I once met Mistress Colette in the street.

I was walking to my office south of Market in San Francisco when, glancing at a young woman approaching, I thought for an instant, “She sort of looks like Colette.”  Not as lovely as Colette.  Not as sexy.   This girl was pallid and rather tough in the face.  A bit of slouch in her posture, a touch of frump in her clothes—was that a knitted shawl thrown over her shoulders?  But as the resemblance held my eye, my next thought was, “She looks a lot like Colette.”  By now the girl was returning my stare, scowling in that punitive way that young women reserve for leering men:  What are you looking at?  And then, remarkably, a transformation.  The planes of her face rearranged themselves into an unmistakable pattern, her expression softened, she lowered the cell phone from her ear and…

“Hey!”

…she blushed.

That blush, light as it was, is one of many treasures Colette has given me over the years.  It was, I think, my first substantive glimpse of the girl behind the fantasy—or rather my first hint of who that girl might be.  I was accustomed to seeing Colette in a different context:  slouchless and without a whisper of frump in stiletto heels and leather lingerie; poised above me with an elk-hide flogger or advancing on my tied-to-the-bedpost fascination with a black rubber dildo swinging between her legs.  I’m sure at these moments Colette believed it was the dominatrix that held me in thrall, but really, I was already over the whips and strap-ons.  What kept me coming back every Sunday was the mystery of who was using them on me—who in fact this cool, playful, essentially gentle and deeply intelligent young woman truly was behind her masks.  

Our chance meeting in the street then—and that ever-so-slight reddening of her cheek—was, you might say, my first break in the case.  As I recall, I chattered at her effusively, gave her a hasty tour of my office—empty at the time, except for one co-worker—and fought an overwhelming impulse to clutch her arm, her hand, her shoulder as if to confirm she was, in fact, real.  Through it all Colette smiled gamely and treated me with that mixture of tolerance and distance that is the hallmark of every professional dominatrix.  Afterward, I wondered if I had broken a protocol.  So much of what transpires between domme and client is carefully-crafted illusion.  Perhaps in pouncing on Colette I had violated an unspoken contract.  Perhaps I should have glanced at her, pretended not to notice and walked on…     

When, at age 55, I decided to put decades of personal fantasy to the test and plunge, ass-first, into this world of BDSM, I wondered if the reality could possibly live up to my anticipation of it.  It didn’t.  My debut session with a pro domme selected from a website of adult classifieds was a curious hour of comic missteps  and erotic disappointment.  Goddess A was a striking woman, a bonfire of red hair and voluptuous curves with an appealingly cordial way of bullying me around her tiny bedchamber.  But my vanilla instincts were too deeply ingrained for an easy, one-session transition to kink.  Reality kept intruding on the carefully-crafted illusion.  She tried to cinch me to her bedpost with a leather belt, size large; my biceps, size small, could not support the loop:  “You’re too skinny!”  She strapped a pink dog collar around my neck and led me past a mirror to her four-poster bed.  Catching a glimpse of myself as poodle-on-leash, I felt neither kinky nor sexy—only silly.  This was an introductory session so she took me through a buffet sampler of whipping, spanking, pinching, verbal abuse, tease and denial—heavy on the denial.  The only point at which I became sexually aroused was when, very briefly, she bit my neck.  As a pro, she knew exactly how much pressure to apply and not leave a bruise.  I would just as soon have continued in that vein—maybe pull the corset off the slopes of her cleavage, maybe bite her neck—but we weren’t there for that… 

And yet despite the disappointments, two weeks later, I was back.  The pilot light, if not the burner, had been lit, and I continued to go back every three or four weeks for the next six months.  Gradually, I branched out to other mistresses, other venues, eventually discovering the cool, clean passageways and candlelit chambers of Torture Garden.   

Two things struck me right away:  the intellectual caliber of the people I was meeting and their almost universal kindness.  The first I expected.  Kinky sex is traditionally the province of the educated classes, so it makes sense that women who purvey these specialized skills must carry as part of their professional credentials the aptitude to match (or master) their clients.  Every domme I have known has had an inquisitive, critical intelligence you don’t often come across in other branches of the commercial sex trade.  “In polite company I say I’m a physical therapist,” Goddess A once explained, “but for me every session is a performance. “  She was, first and foremost, a theatre artist.  Every dominatrix must be at least that. 

The second point—the universal kindness—came as a surprise.  Somehow I had bought the vanilla line that female sadists were, by definition, man-haters (or at least man-baiters) snickering to themselves behind a curtain of cool.  If I’d thought about it more carefully, I’d have realized that commercial BDSM rests, of necessity, on a framework of trust.  It takes a certain forbearance for a woman to put up with any man’s quirks.  If those quirks happen to be a predilection for lingerie or a desire to be smeared with excrement—well, forbearance, perhaps, is an inadequate word.  The expansiveness of spirit, the depth of empathy, the humor and inventiveness and profound suspension of judgement required of a professional dominatrix pre-supposes a level of tolerance almost spiritual in its benevolence.   

These two key elements of S&M culture—the intelligence and the kindness—reached their apotheosis for me one afternoon at Torture Garden, when, arriving for an appointment with “whoever is available,” I peered around the door into a lovely Asian face and stepped point blank into my erotic future.  I don’t remember Colette saying anything particularly brainy that day, but her presence was immediately cerebral and that made her, for me, especially sexy.  I liked the contrast between her placid, good-girl beauty and the abandon with which she spat in my mouth.  I liked how robustly she attached my ankles to a spreader bar, attached that bar to a rope-and-pulley and hauled my 55-year-old ass upside down for a brisk, let’s-get-acquainted spanking.  

Meet Mistress Colette!       

In the weeks that followed, I intended to alternate between Colette and a Nordic tattooed tigress with whom, after four sessions, I was already breaching a few of the usual no-touch taboos.  This girl worked as an independent out of a rented apartment in San Francisco, and I had a strong feeling, perhaps delusional, that we were well on our way to having sex .  Certainly I had every incentive to keep seeing her.  But each time an opportunity arose, I would debate with myself which of two phone numbers to call—and would invariably ring Torture Garden for another round with Mistress Colette– with whom, let me be clear, there was no prospect of having sex.  (Not that a man ever gives up hope). 

It was about this time that my fascination with BDSM shifted from the specifics of the curriculum—the particular fetishes, the implements of torture, the range of sensations—to the young woman who was teaching the course.  I can identify the moment when this transfer of interest took place.  It was early in our acquaintance.  I was naked on all fours on the floor and Colette was kneeling beside me doing something to my backside—smacking it probably or caressing it in preparation for a smack.  Her own backside was exposed to lovely effect by the g-string she was wearing and as I looked back to steal a peek at that view, Colette glanced over and caught me looking.  Probably every other domme I had met to that point would have “punished” me for spying with a good-natured swat, but Colette the artist, Colette the individual, Colette the peerless interpreter of moments, responded in her own unique way.  Assembling her features into a prim repose, she executed a saucy rumba bump that allowed me a clearer view of her caboose and expressed in one movement all the playfulness, wit and generosity I’d been feeling in our sessions from the moment we began.  Later I would discover Colette’s intellectual prowess; her love of cinema; her goofy, gawky, little girl side—all crucial elements in my growing affection for her.  But if you’re wondering, Colette, what precisely in your arsenal first took captive this man’s heart—it was that, that rumba bump:  your ass.                 

Periodically the world of BDSM surfaces into the culture at large through a book or a film or a piece of theatre.  When that happens certain assumptions surface with it.  The most pervasive is that these activities are inherently farcical, the men ridiculous, the women cynical.  As Colette writes in her chapter on Feminization:  “Mainstream culture has but one frame for such a picture:  ridicule.”  Even the efforts to portray this world seriously, even the great classic of sadomasochistic literature Pauline Reage’s 1957 The Story of O presents deviant sexuality as a dark obsession; a series of desires sprung from a well of shame.

Mistress Colette’s Twelve Perversions attacks the subject from a different angle. You might say what she presents here are twelve love stories.  Not just the love of the men for her—though that thread runs strongly through the book—but also her love for the life at Torture Garden.  In her epilogue Colette explains what motivated a young graduate student at a major university to seek employment at a house of bondage and domination:  curiosity and fun.  That seems to be, as well, the motivation of her clients.  Reading these stories, I don’t sense much conflict (let alone shame) in the men who play with Mistress Colette.  Emotional turmoil, certainly.  Unrequited desire, most definitely.  But shame?  It’s true, Slave Robert undergoes a rather harrowing ordeal and yes, Professor Tom suffers an unhappy setback—but even these stories have upbeat shadings (and I know from my friendship with Colette that both men continue to see her regularly).  More typical of the players in this pageant is Henry, the handsome TV executive, who delights in being tied naked to a chair while three beautiful women circle him with birch rods or Al, the man who loves thunderstorms, who in the course of literary research, discovers he also loves to be peed on.

In other words, these are happy stories.

For me, of course, their principal interest lies in what they tell me about Colette.  There is a great deal here about a dominatrix’s life behind the scenes.  Colette is as candid a memoirist as any reader could wish—no more so than in her sexual confessions—and yet after experiencing all twelve chapters, all twelve “perversions,” I’m not sure I know much more about the “real” Colette than I did that day I bumped into her on the street.  Like all works of literature—and Colette’s book aspires to stand beside Madame Reage’s—Twelve Perversions poses more questions than it answers.  Each chapter here is a session with the Mistress.  Each opens the door on a particular secret—a door that inevitably leads to a room in which there are other doors shut tight.  I could have lingered longer in the “Yes and No” room to explore more fully Colette’s transition from sub to domme.  And I confess to a fascination with the sweet girl I know (I’m sorry, Colette) orchestrating the chill excesses of the orgy in “Rashomon.”  Every one of these stories makes me want to grab Colette by the wrists (except that one never grabs Colette), sit her down and insist, “Tell me more.”  

In that sense Colette is the ultimate Scheherazade and Twelve Perversions the initial dozen of what probably could be a thousand and one nights.  The number of regular clients Colette has maintained over a period of years gives testament to her Scheherazade strategy  (bottomless invention, unending provocation) in keeping at bay the erosion of desire.  This is one theatre artist who know how to hold her audience in suspense.  Her book is a performance in that vein—a tribute to Torture Garden, a love letter to kinky friends and colleagues, a memento of  a happy time in her life and like that blush, seen once and never repeated, another clue for me in the ongoing mystery that is Mistress Colette.              

 

Grub Street Guy aka A7

San Francisco

May 22nd, 2010

 

To one of the early chapters of 12 Perversions

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