Resplendent in boots, leather and latex, the dominatrix continues to influence trendsetters. Photo: Getty
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How the Nordic Model will close the door on the professional dominatrix

Under the Nordic Model – which criminalises the clients of sex workers – the role of the dominatrix, which is as classically British as that of a steam train conductor, will be greatly changed and diminished.

My partner and I often hike along forgotten railway lines. They evoke a golden age of transport, when branch lines brought mobility and modernity to Britain. As industrial heritage, the steam train is universal, attracting fans across Britain and the world. I never dreamed of being a dominatrix, as a child might imagine driving a steam train, but when I became one I learned a trade as intricate, and as British, as that of the steam engine driver. I’m writing today because the “Nordic Model”, which criminalises the clients of sex workers, has been reviewed favourably in Parliament. If supporters have their way, it could become law here in Britain. If it does, my beloved trade could become as extinct as one of those abandoned branch lines.

I decry the Nordic Model because it undermines sex worker safety and strengthens moralism in the name of preventing trafficking, even as it ensures that all sex work is driven deeper underground. To become a dominatrix is to enter a caring profession; to establish rapport with a client is delicate and difficult, especially when a session involves physical or psychological torment. If hiring us becomes illegal, how can a client entrust himself to our care? “[Kink] is already widely stigmatised in society, so clients have a greater need for privacy and discretion than more mainstream sexual orientations require. Clients already face the threat of losing their reputations, jobs and families if outed, and criminalisation just adds one more layer of risk,” says Ms Slide, an experienced London dominatrix (pictured below).

Today, British dominatrices fall into a grey area, sometimes overlooked by law enforcement but subject to archaic laws banning “disorderly houses.” Generally, we don’t offer sex, so we don’t yet know whether we would fall under the aegis of a Nordic-style law in Britain. We do know, though, that sex workers in Nordic Model countries suffer decreased income and increased risks; Laura Watson, spokeswoman of the stalwart English Collective of Prostitutes, says that workers report new complications, such as client reluctance to call from unblocked phone numbers or pay deposits. Worse, criminalisation will inevitably filter the client pool, discouraging those who are unwilling to break the law. “The focus of the police will be on criminalising the clients rather than on the safety of sex workers,” says Watson. “That’s already the case, and it’s a complete disaster; for example, the police have already said that they will sit outside the flats, waiting to catch clients; in Sweden for example they are using phone surveillance to catch clients, so they’re tapping sex workers phones,” she says.

With the waning of the dominatrix, much history could be lost. In her 2013 book, The History and Arts of the Dominatrix, author Anne O Nomis traced the origins of the modern dominatrix to specialist courtesans of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “At a time when few options were available to women other than hard manual labour or marrying up, these women stand out as savvy erotic entrepreneurs. . . They crafted their own self-image, developing equipment and practices which are as specialist as any craft profession,” says Nomis. As some of the top courtesans of their times, the lady flagellants, strict schoolmistresses and governesses of these eras counted members of the elite among their clients and admirers. This tradition has persisted, and even George Osborne has counted a dominatrix as a personal friend. Designer John Sutcliffe’s Atomage epitomised our distinctive style; resplendent in high boots, leather and latex, we continue to influence trendsetters, from Gaultier to Gaga. In our dungeons and boudoirs, we have also broken ground for sexual minorities. Kink has long been practiced without money changing hands, but moralism and patriarchy have historically narrowed the kink scene to sex workers and clients, and to those who would meet via underground contact publications. In this restrictive environment, dominatrices were an important conduit for the development and teaching of safe and effective kink, and our premises were often the only place where a novice could explore a long-held fantasy.

Kink’s popularity, fuelled by fiction and the internet, doesn’t preclude our ongoing success. Today, some of us are active members of our local public kink scenes, and we often share our knowledge and premises with our communities. Learning new skills is easier than ever before; today, anyone can take a class in rope or role-play. I think, though, that the distinctive aesthetic and performance of the dominatrix might be difficult to replace. Perhaps, enthusiasts could evoke us, as a re-enactor might evoke ancient martial skills, or as a steam train might carry tourists, instead of coal and commuters. But a railway preservation society does not a branch line make. If we bin the Nordic Model, and pass laws that strengthen the safety and freedom of all sex workers, the British dominatrix need not be preserved in aspic; instead, we shall thrive.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear