Think of her, at least superficially, as a typical Midwesterner. She was born and educated in the city, raised in a large Catholic family, but don't make any assumptions about abusive priests or sadistic nuns, or some perverse childhood interpretation of the wine and the chalice, the robes and the incense. She wasn't that kind of Catholic girl. "Why do people want different things?" she asks, rhetorically. "Some can say, 'Back in childhood such-and-such happened.' There is nothing in childhood I could look at and say, 'This is why I enjoy being in control so much.'"
Adolescence, as with most people, was a time of exploration. The adolescent quest for meaning or significance shows itself outwardly in clothes, fads. A profile of youth culture in St. Louis in the late '70s would include the fading-out of disco, the first punkers and hip kids catching the new wave. The more intimate discoveries aren't so easily stereotyped.
Her boyfriend was open to exploring different fetishes, she says: "We played with areas of bondage, sensuality, role-playing." But, as with most people, those teenage years of adventure and daring became a memory. She grew into adulthood and did what adults do: married in her early 20s, gave birth to a son, lived a family life. "The marriage was completely vanilla," she says, and adds, "and vanilla is good, too. Everything was fine; the marriage went its course. My desire for fetish didn't have anything to do with my divorce."
With the dissolution of her marriage, once the pain subsided, she realized new possibilities, a world beyond the boundaries marriage had imposed. She remembered happier days, more free-spirited days, and those teenage forays into kink: "When I was married, and that wasn't available, I didn't actually miss it, but once marriage was over ... "
Once marriage was over, about five years ago, she checked out the Internet. The desire for control -- or, more crucially, the pleasure of control, which she had experienced since childhood -- she found on the kinkier filaments of the Web.
If people with fantasies for handcuffs and butt plugs, for wooden canes and leather paddles, for playing the role of slave or master -- if they found themselves isolated and assumed themselves alone, abnormal, deviant in the seemingly kinkless Midwest, the Internet revolution was their invitation to reach out and flog someone, and right here in River City.
She began discovering information, the kind of information she didn't know existed. She uncovered a local chapter of a national organization, People Exchanging Power (PEP), a group that meets monthly at a hotel near I-270 for informal discussions. Coaxing herself to attend her first meeting was difficult, she says: "I didn't have any idea what to expect. When I got there, I realized they were very friendly people, welcoming me."
There were about a dozen participants, mostly men. "Women tend to come with other men," she says, "or they don't come at all." One couple led the group discussions. It could have been any civic organization gathering to share ideas about pertinent issues, drinking sodas, munching on vegetables and dip, wearing name tags -- "Hi, my name is ...." For her, the surface banality of it all provided a jolt of recognition: "I wasn't as abnormal as I thought I was."
She was understandably shy at her first PEP meeting (or " PEP rally," she jokes, "black-and-blue pompons"): "The first time, I just sat and didn't talk about anything." Books were discussed, some how-to info was provided -- imagine a Tupperware party, except the fetish material of choice is leather rather than plastic.
"As I got to know some of those people better, I was introduced to more private groups," she recalls. People who met at PEP splintered into groups "to have more play, to have something more than a book club." You can't develop dexterity with a whip by reading a manual, she says. And then these groups became couples. "That's where community starts," she observes, "a community of like minds."
"Community" is a word that's often used, but rarely with precision. She believes there is a BDSM (bondage/domination/ sadism/masochism) community in St. Louis: "We don't have enough people into BDSM for a Yellow Pages. We don't have restaurants. We don't have our own bars. A jazz lover can go to a jazz club. I don't see Fetish Night at the Galaxy as being an accurate view of the average BDSM participant.
"Yet without those things, there are social groups, educating groups, play groups -- people who have gotten to know each other, who have scenes with each other." Perhaps the strongest bond they share is that, when they're together, "we don't have to live with this giant secret."
A noticeable change comes over people who have found something wholly their own, when a self that's been locked away is released. You see it in people who have experienced religious conversion or spiritual illumination, people whose sexual identity has heretofore been closeted -- you see in such people a new self, a self liberated through its own recognition. You see them newly confident, radiantly so.
She realized that her desire for control could not only be fulfilled but that she had an instinct for domination. She was good at it -- submissives she played with told her so. She felt she was good at it. "I can throw a single-tail whip with the best of them," she brags, "but I can get the same effect by whispering in their ear at just the right time."
She began to explore the possibility of becoming a professional dominatrix, or "prodom" for short. A prodom who was involved in the local BDSM scene even before there was a scene "took me under her wing. We talked a lot. She recommended books, and she started including me in a few of her sessions, first letting me watch and then letting me participate." She took on a moniker of her own -- let's call her Mistress Kali, because many prodoms take the name of "Mistress" or "Goddess" connected to a powerful female name, sometimes with a reference to myth. Mistress Kali's tutor we'll call Lady M.
Lady M, Kali says, is recognized as a pioneer of the local scene: "She takes people into her life like members of a family. She makes friends and keeps them for years. She's one of the most generous people I've ever met.
"She's one of the first women allowed in the gay men's leather scene. She was the first one." Mistress Kali says there has been a history of segregation between different outsider groups, between gays and straights, women and men. "Lady M allowed for different groups to cross."
Lady M also devoted herself, her knowledge and her body, to Mistress Kali for the novice's tutelage. "Because Lady M's been on both sides," both submissive and dominant, Kali says, "she was able to tell me what the experience is like from both sides. I was able to practice on her. What I learned about myself was that I can push my own boundaries. The first time I ever threw a flogger on somebody's shoulder, I thought I couldn't possibly do this, but he responded with such happiness and such eagerness. The more I did it, the more he liked it."
Mistress Kali began to take on clients of her own, which meant gradually acquiring pieces of equipment and, just as important, costumes. "I love putting on a corset," she says, "thigh-high boots. It's different from my normal life. I love the feel of leather. It's a powerful feeling." She loves shoes with 6-inch heels, loves shoes in general. "I've been into shoes since puberty," she confesses, and she has at least 75 pairs tucked away in closets -- not quite Imelda status but still a significant personal inventory.
The timing of her entry into the profession proved fortuitous. She quickly tired of hauling her various apparatus and costumes to motel rooms. Then Lady M chose to go into semiretirement and sold Mistress Kali her "dungeon" for a flat fee. "My dungeon is a renovated loft downtown -- very quiet, very clean, very subtle. No one's in there except my clients and me."
The décor of a dungeon is as individual as the people who use it. Kali figures there are about five prodoms with dungeons working regularly in St. Louis. She knows of at least 10 private dungeons: "For some people, it's just putting hooks on the wall; for some, it's getting a spanking bench. Some people have full setups in their basements."
What goes on in those spaces is as full of variety as the human imagination can contain. The St. Louis scene motto, one promoted by the BDSM group Leather and Lace, one that appears in Different Loving: The World of Sexual Dominance and Submission (a kind of primer for the novice), sets the requirements of "safe, sane, consensual."
"If you don't have all three things, you shouldn't be playing," says Mistress Kali. "All scenes are negotiated beforehand. Limits and guidelines are discussed. 'Safe' words are established -- words a submissive can use to stop a scene at any time." For example, a word such as "stop" or "don't" might actually serve to intensify a scene, so words outside the context of torture are employed.
"As you explore this loving exchange," she notes, "you start to learn their needs, their reactions, to the point you don't even need a safe word anymore."
A phrase often voiced in the BDSM community is "It's about pleasure, not pain," but Mistress Kali finds this to be more jargon than real observation. "For some people, pain is pleasure. Everyone has a different fantasy, and motivations are all different. I've seen people who are true masochists, who can take an extraordinary amount of pain -- and moan with pain -- but they may not understand verbal humiliation at all. A person who wants to worship a woman's feet cannot understand why anyone else would want to be tied up.
"BDSM is not always about sex," she adds. "It's about fetish. It's about fulfillment. It's about pleasure."
And it's about transformation and release, Kali says: "I see that in my work. I see that in people who walk in -- lawyers in three-piece suits who have been in high-pressure, high-powered jobs, all they want is an hour of escape. They don't want to make a decision for the next hour -- that is relaxation, that is a vacation. I see people who want to be cross-dressed, who feel like a different person, who feel comfortable and natural, who have women's names, who have fantasized about that -- and that's where they're comfortable.
"For most people, it's a way of expressing themselves. It's a huge relief. Most of my male clients who are happily married men, they just have to have a void filled in life. They feel they can't go to their wife, or they've brought it up in subtle ways and been rejected." Or they don't want these interactions with their spouse, don't want this to be part of their everyday intimacies.
A reciprocal relationship exists between dominant and submissive. She wants control; he wants no responsibilities. She wants to rule; he wants to surrender. There are submissives who so desire to escape the pressures of adulthood that their dominants diaper them like infants.
Mistress Kali doesn't involve herself in infantilism, but she participates in the stripping away of a personality, then aids in reconstructing that veneer before the client heads out the door: "It's funny, because it's tiring but exhilarating, too. I put out a lot of emotional energy, as does my client, or anyone. It's a lot of intense communicating between two people."
When the session is over, she says, there "should be a cooling-down session, just reconnecting." After an especially profound scene, where role-playing has "taken them completely away from who they are, I slowly bring them back to, say, Eddie Silva, writer, making contact physically, and send them out the door."
She talks about these forms of intimacy with great candor, sitting in a St. Louis Bread Co. as others come and go from their tables, talking about other things. There's the impression she's testing how explicit she can be -- the interview process its own exploration of boundaries between two people. She offers an invitation to explore her dungeon at a later date. Then, after talking about everyday matters, the various positives and negatives of a writer's vocation, she asks, "Do you ever wish someone would just tell you what to do so you didn't have to make so many choices?
"That's what all of my clients want."
The people directing the downtown-loft-restoration boom don't have this sort of space in mind.
In a building in the heart of the city, up the elevator and down an empty corridor, Kali unlocks the door to her dungeon. She's been in ahead of time, arranging the setting for full effect, lighting white candles on two black-iron candelabra. Just as she has described it, the wide room is subtle, clean and spare, yet at the same time warm. The lighting is soft, full of shadows. The most remarkable object in the room is a wooden throne, covered with symmetrically patterned spikes. The sharp points are actually pencil stubs, she reveals, pulling one out of its hole -- 1,200 pencils altogether. The throne is custom-built -- as is most of her equipment -- the design "based on a torture chair I found in a medieval book. It's functional, but I don't use it. It's a piece of art."
The walls are exposed brick; ventilation pipes are visible on the ceiling. The floor is carpeted in a thick brown weave. The stereo is tuned to Classic 99.
There's an antique wooden altar, engraved with the words "In Remembrance of Me." There are a couple of framed prints: one with a white-faced, masked figure, the word "Reality" written beneath the image; the other, a print labeled "Bizarre No. 10," features a woman with orange-red hair, gagged, a look of fear or anticipation -- or both -- on her face.
Across one wall is a row of long, thin mirrors, and shards of mirror. A firm leather chair with a slender back sits alone in the room. The St. Andrew's cross hasn't been set up yet. Hanging from the ceiling is an ominous metal hook to a 1-ton hoist.
Mistress Kali sits on the bondage table, a solidly constructed piece of custom-built furniture, specially designed to hold an array of binding equipment -- handcuffs, ropes.
Wooden stocks, strangely appealing in a purely aesthetic sense, stolidly take up one part of the room. There's a spanking bench. Tools of the trade hang from a wall -- paddles, whips, canes, clothespins, clamps, a German gas mask, something that looks like salad tongs.
In one corner of the dungeon is a dog cage, with a cushion on top where a person can sit.
"Bad dogs go in there," she notes.
"This reflects me," she says of her private workspace/playpen. "I'm comfortable in this room. I don't want fake stones painted on the walls. It's just what I'm comfortable with." Regarding the warmth of the space, she says, "It's been my experience that there are a lot of prodoms who feel they need to be mean and cold to be effective. I don't believe that. Maybe that is reflected in the environment."
Sitting beside her on the bondage table is a white box, opened to reveal five metal objects, each tapered to a sharp point. These are talons that fit onto the fingers and thumb, made of hammered nickel.
"One of the things I like is the tactile sense," she says, slipping the talons on her fingers. "Imagine being blindfolded and feeling this on your bare back," the warmth of the flesh of her hand and then the cold, threatening metal. "I have a lot of toys, very tactile things." She says she first saw talons in use at a private play party. She got the phone number of the novelty store in New York where they came from and called immediately: "Send me some of those. I must have them!" She laughs at her mock exuberance.
A criticism of BDSM culture -- other than the standard judgment that its participants are just sick -- is that these are pathetic people, so desensitized that they need to go to extremes to experience any sensation. Yet as Mistress Kali describes the "tactile sense" she explores, there's the impression of a sensualist attuned to the illogical pleasures of the body. She handles a paddle -- leather on one side, fur on the other -- and describes how she'll spank a bare bottom until it's pink and highly sensate, then rub the fur across it.
"Clothespins are one of the basics of SM," she says, "on genitals or nipples or anywhere on the skin." Lock a clothespin on flesh, leave it for some time and then remove it -- the blood rushes back, she says, "and it really hurts."
She talks about the cross-dressers, whom she adores: "For the most part they haven't shared this with anyone, their desire to do this. I find two main reasons that men want to dress as women: It feels good to wear silk panties; also, humiliation -- to be treated as a bad girl, as a slut.
"The cross-dresser who wants to feel the silk panties, and spend time and money on his wardrobe, buying his own wig and falsies .... I enjoy the first time a man has mascara put on him, heavy on the eyelids; put lipstick on and it's slippery on the lips. That's sensation.
"It's the opposite of being desensitized, from where you don't feel anything to becoming ultrasensitive. It's like becoming more alive.
If there were a BDSM lobby, she'd be an influential advocate: "I think I'm doing a service for my clients. I did a lot of introspection before I started doing this professionally. If I was somehow preying on another person's weakness, I couldn't sleep at night. I still ask this question (of myself) occasionally, and if I found I was taking advantage of someone, I'd stop doing it."
Although the idea of giving the boot to some CEOs and lawyers might be inviting to a lot of people who would otherwise never consider themselves to be into BDSM, Mistress Kali says class distinctions aren't part of her work: "I have a variety of clients, from blue-collar to corporate. They all get treated the same. They all get my same sneer and haughty attitude. 'On the floor, you slave!'" she bellows good-naturedly.
She won't play the role of a Nazi, though, and with one client, the issue of race became problematic: "I played with a young black man one time, a submissive I met with other people. I had a hard time whipping him. He desperately wanted it, and I couldn't do it."
She has a list of don'ts: no blood, no feces or urine, no permanent scarring, no kissing, no sex. She gives prospective clients a questionnaire on which they indicate their level of interest, zero through five (zero means no interest, five means intense interest), in various activities: affectionate discipline, cock-and-ball torture, face-slapping, humiliation, pony training, smothering, spreader bars, and so on. She's learned to avoid "someone who's looking for sex, or someone who has an interest in everything -- everything from binding to genital torture to affectionate discipline. Nobody wants it all."
She charges $250 an hour. "Clients vary," she says, "about a half-dozen regulars who come for at least one session every six weeks." She may see no one for a week, then on another week schedule four sessions. She no longer advertises in the RFT "because there are too many fruitcakes." There's an exclusive journal for serious devotees, the Domination Directory International, in which she places the occasional ad.
The legality of her practice, she says "is debatable." Prostitution is defined in Missouri as one person providing sexual gratification, with body or an object, to another person for money. "I don't have sex here. I tell them no sex, no kissing, no hand jobs." Yet, she admits, "If somebody called the vice squad -- I don't want to think about it. I'd just have to be arrested, have the place dismantled. The worst thing is, my son would find out about this."
What occurs during a session varies, depending on the relationship between dominant and submissive. Kali isn't interested in ritual; she prefers surprise, improvisation, all with a tinge of menace. She prepares herself with a few leg stretches, music. Then, she says, "I'll get into full costume -- the makeup, the clothes -- that transforms me mentally into really being ready. I start inventing a scene I want to create, especially if it's a repeat client and I know him." With a new client, it's more a matter of spontaneity, she says. "I like the sense of improvisation, the sense of the unknown."
Her clients are men, although in personal play she enjoys women, too: "They're very responsive." It's Kali's theory that fewer women pay for play because "a man can't go up to a woman and say, 'I want to be spanked.' Women don't have to pay for kink -- it's too readily available."
If Kali's meeting with a new client, she says, "I have his questionnaire all ready. I don't like people coming off the street. I want someone to think about it for several days. When they come in, I have them remove all their clothes and put them on a chair in the corner. I meet them in full fetish attire," so the client is immediately alerted to the fact that he is moving into a very separate theater from the one he performs in daily.
"I sit with him at my feet, and I put a collar on him. I tell him the rules of the dungeon -- no sex. Another rule is my safe word, and they can use it at any time to stop a scene. They have the power to stop it.
"I go over the questionnaire. I might have specific questions about what is on it and what's not on it.
"When here, they refer to me as 'Mistress.' They are to speak loudly and clearly. By this time I've probably taken them by the collar and paraded them in a big circle, just to help get them in the mindset of being on the floor, naked at my feet. I might have them stomp around on all fours."
She's sure to probe into any medical conditions ahead of time: Are the client's knees strong? How's the lower back? The heart? What medications does he take? If there were ever an emergency, she says, "I'd drag them out in the alley and then call 911."
Depending on a client's physical capacities, Kali says, "I may get on their back and have them take me for a horsy ride. I may pull the hair on the back of their head. I slowly dehumanize them. With a new client I would start out very slowly. I might play with some of these things" -- she gestures toward an antique travel chest with drawers containing dildos, vibrators, plastic wrap "and other playful items." She might choose to wear leather gloves. She might force the client to "keep knees and ankles apart, which makes them very vulnerable.
"Most guys are very visual," she continues. "Their eyes will follow me around. I'll take a blindfold: 'It's very rude to stare. I'll put this blindfold on you.'
"It's such an individual thing -- putting on wrist cuffs and ankle cuffs. I can help someone get into that very submissive state. I don't do much rope bondage. I enjoy it because it's very beautiful, but (the clients) are time-sensitive. I have to respect that there's only so much time they can stay." Sometimes she'll recognize there's only 15 minutes to go, and if the client doesn't have to be anyplace soon, she'll tell them, "I'm not finished with you yet." Then they're off the clock and on Kali's time.
She explains the various implements on her wall display, which features a variety of riding crops and her two favorite whips. Whipping isn't an activity you can learn in a continuing-ed course. She started "with a man from Chicago who was submissive to me. He gave me my first whip and taught me how to use it. It's really just a matter of practice.
"I can draw it across your skin like a butterfly kiss."
There's a leather horse's bridle for "part of the dehumanization." She finds these things on travels to larger cities at weekend events, buying from specialty vendors. She shows off a new mink glove with metallic claws hidden in the fur.
The safety shears are for emergencies. To "cut through anything, to be able to get undone very quickly," is important. She picks up a metallic object called a Japanese clover clamp, which attaches to the flesh -- the nipples, say -- and, when pulled, tightens and clasps more firmly.
There's a plastic spatula for "scraping off wax." The salad tongs, or what look like salad tongs, are for "testicle torture."
In a basket are spools of veterinary wrap, used to restrain limbs. Kali says it won't pull hair yet it clings to the skin: "It's really great. It's good stuff."
The room next door is spare -- she uses it for changing -- but she's considering setting up a medical table in there: "I get calls for that. It's a big fantasy, I want to tell you." In such scenes, Kali would literally play doctor to the bound, frightened, aroused patient.
The allure of the exotic paraphernalia can distract from understanding of their purpose, Kali cautions. "There's so much more to picking up a paddle and spanking someone's bottom with it," she says. "I think if people don't know that, then they don't understand the communication that goes on between a submissive and a dominant.
"It's filling an emotional void. It's all about emotion to me. Giving up control and allowing yourself to be vulnerable is a very difficult thing to do. To be able to just surrender to another person is refreshing -- that's not a good word -- restorative."
Her life wouldn't be very different, she imagines, if she didn't have to keep her fetish behind closed doors: "I don't think I would be a different person. I would still be very private, because that's just who I am. I would have the same friends." She doesn't necessarily long for the openness she might enjoy in New York City or the Bay Area.
She wishes, sometimes, that she could call her sister and tell her how psyched she felt after three days in New York attending whip seminars, or about that former NFL player, who arrived in "6-inch stripper shoes" and a bad wig and then threw a fit because he forgot to put his pocketbook in his purse.
She'd like to brag about her skills as a businesswoman and about how clients who have tried other prodoms have come back to her, "but I can't take that chance. So I let my family imagine that I'm an extremely dull person."
But she isn't alone. There are local organizations such as PEP, Leather and Lace, FLOG. The novelty shop Barbdwyr supplies implements and custom-made apparel -- and a discreet backdoor through which to enter and exit. A weekend event, Beat Me in St. Louis, is held each spring, filling a local hotel with some 400 participants from Kansas City, Omaha, Chicago and Detroit, as well as country folks from the rural Midwest. For the holidays, Spanksgiving's coming up.
Even in conservative St. Louis, people find ways to overcome the stigmas and perceptions: that they are sick, pathetic, the perverse offspring of abusive parents.
Before she became Mistress Kali, there were years of married life, raising a child, full immersion in the American mainstream.
But the fantasies of control, the teenage experimentation -- those returned to her consciousness like an invitation to a new life.
"Desire," she discovered, "doesn't go away."