Who's your mistress, economy?

Underemployed women pull themselves up by their strap-ons.

By Amy Benfer

Published February 5, 2009 2:33PM (EST)

When I clicked on to "Kinkonomics," Tracy Quan’s article in the Daily Beast, I could almost hear the dying yelps of Pets.com and see the empty San Francisco warehouses from my office window and taste the first sip of the weekday afternoon beers with other friends who had also spent the week trying to find something useful to do and finally decided, what the hell, at least we can have an early drink. Quan’s piece on overeducated, underemployed women turning to fetish work to supplement their income is basically the same piece that Katharine Mieszkowski wrote about a tech-writer-turned-dominatrix for Salon in 2001, back in the olden days when I could see Katharine’s head from my cubicle and Quan herself had a column in Salon.

I'm hardly the only one who views these developments with a sense of déjà vu. "I've seen it all before," says Linda, the dominatrix, or "pro-domme," tells Quan, with what one imagines to be a world-weary sigh, during the tech bust of 2002.  "Women who thought they'd always make a decent living in the tech sector lost their jobs." Linda, much like Katharine’s "Natasha," works in a dungeon to supplement her day job as an editor. It's all part of life in the "gig economy" (a term that editor in chief Tina Brown seems determined to put into widespread use once she had the late-breaking revelation that even her friends were cobbling together patchy freelance work to make a living). As Quan says of another pro-domme, Jessica: "one gig, her tech job, enhances her resume, while her fetish work makes life in New York affordable." And, thanks to her day job, she can even sign up for insurance with Freelancers Union.

Why pro-dommes can't qualify for insurance on their own is worth asking, since in New York "legit dungeons operate legally and openly." Working in a dungeon -- where women specialize in "bondage, verbal humiliation, spanking or paddling, whipping and genital torture" --  is much safer than prostitution. But, unfortunately, that means the pay can be worse. Most Manhattan dungeons give their employees only $80 of the $200 fee, which Quan says may feel "abusive" to escorts used to making $500 or more per hour. But few college students or even middle-management office workers are going to remember their days of working for $500 per hour. "If you’re making $8 an hour at your day job, $80 is awesome," says Jessica. "There’s no shortage of women willing to work at those rates."

Way before call girls were the subject of cable television series, Quan, author of "Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl," was writing about well-educated, middle- to upper-middle-class women who happened to engage in sex work. And at this point, it's become a cliché of the genre to point out that one's subjects are everyday people. "Clients," according to Quan, "are middle-management types, small business owners, dentists, young lawyers, even a few single males who see themselves as casualties of the gig economy." And many of the women themselves aren't really hardcore fetishists; they're just doing their job. "I wasn’t really that interested in S&M," says Chloe, a middle-class art student. "I got involved because it was easy money. The strap-on? I’m OK with it, but it isn’t really a personal interest of mine."

Come to think of it, there are days when most of us would probably beat certains banker or stockbrokers with a riding crop for free. But Quan makes it all sound about as exciting as a day at Starbucks. "Even if you're bossing your client around in a pair of thigh high boots, you're still working in a service industry. And after an hour, your feet hurt."

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

MORE FROM Amy Benfer

Related Topics ------------------------------------------