The dominatrix is one of the most recognisable icons of the BDSM world. But where did these take-charge women come from? Leo Larkin takes a look at where these mysterious women came from.

 

What does a dominatrix look like to you?
 

Leather-clad, whip-wielding and not prepared to take any of your crap, the dominatrix has become a cultural icon. But how long have these formidable women been punishing their inferiors? It isn't always easy to tell. Historical records are often very quiet on sexual subjects. But the role seems to be as old as modern society – and perhaps much older than that.

The idea of punishing and being punished for sexual pleasure turns up in the earliest civilisations. The ancient Etruscan “Tomb of the Floggings” shows a woman being whipped during a threesome, for instance. Dominatrix-like figures also turn up in ancient art. For example, the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii features an image of a whip-wielding goddess. Some archaeologists believe that whipping, sensory deprivation and stress positions may all have been part of religious initiations. These sensations created an altered state of consciousness that opened the mind to divine presences.

Are mythological figures like this one the conceptual ancestors of modern dominatrices? According to the leading historian of the dominatrix, the enigmatic Anne O. Nomis, absolutely. In her book The History and Arts of the Dominatrix, Nomis explores the connection in detail. From physical punishment to acts of worship and gender play, there are many similarities.

 

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Life's little mysteries...

 

Of course, there's a lot we don't know about sex in the ancient world. Indeed, for much of history, we're forced to make educated guesses about people's sexual beliefs and practices. As we get closer to the modern day, we're on slightly better ground. In the centuries after the printing press, a whole genre of erotic literature springs up. And if there's one thing we can conclude from this proto-porn, it's that our ancestors were very into dominant women.

Take Fashionable Lectures, for example. First printed in 18th-century England, this text is all about whipping, specifically whipping by authoritative women. It praises “beautiful ladies” who take on the role of “mother, step-mother, governess, lady's maid, kept-mistress, house-keeper, &c., &c.” Among these ladies are “Mother Birch,” which we may assume is an alias, and “Sally Harris,” which would be a quite a dull alias. No offense to any Sally Harrises out there, of course.

Indeed, the whole of 18th and 19th century England seems to be awash in people who wanted to be dominated and flogged by women. (This may be one of the reasons they call it le vice Anglais). John Cleland's 1748 novel Fanny Hill includes a number of well-known flogging scenes. Not only does Fanny flog clients, we specifically see her dominating them, albeit inexpertly.
 

“Stooping then to untie his garters, he gave them to me for the use of tying him down …  a circumstance no farther necessary than, as I suppose, it made part of the humour of the thing, since he prescribed it to himself, amongst the rest of the ceremonial. … I led him then to the bench, and according to my cue, played at forcing him to lie down: which, after some little show of reluctance, for form's sake, he submitted to ...”

This type of flogging by prostitutes who weren't only, or even mostly, dominant, seems to have been common. If it wasn't, contemporary artists and authors at least tended to portray it that way. Take a look at plate III of Hogarth's Harlot's Progress, and you'll see a cane hanging on the wall. Moll isn't particularly meant to be some flogging specialist, either – it's just understood to be part of sex.

 

Looking for an expert flogger?

 

There were flogging specialists, though, and some of them were very well-known figures in the 19th century. One of the most famous was Theresa Berkley (or Berkeley), inventor (or at least namer) of the “Berkley Horse.” This enterprising businesswoman ran one of London's most famous brothels and was said to own a huge range of flogging implements. Not only did she play a switch with the best of them, she apparently was one. Clients who paid enough could not only have Mrs Berkley flog them, but could flog her as well.

 

A historical drawing of the Berkley Horse

 

Respectable women get kinky too

 

When we read about this kind of thing in early modern historical sources, we're usually reading about prostitutes. But that shouldn't lead us to believe that no women of the era were whipping their partners just for pleasure. Erotic literature features prostitutes to a great extent – indeed, “pornography” literally means “writing about prostitutes.” Respectable women weren't supposed to get up to that kind of thing, let alone enjoy it.

But what respectable women are supposed to do and what they actually do aren't necessarily related, as our respectable woman readers know. The problem is that writing – published writing, anyway – about intimate lives is rare. Literary conventions like the sexy flogging brothel may reflect fantasy more than reality. Nonetheless, we still know more about them than about what women enjoyed in their personal lives. To a large extent, the bedroom door remains closed to us in many eras.

These historical women, then, are also ancestors of today's dominatrices, even if they might not have thought of themselves that way. Much of modern BDSM culture comes out of the post-war sexual revolution. But some of it has older roots, not least because those pioneers of the community looked back in time for inspiration.

And after all, who doesn't like to think that what gets them off is based in some of mankind's oldest spiritual beliefs?

 

 

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Images Biblioteca Rector Machado y Nuñez & Leatherpedia


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