Instruments of Torture
When I began working as a submissive at a commercial dungeon in 2013, Fifty Shades of Grey was topping (pun intended) the bestseller lists—but my own interest in BDSM had begun many years before Christian Grey made floggers and riding crops a part of pop culture.
My introduction to riding crops came from the cult classic 9 ½ Weeks, which I discovered and devoured in college, almost a decade before I made it to the dungeon. In both the 1978 memoir and the 1986 movie, there’s a scene where sadistic John takes his lover Elizabeth to a hunting store. In full view of the shopkeeper, he tests out a riding crop on Elizabeth’s thigh. In the movie, it’s the sound that stuns: John swings the crop through the air till it sings a threat and then lands—smack—on Elizabeth’s thigh.
When I saw that scene in my early twenties, I wanted nothing more than to know how that crop would feel against my own flesh. There were other books and movies too: Belle de Jour and Story of O, where the heroines endured the lashes of whips that excited and terrified in equal measure. These women were submissive, but they seemed strong and courageous, too. They transgressed the norms of their societies, seeking pain and sensation and sex, not caring if their safe, respectable lives were upended in the process. I wanted to be like these women, but for a long time I lacked their courage. I also lacked that combination of knowledge and luck—of knowing where to go and meeting the right person at the right time—that would have allowed me to satisfy my desires in a pre-50 Shades world.
I was turned off, too, by the side of BDSM that seemed outlandish, by turns intimidating and ridiculous: pink-fur-wrapped handcuffs, menacing leather masks, spiked collars. That was the side I saw after 50 Shades took off, the symbols of BDSM suddenly gone mainstream, and all that paraphernalia only made me feel more unsure. At the same time, the fact that BDSM was suddenly front-page news helped me to find a dungeon, right in my own city—a place where I could get a job as a submissive, and finally experience what I’d watched and read about for so long.
At the dungeon, silly fur-wrapped handcuffs did hang on our equipment wall, although ours were leopard-printed and tiger-striped, not electric pink. But so did countless other objects, some strange and others perfectly ordinary, now allowed to transgress their normal uses. It quickly became clear that these implements, whether they seemed scary or silly from the outside, transformed into something else entirely once you’d felt them against your own bare flesh.
So let me give you the tour…
These were the implements I considered the silliest when I started working at the dungeon. There was a reason we called them toys, right? A round or rectangular leather object that looked like something you’d use to play Ping-Pong, repurposed to smack a butt? They brought to mind bad jokes about BDSM from TV shows I’d seen over the years. If I was going to be spanked, I wanted it to feel real, an act brought on by a sudden passion, a need that could only be fulfilled by a hand or whatever real-life object might be nearby—a hairbrush, a belt. The word “passion,” after all, comes from the Latin for “to suffer.” In my mind, at least, passion and punishment were intimately connected.
But it turned out that, once I was submitting, I didn’t much care what I was getting hit with. I couldn’t see the implement attacking me from behind, anyway.
Wood paddles were another story. Once I’d been at Medusa’s a few months and was approved as a heavy player—“heavy” meaning I could take pain and bruising, and having nothing to do with my size—I could bring the giant wooden fraternity paddles into session. Some of these were imprinted with bold Greek letters, others with less-authentic proclamations of “BAD GIRL.” No matter what they said, a hard whack with one left a raw, splintery sort of pain that lingered like a sunburn, and turned my skin about as deep a shade of red. But the wood was a symbol of sorts: wielding or submitting to those implements meant you were tough.
Side note: There was an actual Ping-Pong paddle among the toys at Medusa’s as well. It stung much more than you would expect, for something I used to fling a white plastic ball around as a child.
Since Fifty Shades of Grey had become a bestseller about a year before I came to Medusa’s, riding crops might have become the symbol of BDSM. Barnes & Noble seemed to have sprouted an entire section of books with a single riding crop on the cover, perhaps accompanied by a collar or a strand of pearls. Maybe the appeal was in the sleek elegance of the implement, that long black stem flowering into a single leather petal. Maybe it was the fact riding crops were intended to be used on animals rather than people. They brought to mind groomsmen in old-fashioned formal wear, coats with long tails, like the opening scene of Belle de Jour.
But how did the riding crop feel? Used lightly and repetitively, it flitted across my skin like an irritating fly. Harder, it was a flash of fire, a ghost of a brand. Early on in my submissive career, I made the mistake of allowing a client to use it—full strength—on my pussy, over my underwear. It felt like my womb snapped in two. One of the rare forms of pain that, in those early years, I truly disliked.
I was always a little scared of riding crops after that.
Canes, like paddles, didn’t appeal to me too much at first. They were meant for disciplining schoolboys in England, or criminals in Singapore, as far as I knew. Nothing to do with the passionate, clandestine sort of punishment I imagined. But I soon discovered that at the dungeon, these slim, snappy lengths of wood, with their painted handles or looped ends that resembled an ordinary walking cane, held a special significance. Only heavy players were allowed to use canes, and for each true, full-strength stroke, a client had to pay a ten-dollar “caning fee.” This led to a few magical sessions where I made a hundred dollars in ten minutes, although that didn’t happen nearly as often as I would have liked.
While canes could certainly hurt, a quick, stingy slice of pain, the extra fee was more because of the marks they left behind. Just one well-delivered stroke could cause a thick red welt to bloom across your ass or thighs. A series of blows, and your flesh would be striped for a few days. Cane marks could break skin, bleed, and in extreme cases, scar. Those marks were a sign that you were in this for real, that you weren’t just playing games, and for that, I came to love them.
If I loved the marks canes left behind, I loved the experience of being flogged. Really it was whips that had always enticed me. The Story of O was full of whippings, of O writhing beneath the bite of the lash, crying and pleading—maybe for mercy, maybe for more. And then there was Belle de Jour again, that opening scene with the carriage traversing the fairy-tale forest, the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves, the echo of bells—like the bells over Medusa’s front gate—icy-blonde Severine stripped of her clothes, her arms tied above her head and—
True whips weren’t allowed at the dungeon. They were difficult to use and if wielded incorrectly, could take out an eye. So floggers were the best substitute. Long strands of leather, attached to a wood or metal handle. Depending on how stiff or soft, thick or slender the strips of leather were—and how the implement was used, of course—floggers could sting like a true whip or caress like the hands of a lover. With my hands tied above my head, the blows falling on my naked back like rain, I could almost believe I’d found my way into one of the stories I used to tell myself. To make the fantasy perfect, I only had to close my eyes.
There were other toys at the dungeon, of course. Hairbrushes and rulers for spanking; stingy belts and leather straps; the Wartenberg pinwheel with its tiny spikes to be rolled across the skin. Originally this one was a medical tool, intended to test the sensitivity of one’s nerves. There were clothespins that could turn any inch of flesh into a taut twist of tension—some areas much more painful than others. There were nipple clamps, some made of such thin wire you could barely feel them, meant entirely for show. Others pinched like they were penetrating through your skin; still others had weights attached to them, making even small breasts like mine hang low and heavy.
There was the buggy whip, another punishing device meant for animals rather than humans, with its long shaft and small sharp lash on the end. When used correctly (which rarely happened, since most clients didn’t even know what it was), it made an ominous whoosh as it sliced through the air, and it scraped like cat claws across your skin. There were dog leashes and bowls at Medusa’s, belts and, for a while, an electric flyswatter that mysteriously disappeared one day. I suspect one of the girls disposed of it because it was just too mean.
In the end, it wasn’t about the toys themselves, but about the sensations and emotions they awakened inside you. A flyswatter could arouse fear in a fully grown human; a cane or a flogger, just a simple length of leather or wood, could elicit desire and pride. In BDSM anything could be repurposed, any everyday object given an entirely new meaning. Not just objects, but words, commands, thoughts, the fantasies inside your mind… All of them could be reborn, could become astonishingly real, inflicting pleasure and pain till you could no longer tell which ones were devilish and which were divine.
About Stephanie Parent
Stephanie Parent is a graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC. She worked for six years as a professional submissive, and later switch, at a commercial dungeon in Los Angeles.