, via the Creative Commons)

Cathryn: The labor practices at the dungeon weren’t the biggest issue for me. The head mistress was extremely possessive of “her” clients. I’ve since seen a few of her regular clients independently, and they’ve told me she actively discouraged, if not fully forbade them from seeing other girls in the house, which is really not okay.

The money didn’t exactly dry up after the first few months, but it was never so good as it was at first. The only girls who really succeeded were the ones who were very, very classically porn hot, since they could, for the most part, survive the head mistress’ undermining of them and poaching of their clients. I’m porn hot, but I’m weird indie queer porn hot, so it didn’t work out too well.

There was also the issue of morale and security. I saw clients violate girls’ limits and keep being allowed to come back, even after the girl complained to the headmistress. One specific client, Master Matt, brutally caned my friend, who didn’t take marks, until she cried, and still the head mistress wouldn’t blacklist him. There was another time that the headmistress booked a client for me, who I thought was into doing suspensions and performing oral sex, both of which were activities I enjoyed and cheerfully tolerated, respectively. Everyone at the dungeon knew that while I was more than happy to switch for bondage, humiliation, and all kinds of other stuff, my hard limit was impact play. It turned out that this specific client really, really enjoyed not only impact play, but pushing limits, and seemed truly disappointed when I called red the minute he tried to pick up an implement. I was fortunate that he was a relatively nice guy, so he respected my safewords, but there was no guarantee he would, and I wasn’t warned before the session.

There was also the issue of law enforcement vulnerability. As lax about screening as I was during my first stint as an escort, it was at the fetish house that I got busted. The head mistress basically hired any halfway-decent-looking girl who walked in the door, and the first day they reported for training she gave them a rundown of the entire tribute structure, including the rates for oral and full service. It would have been incredibly easy for the cops to send a cute female officer in, get her hired, and have all the information necessary to bring the place down completely and arrest everyone.

(Photo via PKMousie's flickr and the Creative Commons)
(Photo via PKMousie’s flickr and the Creative Commons)

Reina: The common theme I experienced at two of my former dungeons was a heightened state of paranoia exhibited by the higher-ups. At my first dungeon, management tried to to pit us against each other and keep us all from being friends. At my second dungeon, the manager tried to out me to my boyfriend and my mother (who was my emergency contact). Everyone close to me knows what I do and I am not ashamed of it, so their actions didn’t do anything but make them look crazier than they already are.

Selene: I was harassed into taking multiple shifts, often doubles, til it got to the point where I was working 50 hours per week. I did participate in sexual sales, to an extent, but I never allowed kissing or did full service. These limitations were known by the managers and the other ladies. One night, a high-roller came in for an elaborate scene. We were all playing slave girls at an auction competing to be chosen by the master, which would mean a great deal of money to whoever he chose. I was pulled off to the side by the manager to talk about the ending of the scene. She knew I would win and explained to me what the three of us would be doing in the end scene, how I was supposed to act, etc. But she failed to mention everything that would happen. [Editor’s note: Trigger warning—description of  rape follows.]

It was all very standard, being flogged, spanked, talked down to and given commands. Near the end, my manager tied me up on a leather horse that was propped in front of a mirror, wrists and ankles tied to either side so my body looked like a stretched out X. Again, I was spanked and flogged, until my manager instructed this man to have sex with me. His fetish was rape, and little did he know, he was getting the real thing. It hurt, and to add insult to injury, I was still tied up and propped in front of that large full length mirror. When I dared to look up, I couldn’t even recognize my own face. Luckily, it didn’t last very long, maybe about five minutes in total. I didn’t cry, I didn’t scream, I just went numb, still in shock from it all. And in my head I kept transitioning from Selene to the real me like someone rapidly flipping back and forth between two channels. I couldn’t fully comprehend it. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I was then tied to the outside of the bed posts and forced to watch them have sex with each other while she dirty talked to him about what had just happened to me. The horrified look on my face was real. When the scene was finally over and he left the room, I had to stay behind and clean up my own nightmare in misery while she walked him out. Upon coming into the room, my manager immediately showered me with praise and bragged about how much money I made, saying I did such an amazing job and that I should be proud. I nodded, took the money, and never thought about it again.

What led me to be fired from that dungeon is another fun story. One weekend I was on a camping trip with my family and another family with whom we were close. Three days later, when I was back in Chicago at work, I was getting random slices of flashbacks from the trip while I was at work and put the pieces together: One of the guys, who used to date my sister, sexually assaulted me as I was passing out in my camper. I could only remember a little bit before I’d passed out and had no idea if he had gone all the way or not. I begged my managers to let me leave early and go to a hospital for a rape kit. I got hell from them just for asking. They agreed, but reluctantly.

The doctor was to call me within a few days with the results, so I kept my phone discreetly on me in my dungeon purse. To my dismay, one of my managers found it and confronted me. I told her exactly why I had my phone, that I was desperately awaiting the results of my rape kit from my doctor, so she left it alone and told me to never mention it again.

Three days later, one of my managers called me into her office and asked me why I had my phone on me the other night. She didn’t seem to care that I was a rape victim, she just kept saying “you had your phone on you, we can’t trust you.” They fired me and told me that I had to remove my things immediately, and made it a point to have all of the other ladies there watching.

At my second dungeon, I became very close to my managers and so did my husband. Eventually, we moved into the dungeon because he was leaving for the Army. It was a very temporary arrangement, just until he came back. While waiting around for his shipping date, I got pregnant. My husband and the manager with whom I was close kept joking about the topic before I officially found out, playfully teasing me about it. I talked about it with my husband. We agreed it was terrible timing, but we were happy nonetheless.

The morning after, I got up bright and early for my shift. I got myself ready and patiently waited for my manager to come and join me. When she did, I told her the big news. I would have never even been able to conceive of what followed from someone who I thought was one of my greatest friends. She said “Do you know how much stress you’re going to be putting on him because of this? If I were him, I’d be running for the fucking hills. You are going to ruin his life with this! You know he’s probably going to cheat on you now right? If I were him I’d being doing anything to get that thing out of you. If I were him I would hold you down and twist a wire hanger inside of you waiting there with a towel to catch whatever falls out.”

My husband was still asleep in the back of the dungeon. When he woke up and saw my face, he wouldn’t let me get away with saying “I’m fine.” I told him what happened and he was furious. I begged him not to say anything. But then a few hours later both managers and their friend began chanting “You a dumb, caught n*****, lol,” at him, over and over. My managers are the two palest people I’ve ever met, and my husband is Afro-Brazilian. Not only did they have no right to taunt him, but they had no right using such a word. They immediately hid themselves in their rooms after he started to tell them off. We packed up our stuff and never looked back. I never imagined I’d have to part from that dungeon on such awful terms.

(Photo from Folsom Street Fair 2009, via foxgrrl's flickr and the Creative Commons)
(Photo from Folsom Street Fair 2009, via foxgrrl’s flickr and the Creative Commons)

Would you recommend commercial dungeon work to someone without any industry experience? What recommendations would you give them?

Serpent: Many places hit newbies with unfair and illegal rules to which they are unlikely to vocalize opposition. I’m hearing that these places are expecting a lot more full service or switch sessions and engaging in coercive and exploitative practices to make money off the backs of unsuspecting workers.

I’d recommend that someone just starting out do their research and get involved with their local BDSM community, join FetLife, attend some social events and talk to other pro-dommes about what their experience has been working at commercial dungeons. Ideally, apprenticing with an established mistress before going independent would be the best way to establish yourself, but most people get involved in the industry because they’re strapped for cash and need work now. One resource we have now that we didn’t when I first started is the ability to rent dungeon spaces by the hour. I’d recommend going that route rather than working with a commercial dungeon, particularly one owned by a non-worker or any sort of couple where there’s a male half that’s either dom or sub. I’ve never seen that situation work out positively.

Cathryn: A newbie in the industry would be better served by going to a bunch of kink workshops and striking out independently. This is mainly because it’s impossible to tell what the work environment of a dungeon is going to be like until you’ve been there for a while. My biggest recommendation when looking for a dungeon would be “don’t do it,” but if you’re set on it, track down some current or former employees and ask them for the straight dope.

Reina: The dungeons I have had the pleasure of working in have all benefitted me in some way or the other, although their abuses would not be tolerated in civilian jobs. It’s taught me what I should not do, and how I should not treat people. My first year at a dungeon made me a lot less judgemental of others.

Try it, but with a caveat: You might end up at a dungeon that sees you as expendable and they will either traumatize you or equip you with the tools to develop a thick skin. My best recommendation would be to find a mentor. Reach out to other sex workers and make some new friends who will help hone your skills. My experience was less than ideal but I do not believe that all establishments are like these.

Selene: Beginners in the industry are preyed upon, but shouldn’t close themselves off from the experience of working at a dungeon. Make friends in the industry, make a FetLife profile, and connect with BDSM communities. Get interviews at every credible dungeon you find, ask questions, take notes, take your time on choosing which dungeon you want to go with, and keep your wits about you no matter what. Even though I have had some of the most unpleasant experiences, I cannot deny that I still learned A LOT through being in those dungeons, and I met some of the most amazing people that are still my friends to this day. Through all of this trial and error, I found that I truly love managing above all else. And I hope to have my own dungeon some day, a sane haven where ladies can come to play safely and be worry-free. A place that not only caters to the clients, but caters to the ladies as well. No one should ever experience the horrors I did, but not all dungeons are bad.


  1. Important article. I have so much to say, I don’t even know where to start.

    I was a fetish worker at 3 different dungeons in NYC. I worked in them off and on from 2008-present time, as well as doing independent work.

    Each dungeon had its own flavor. The first one, which is now defunct, was actually pleasant and the management treated us fairly and the atmosphere was relaxed. Very light BDSM, no full service, no sex of any kind, really–a girl was fired on the spot when someone walked into her session and saw her making out with a client.
    I quit there after a year bc I got a whorephobic boyfriend, and when I came back a year later, the manager had developed a severe drug addiction and the place went downhill fast. Too bad.

    Second dungeon was on its last legs and I wasn’t making much money there, so I moved on within 6 months.

    The last dungeon is one of the biggest in NYC and God was it a shitshow. The rooms were great and it was fully equipped and some of the senior dommes there are very, very skilled (I don’t mind telling you that I was one of the best professional masochists in NYC when I worked there), but my God, it was a fucking insane asylum. The only good thing I can say about Management is that some of them really tried to make you money, and when we weren’t working, we could do whatever the hell we wanted. I picked that dungeon because I was still in school when I started, and I could study and edit manuscripts in one of the quiet dungeon rooms on my off-time.

    That said, these are just some of the repulsive management practices I encountered:
    1) If a client paid on a credit card, management wouldn’t give you your share of the CC money for weeks. It was also prudent to keep track of exactly how much CC money you made, because I did not trust management to give you what was owed to you.

    2) Pushing girls to do sessions that they are not trained to do, or do not feel comfortable doing. One manager pressured me to cathaterize a guy before I had no formal training (had only watched it being done). This was so unprofessional and irresponsible and I didn’t want to fuck the guy’s bladder up! I had to go tell him MYSELF that I couldn’t do it.

    3) I have seen some managers send new girls in with clients who are KNOWN to be difficult and KNOWN to be molesters and boundaries-pushers. It’s not right and it’s not fair. A lot of the girls get molested and leave and never come back. I always tired to warn them and tell they what to expect, even if I didn’t like them, because nobody deserves that. It’s happened to me.

    4) Managers falling asleep at the wheel when you’re in a sub session and not checking in on you, as pre-agreed. Managers not KNOCKING you when your session is over, so you’re in there with a client OVER TIME.

    5) Managers being possessive and territorial of “their girls.” There were times when the managers had rivalries and if you mostly worked one manager’s shifts, that manager didn’t want you working any OTHER manager’s shifts. Such bullshit!

    6) Abusive language, including screaming, at staff, that simply would not be tolerated at any other workplace.

    7) At my first dungeon, when I came back, there was A FUCKING VIDEO CAMERA IN THE LOCKER ROOM! They claimed it was “for security” bcause there was a safe w/money in there. I said it was illegal to tape girls changing clothes and they looked at my like I was crazy. I covered the camera with a sheet and then sabotaged/busted it one night.

    8) Some managers would pressure or shake down the girls (especially new girls) for tips. One was really bad about it, inferring that if she didn’t get extra tips, you “might not get so many good sessions.” Such bullshit. I already pay 50%-60% of the fee to management for security and infrastructure–unless management does something really special for me, or lands me a whale of a client, I don’t want to give them even more of the money I earned.

    9) Some of the dommes working there was abusive to other staff. Not just mean, I mean abusive like violent. Management tolerated this. One domme physically assaulted 4 women over the course of a year before management finally fired her. The only sure way to get fired on the spot was to be caught poaching a client. I mean, fucking NOBODY got fired from that place.

    10) the staff all had “right of refusal,” meaning that if you REALLY didn’t want to see a client, management would respect that and not fire you. However, some managers would give you shit for saying “no.”

    11) management would pressure new girls to invest in good fetish clothing. Good fetish clothes are a great investement, but they are also expensive–VERY expensive–and often when new girls come in the are flat broke (I know I was). Pressuring a new hire to buy latex instead of her power bill is bullshit, in my opinion.

    12) oh yeah, Management doesn’t screen. Most of our clientele were established with us, but sometimes guys would roll in off the street. Management would take them as long as they didn’t ask for sex or anything transparently illegal.

    I could go on….and on…and on. And I haven’t even gotten to some of the bad clients who look for new girls, or some of the crazy bitches I had to work with.

    THAT SAID, I think that dungeons are a good way to learn the industry, especially if you know nothing about BDSM. When I started, I had 8 years behind me as a livestyle sadomasochist–I had equipment and had done a lot of stuff. However, still could not have started out independently. The scope of fetishes clients have is so diverse….I didn’t have a clue. Working in a dungeon taught me a lot.

    Most independent mistresses will not let you apprentice under them unless you are paying them to teach you. Even at the dungeon, I was protective of new girls and tried to warn them about difficult clients, but I seldom taught them skills one-on-one unless 1) I really liked them or 2) they paid me.

    It’s not all bad. I made some excellent domme friends and had some wonderful experiences, and felt secure at the dungeon, whereas working independently is incredibly nerve-wracking for me even thugh the money is better. But I’ll tell you: getting into this industry is a baptism by fire.

    Oh yeah: if they make you fill out an application form, lie your ass off. Don’t give em your real SS# or address. My dungeons didn’t even know my name, and I gave em a google voice number. Don’t trust em. And if the cops show up, they will seize the computer and all the files. My first dungeon was raided (not when I was there, thank God) and that’s what happened.

  2. Great discussion! I was lucky enough to have worked with both Reina and Selene at one of the dungeons aforementioned here, and it was my first professional experience as a domme. I too learned some of the pro’s and con’s of the business. These two ladies were pleasantly down-to-earth and they served as positive mentors and role models during our time together. I am thrilled to see that they have spoken out about their experiences, ultimately taking a stand for girls in the industry world-wide. Bravo!

  3. This was a tough but necessary read. I’ve spoken at length about my experiences with a house dungeon elsewhere, so I’ll skip the rehashing here, but suffice it to say they match up with the title of this piece. The more I learn about the sex industry and the various segments within it (through both first- and second-hand experience), the clearer it becomes to me that within the United States, commercial dungeons are perhaps the single most dangerous working environment outside of shady escort agencies. I might be way off-base here. I’d be curious to know what others think.

    To me, it seems like the result of the grey legal space pro-BDSM occupies as much as it is the activities it involves. Many aspects of pro-BDSM are technically legal, many more are as yet undefined by the law, and a few of the staple activities are blatantly illegal. In this way, it’s like a more complicated version of its closest cousin, erotic massage. Massage parlors and commercial dungeons both operate in a similar de facto unregulated manner– there’s too much illegal activity going on for workers to count on enforcement of any labor rights that, say, strippers + porn performers can access to a very limited extent. Add in the kinds of activities that are highly dangerous for untrained people to engage in, and you have a particular kind of recipe for disaster, one that impacts pro-subs and switches most harshly.

    When you consider this in the context of sex work history, it seems to me commercial dungeons aren’t long for this world. Take the fact that they’re a relatively recent development in the long history of sex work and the fact that they’re still pretty rare (I don’t think there are more than 6 in any one of the 7 or so US cities where they’re established), and I feel like it’s only a matter of time before they go the way of the peep show and disappear. At some point, something so terrible is going to happen that LE will crack down in a way that makes the 2008 NYC raids look like nothing + effectively shut down that whole part of the industry. I hope commercial rental spaces + indie collectives become a lot more common before then. Or, you know, prostitution is decriminalized + commercial dungeon workers can organize like strippers. But I’m not holding my breath for that.

    • Er, when I say ‘working environment’, I’m thinking of an indoor space with a boss + multiple employees, but I realize upon re-reading that that’s probably not the right term to use. Commercial workplace, maybe? Because the street is obviously a more dangerous place to work than any dungeon.

    • There were probably multiple factors that contributed to the 2008 busts, but one big catalyst was that Canadian client who almost died at the (defunct) Nutcracker Suite. Remember that? Guy wanted to be cross-dressed and left alone with a noose around his neck. The dumbass domme ACTUALLY LEFT HIM ALONE (instead of putting a blindfold on him and pretending to leave, observing him from across the room), and he fell in his high heels and strangled himself. She found him unconscious. It was in all the tabloids. I can’t believe that dumbass made a noose that could actually tighten, either. Whenever I have to fake an execution, I make a noose that can’t tighten.

      Anyway, I don’t think that commercial dungeons will go away for two reasons: 1) all our married clients need an incall, which the dungeon provides, and 2) clients, as we know, are not exactly masters of strategy and scheduling. They get the itch and they want to come over RIGHT NOW. “Who do you have working if I come over in 20 minutes?” Same thing late at night when the bars close and they’re drunk and coked up and they don’t wanna go home.

      • Oh, I know. I think it’s almost inevitable that someone is either going to die or be horrifically mutilated in a way that totally eclipses that guy at The Nutcracker. I mean, (MASSIVE TW) I’ve heard of girls being slashed with razor blades to the point of almost losing a nipple, and that’s not happening at small, unknown operations. Collectives can fill the gap that houses leave, and as long as violent rapists and stalkers aren’t being screened out OR EVEN BLACKLISTED , at some point that gap is going to happen. Cops are going to be forced by some major public outrage to act to shut them down., and I just hope a bunch of house girls aren’t arrested if/ when that happens

  4. A much better set up in my experience are dungeons where you are not an employee but can simply rent the space per hour independently. Luckily I found spaces like this in 2 out of the 4 cities I’ve Dommed in, so never had to deal with the stuff mentioned above. I assume NYC does not offer this type of set up? Where you can use the rooms/equipment, and just give the owner a portion of your earnings? This allows us to set our own prices, boundaries, etc. Highly recommended!

    BTW, I would love a portion of this website to be like a forum where SWs could discuss specific clubs/dungeons/houses etc by name in order to make suggestions or else to warn other workers! I have seen client blacklist websites, but to my knowledge nothing about particular workplaces.

    • I’m an NYC indie domme and I’d guess most of us rent space from dungeons. It’s quite possible.

      Not everyone has the time or confidence or know-how to run their own business, though, and since there are a ton of commercial dungeons around lots of ladies end up at them. The good ones are great places to start off and learn about the industry. The bad ones are pretty much what’s described in the article.

  5. Gosh, this is a totally depressing and eye opening article. I’ve heard about such stuff in dungeons. there’s the stereotype that you never tell mistresses in dungeons you were ever a sex worker in any other light or they won’t take you seriously and will never hire you/rent space with you and its totally true. That’s why I advertise online and do everything indie. I can’t even imagine working under a man in a dungeon as a “Domme” that just seems too hypocritical.

    • Unfortunately, some prodommes do look down on other sex workers, especially full-service escorts…heck, some dommes look down on dommes who give handjobs. It’s just whorearchy and denial. A lot of these are the same dommes who, in interviews with the press, go out of their way to insist that domination is some sort of art form and most of the time a man’s orgasm is not even involved…like the session is some sort of transcendent kinky spiritual therapy (don’t get me wrong, it CAN be therapudic, but the staple of dungeon sessions is a drive-thru domination session with a wanker on his lunch break).

      These dommes are full of shit.

      We’re not all like that, though. I think that the women who’ve been in the industry a while wise up once they’ve been through the wars. I know a few of the women I worked with doubled as strippers and I’m pretty sure two were escorting independently, but we didn’t talk about that. Also a lot of (attempted) sugar dating going on.

  6. “I realized that a lot of pro-BDSM people have controlling, volatile personalities and running a dungeon gives them a license to dominate their staff in ways that should have been reserved only for submissives.”

    Too true.

    • I’ve heard that escorts tend to have drama-queen personalities but I cannot imagine that they could be any more narcissistic and self-aggrandizing than some of the dommes I have worked with. I mean, anyone who can refer to themselves as “Czarina Cruella von Whiplash” might have a bit of a complex.

      • In my experience working for other escorts, and also from what I’ve heard from other people working for others in my area, we tend to be pretty fair with each other. I used to pay $25 commissions at most. The real problem comes with working for agencies (which I’ve only done for a week or so at a time myself, thank god.)

  7. I’ll go as far to say that some of my dungeon experiences were worse that my escort agency experiences, but all of my bad experiences in the industry have come from working for other people. Nowadays it is possible to work independently and rent dungeons by the hour, but when I started out those types of places didn’t exist. If you wanted to work as a domme, you had to work for someone else.

    There are blacklists that exist, usually for bad clients, but as far as a nationwide database of good/bad dungeons, possibly the closest thing might be some of the information Safe Office has in their database, which gives ratings to certain establishments.

  8. I worked for a woman who was a lifer – she never did any other work except sex work. I had an intimate knowledge of her dungeon and the dynamics surrounding it. She either employed women who were above her – educated with degrees, conventionally attractive – or women who were on the edge of unattractiveness, with a rough or sketchy sex work history. She was much harder on the bright women who were genuinely interested in BDSM than the duds. The owner had done both escort and BDSM work, so she knew intimately what was involved. Her dungeon was well decorated and set up. BUT – some of the equipment that was used most often was in disrepair and/or was potentially dangerous – like benches that could tip with a person restrained on it. Broken or damaged equipment was pointed out to her again and again – and she would make a convoluted excuse about why the thing was never fixed, which would digress into some ridiculous complaint how some leather straps she had purchased 15 years ago were wearing out. She was a complete cheapskate about some really basic things that were needed to keep the dungeon functional – but then would overspend on her personal trivialities.

    Her personality was volatile and abusive – with her children, slaves, pets, the people who worked for her and her friends. She frequently lashed out by SCREAMING and swearing whenever she felt challenged/offended/wronged. Her ability to communicate articulately was poor = impossible to please. She had an extreme tendency to always side with the aggressor in any context, and was a chronic victim blamer. Many people gave her tons of slack because her dungeon was well appointed- despite her doing things like renting to a known predator who had assaulted many new, young, naive subs on the scene – even after she was informed by several scene people of this predator’s specific history.

    Her extreme sense of entitlement, unreasonable expectations, complete obliviousness to other people’s feelings or needs, paranoia crossed with her mercenarymindset created a negative and harmful situation for anyone working for her, for anyone who rented the space unaware of the damaged/faulty equipment, and for clients seen by dommes who were unskilled. She had dommes who worked when they were really drunk or high doing things that needed good judgement/motor coordination (she knew this – she was there, she could tell) and she had a few serious(like life threatening) near misses with dangerous equipment. The things that were wrong with the equipment could have been fixed in a couple of days. The bigger problem was her mindset of micro-management, which made the dungeon less lucrative than it could have been – which then made her more likely to book clients who were sketchier, and to overlook the faults of the women working for her doing unsafe things.

    TLDR: the dungeon had some damaged equipment that should have been fixed. The owner had serious personality defects that made this dungeon dangerous for workers and clients.

    • I’m feeling kind of uncomfortable with equating “rough or sketchy sex work history,” with “duds”, also the idea that only women who are educated with degrees are “bright” or “genuinely interested in BDSM.”

      • Sorry to butt in on a pro domme conversation. Well, I feel like I’m a “prostidomme” in that I do take a lot of pro domme sessions because my area doesn’t really have any pro dommes advertising/any dungeons. But my sex work background is 90 percent escorting, with a few light domme sessions sprinkled in throughout.

          • I personally get a lot of requests for fetishes, but again, I don’t think I’m a great sample b/c there’s no other venue for pro domme services in my area. I’ll do foot fetishes, golden showers, etc for the right price, and I’ll charge the same for an escorting session that includes role play or spanking (my spanking them, I don’t pro sub as I just don’t trust my clientele to that extent), impact play with my riding crop, etc. I won’t do anything but the lightest CBT though, as I’m not trained to provide it and I don’t want to hurt anyone.

          • I’m an escort in Australia who communicates with a wide community of workers – we are asked for fetish work a lot. I’d say about a third of my genuine booking requests include some light fetish, mostly golden showers, spanking,, restraint or sub/dom role play. And I’m a very vanilla escort.

      • I was not implying that a person who is educated and bright is a better or more competent sex worker. What I clumsily tried to say was that there was some real black and white thinking going on with the owner. I don’t know why a woman who has a genuine interest in BDSM should be treated worse by the owner than a woman who is just phoning it in – while working at a dungeon. This dungeon was high end and expensive.

  9. I worked at two very different dungeons from 2009- 2012.

    The first was dreadful and I would not recommend it to anyone. I didn’t know any better, so I lasted 9 months. It was definitely better than some of these — we were encouraged to hang out with the other ladies, we had wifi and TV. We weren’t allowed to leave during our shifts, which was annoying because we all ended up spending so much extra money on food delivery. There were always wayyyyy too many ladies on shift, and we ALL had to meet, even if we knew we didn’t do the session or that the client didn’t like us. There were tons of random petty rules I barely remember now — there was a week where we had to ask the manager for the bathroom key every time we had to pee! Fortunately the owner gave that one up quickly. Also, lots of fines for stupid shit.

    Also, fucking politics. Certain managers wouldn’t mention your name if they didn’t like you. If your client came in to see you, they’d claim you weren’t there and talk him into sessioning with a Mistress they liked more. There was a lot of stupid shit like that, and it was almost certainly costing them money. They told one lady’s clients that she was booked up for months for no reason I ever figured out.

    Much worse than all those annoyances: The no-blacklist policy, even for known rapists. I stopped doing sub sessions after a few months in part because I could not trust the dungeon to keep me safe.

    The money wasn’t great, either, which was annoying but not as bad for me as it was for others. I consistently earned okay (for that dungeon) and my plan had always been to support myself with escorting gigs until I learned how to dominate well enough to make a decent living. I considered my time at the dungeon more of an investment for the future than a major source of income, but if I’d been trying to live off that… ouch.

    It wasn’t all awful, or I wouldn’t have stayed for as long as I did. The other ladies were mostly pretty lovely, and I learned a lot despite there being almost no formal training whatsoever.

    My second dungeon was miles better. It was low-end, but I made more per hour than I did at the high-end dungeon and it was very laid back. Could even do indie sessions while I was on shift, which was fantastic. The owner could be VERY unprofessional, but management was great and I never felt like I couldn’t stand up for myself in the event of a difficult client. I stayed for more than two years. I didn’t leave on the best terms, but honestly, it was a great, safe place for new Dommes to start off and I was sad when it closed.

  10. […] not feature articles that show a less positive side of the profession. One such article is ‘The Commercial Dungeon Experience: Abusive Management And Exploitation‘ hosted by the Tits and Sass site. It features four dommes who experienced some fairly […]

  11. This discussion makes me sad, because I know all these accounts are undoubtedly true. We’re a playgroup in a small private home in California — we do any kind of scene that’s safe and legal — and we’re genuinely a family. Hearing discussions like this makes me wish I were young enough, and ambitious enough, to want to go larger-scale, but I’m not. If you’re curious, check out our website, and inquire about us on FetLife. If you’re in some other state and wish someone would create something like we have (we’ve just celebrated our 24th anniversary), drop me a note and if you sound like our kind of folks, I’ll find a way to encourage you.

  12. Thank you so much for writing this. As an experienced Pro-Dominant who’s worked at a few of the aforementioned places, I truly appreciate you darlings speaking out publicly.

  13. This has been a depressing read. But not all commercial dungeons are horrible. At least not the one I have been working at a little over two years now. The owner is a woman who has worked as a pro domme the past 20 years and understands what it’s like to be a pro domme. We never had rules like not being allowed to talk to other dommes on staff, or have phones on us or watch TV. She has a huge Blacklist and we are never forced to see anyone we don’t want to. And the pay cut she takes is a very tiny bit of the $250 domme session we charge. It’s in our favor. And Sub/switch sessions are $300 and we get all the difference, she takes the same cut no matter what kind of session it is.
    The only real down sides for me is still sitting in 3 days a week. Most guys book same day sessions or last minute sessions. I live an hour away so traveling 2 hours round trip and going home many days not making money is depressing. But we are allowed to film movies for our clips4sale stores in the empty rooms, or take nightflirt calls while we are there to make extra money and not waste the day.
    Reading this makes me realize that my situation must be very very rare and I’m lucky to work in a city with a place like this. I feel so bad that people feel unsafe or abused in their work. I wish I read that other people were having more positive experience’s too.

    • Yours sounds like what mine was trying to be. Seriously, the mission statement of the place I worked was pretty impressive. I have many theories about what made it turn — hell, it could have been as simple as not being able to make rent and starting to lose perspective.

  14. Any house is only as good or as bad as the people running it. Unfortunately, in an unregulated industry, it leaves a lot of room for abuse, with all 99 problems of the standard vanilla freelancer/independent contractor (long hours, issues with timely pay, unsafe working conditions/practices etc.) with a special bonus side dish of whorephobia.

    I’ve had to fight my corner at both of the houses I’ve ever worked to not do sessions I felt I could not do safely(e.g. sounds,heavy cutting) or not to see clients I’ve found to be too impaired (either due to drugs or their own manias) to make informed decisions/respect limits.

    I’ve also taken some nasty management retaliation for advising a BRAND new Domme about clients who had a variety of unpleasant tendencies (octopus hands, cheating ladies out of their appropriate session rate, among other issues) so they could walk into the room informed, rather than be traumatized, cheated or assaulted by a man who makes a habit of seeing new girls for the specific purpose of exploiting their ignorance.

    Given that I have always have had multiple income streams, not all of which are industry related, I have the leeway of picking my battles with management and weathering the resulting spite related income impact……..not everyone has that option, particularly if sex work is their only current vocation

  15. I wanted to wait until I was awake and alert to reply to this thread. Ever since making a film about my experience as a house switch, I’ve been seriously struggling after each screening with this nagging thought that maybe, somehow, by making a film that shows the house experience as less than stellar (not all bad, but certainly more bad than good), I was doing something hurtful to the community.

    Part of this comes from the fact that when I set out to make the film, I had no idea that there *was* a SW activism community, or even that websites like this existed. I certainly had never heard stories like the ones above. My coworkers had a tendency to sugar coat the past, rebranding horrific experiences as “no big” and smiling as they were telling the stories. (I have a scene in the movie that shows this.)

    I think stories like these help people to not blame themselves for having bad experiences. Thank you again for sharing.

    PS – My film is showing on Friday, August 15 at the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit at 4:45pm for anyone who may be there. US screenings are rare right now, so if you’re around, I’d love to see you and hear responses.

  16. Wow. Just..wow. I work for the same dungeon as Skyler, who commented above. This is my first experience working for a dungeon, and I absolutely love it.

    I guess we got lucky..our owner is fabulous. She’s great at picking clients. I’m a pro switch, so I sub from time to time. I’ve never had a bad experience with a client, and I’ve been working there over a year. She has no problem blacklisting any clients that other dommes have had problems with, though. And I had this one potential client who wanted to gag me and blindfold me in our first session. The owner said, no way. She said, I would never let a first-time client gag and blindfold any of my girls. That meant a lot to me.

    She lets us do whatever we want when we sit in, and she encourages us to all run clips4sale stores and shoot at the dungeon. We only have to reimburse here whatever supplies we may use. She is very concerned with safety and hygiene. We keep the place very clean, and she teaches us about safe flogging, whipping, even medical practices, if people are into that. She never pushes anyone to do any activities they don’t like or feel comfortable with. She’s also very good at helping us brand and market ourselves.

    I’d been having trouble getting clients lately, and she had dinner with me and helped me come up with a ton of great ideas to better market myself. She also had me think of the activities I like best, and focus on those, in my profile on her web page.

    It really sounds to me like me and Skyler are probably working for the best dungeon in the country. I think ours could be a model of what a commercial dungeon SHOULD be.


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