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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.