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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump