Dominatrix essay from Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives

How Does a New York Private School Girl Become a Dominatrix?

How Does a New York Private School Girl Become a Dominatrix?

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Sept. 4 2012 4:15 AM

What Does It Take To Be a Dominatrix?

How an Upper East Side private school girl ends up with a dungeon for an office.

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“I know no one goes through this world untouched,” she says. “But I needed to be touched more.”

One day when she was still trying to be an actress a man came up to her on the street and told her she should be a dominatrix. He had seen some mannish edge, some unusual confidence in her walk.

In this version of events, the Scene has chosen her. But Alexis has other versions, like the one where she is an aspiring actress, an artist, a smart, dyslexic girl from the Upper East Side without obvious office skills in an expensive and demanding city, and she accidentally stumbles on an easy way to make a living.

But why this particular easy way to make a living? Or maybe a better question is why is this particular way to make a living easy for her? Alexis says that she has “anger issues,” but she is not sure where they come from.

One day she tells me about a boyfriend she had who was an editor at the New York Times. She was drinking then, and one night at Elaine’s, for reasons that are obscure to her, she punched him.

Recently she was angry at her current boyfriend for not doing something that he said he would do. There was a whip in front of her, and sort of instinctually she reached for it. He started running. She says, “What could he do? A big, strong man can’t grab a whip. That’s what so fascinating; you can decapitate someone with a whip.” She laughs as she tells this story. “Of course I was like, I am sorry I am sorry I am sorry! It’s bad. It’s like I don’t know how else to act.”

Some of her anger she attributes to the frustrations of being a wild, imaginative child trying to fit in at Spence, a rigid, highly structured Upper East Side girls’ school, where she learned, among other things, to curtsey. There, from a very early age, she would come up with elaborate lies to cover up for her dyslexia, to try to obscure the reasons she couldn’t read aloud or fast enough or well enough.


She remembers one day in art class they were making clay figures. Alexis made hers with breasts, and the other girls thought she was strange.

When Alexis was growing up there were no other children in the house but there were cats. When she was 3 or 4, she remembers going to the birthday party of a classmate, who was a maharajah’s grandson. His face was covered in scratches because she had scratched him. “I didn’t have siblings,” she explains. “I learned to fight from the cats.”

Once, right out of college, Alexis had a very brief marriage. She knew it was over because she began to order wild animals over the Internet. For a while she had one wolf and one half-wolf running around her apartment on the waterfront in Brooklyn.

When I ask her what separates her from the girls in her films, the other dommes and adult actresses she hires, who are not as compelling to watch, she says, “I hit harder.”  

* * *

Sessions are exhausting because you are managing someone else’s fantasy. Alexis describes it as “walking on eggshells upon eggshells.” She watches her subs very closely, for a glance averted, a flicker of an eyelid, tension in shoulders, for the slightest alterations in body posture, for signs that she is going too far or not far enough or in the wrong direction. She is intuiting the fantasy from them, almost drawing it out of their bodies, and she has to be fluid, shifting, perfectly responsive. These guys, she says, are about to blow.

What is striking in her description is that it is the slaves who sound dangerous. The way she talks about it, it is like there is an explosion that she is working around, managing, navigating, negotiating. She compares it to being with mental patients on a ward without guards.

Alexis describes the sadomasochistic drama as being organized around the idea of not facing what there is to face; the whole structure of the fetish replaces any kind of rigorous introspection. She says, “It’s like these guys walk in and need surgery, and we are giving them a massage.

“Is it acting? Well, yeah. But to be good at a role, it has to be you. And this one comes very naturally to me.” She says, “It’s a way to get out my anger, and I don’t feel bad for them because I have this 6-foot-tall man standing in front of me, and I am like poor you. Poor fucking you. … I mean they could get up at any moment and punch me in the face. Game over.”

I wonder if with her particular array of skills and talents, she is ever tempted to find a rich sub who would buy her an apartment. But for some reason this fantasy doesn’t work for Alexis. Even the idea of a rich boyfriend who buys her presents somehow ruffles her, and when in a former life she did have rich boyfriends buy her presents, she didn’t want them, thinking “What am I, your doll?” For her being dependent on a man is as repellent and unthinkable as what she does would seem to many of the stay-at-home moms sipping $11 lattes at D’Ambrosios on Madison Avenue.