Katie Prout: Made You Look
by KATIE PROUT
Several months ago, I was sitting in the basement dungeon of an otherwise unassuming Wicker Park home and watching a man old enough to be my grandfather get naked and hop around like a bunny. Lady Sophia, the dominatrix who’d ordered him to do so, stood to his immediate left and laughed and laughed. I was wearing black boots, a black dress with slits that showed my ribs, and the red lipstick I always wear when I am in need of a shield. I sat with my back straight and my legs crossed and tried very hard to behave in a manner befitting a “vanilla voyeur.” My role was to act as shocked and/or derisive as I felt the scene unfolding in front of me called for, which wasn’t at all difficult, until suddenly, it was.
The client, whom I’ll call Mark, had many kinks—golden showers, panties (“I wonder if that’s on him, or on me?” Lady Sophia had absentmindedly remarked while filling me in on the details), verbal humiliations—but through it all, he liked to be watched. That was where I came in.
Like every modern sex story, this one begins on the Internet. One hot day last August, I was getting very tired of nannying and wondered if some kind of structured sex work would, in fact, give me more control and respect than changing the diapers of overprivileged children. I wasn’t terribly serious about the idea, but I wanted to understand more about the women who were. After grabbing a beer, I sat down and Googled “Chicago dominatrices,” which led me to some very interesting websites, which led me to Lady Sophia.
Lady Sophia was a gender studies major in school and had been pursuing a master’s in social work before realizing that the emotional strain of that line of work wouldn’t be worth her student loans. Domming, however, was another story. I told her I was writing a piece on Chicago dommes, which was true, but I also wanted to see what the fuss was about, wanted to understand how something defined as exploitative by so many in the media and in the nonprofit world (and in some cases, for a very good reason) could also hold potential to empower as well as employ. Sophia was as gracious and smart as that figurative (or in her case, very literal) whip. After one particularly engaging interview at the sex toy shop where she worked, I was invited to come and watch an upcoming session she had scheduled for the following week. I readily agreed, but spent the car ride home from the interview wondering what on earth my mother would think if she knew what I had just agreed to do.
There are reasons why the type of interaction that Lady Sophia planned and that Mark paid at least $300 for is called a “scene” in the kink community. Characters are built, promises made, threats delivered upon. Over email, Sophia suggested I pick out a stage name, to help me “get in the mood ; ).” Before the session, while she gave me a tour of the dungeon, Lady Sophia told me that the work of a dominatrix was very similar to the work of an actor. The lighting, the props, the costumes: “You have to commit to it,” she said. “It’s not cheap. I have a room at home—you’ve never seen so many Tupperwares labeled gags, nipple torture . . . What I’m doing is not short-term.”
Intentional sex appeal is not my forte. I spent the afternoon before the session trying to come up with a sexy nickname. Failing, I switched to panicking about what to wear. The outfit I managed to cobble together apparently did the trick: after letting me in, Sophia looked me up and down before saying approvingly, “Look at you! You’re gonna show me up!” Her tone was teasing, but I was no longer certain what was theatre and what wasn’t. That was when I learned that I am terrified of showing up a dominatrix.
Besides getting on the wrong side of a professional pain-inflicter, here is what I was afraid of: seeing the testicles of the aged and infirm. What’s more, I was afraid of feeling like shit when the night was through. I already knew what that was like: I was there to learn something else. I was worried I’d feel repulsed, or worse, used by some grandpa with a shriveled dick who was spending his retirement fund visiting ladies of the night. I didn’t want to be seen as an object for his sexual gratification; I wanted to hold the power. I wanted to see.
Here is what I saw: I saw an old man, a retired professor, nearly weep with happiness when his sexual and emotional needs were met. I saw a woman play roles traditionally and sometimes pejoratively assigned to females through history—nurturing mother, cruel temptress, whore—with such authenticity and flair that, in the end, what we were doing went beyond sex, beyond performance, to something both artistic and therapeutic. It felt like we were helping Mark realize a very important part of himself.
This is when I say my role as viewer became difficult. As the night wore on, what I saw became less and less absurd or transgressive. It felt oddly natural, and because of this, I started having to remind myself to be shocked, to play my role as the doe-eyed, open-mouthed vanilla voyeur. As the voyeur, I was still a part of someone’s sexual fantasy, but I held the power. As a woman, I found this to be an unusual, even revolutionary experience: for once, the gaze was mutual.
The evening ended with a golden shower, and then a real one for Mark, while Lady Sophia hurriedly changed from her black costume to a softer red dress. “It helps set the mood for the comedown,” she explained. Clothed once again, Mark thanked us profusely for what we had done. After he left, I helped Sophia straighten up before I too took off. Behind the shimmery swaths of purple that hung down from the ceiling, I could again see the basement walls.
After shutting the door, I tottered quickly to my borrowed car. It was dark and late, and I had a lot to think about and was in no mood to be trifled with. As I drove out of the neighborhood, I passed a porch party. A man stood in the street in the front of the house, jerking off.
This is always the point I make sure to include in every retelling of this story. I had just witnessed an evening of debauchery such as my young little eyes had never before seen, but this image was by far the most shocking and offensive. It wasn’t sex, it wasn’t art, and it wasn’t performance: it was a deliberate display of power implicating every passerby into a fantasy, a game, a show that they did not sign up for but nevertheless were forced to participate in. I think about that night, and I remember the car lights shining on that man’s hands and junk, and I remember the way Mark blushed when he first took off all his clothes. I wonder again about power and about the responsibilities that come when we see and are seen, and I imagine going back into that night: I shut off my headlights, lay on my horn, and roar off into the dark, leaving that man nowhere to be seen.by