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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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